Whisk Gourmet Food and Catering Cooks Reasonably Priced, Delicious Comfort Food
Whisk Gourmet Food & Catering is a rarer breed of eatery than it ought to be. The 75-seater is warm and welcoming, with a clean and uncomplicated décor. A one-page menu echoes the comfort level via familiar and popular American favorites such as pulled pork on corn bread, low-country shrimp 'n' grits, and the good old BLT. The staff is all smiles, and at the end of the meal, the patrons tend to be happy as well — including whoever picks up the exceedingly reasonable bill.
Whisk's dining arena is split into two spaces, both clean-lined and contemporary, but with rustic touches. For instance, in the larger room, adjacent to the restaurant's entrance, a bar to the left is made of brushed steel (with whisk-shade light fixtures above), as are two communal tables running perpendicular to a spacious open kitchen; old-timey Mason jars of water rest on the slick surfaces.
Dining tables are otherwise composed of thick wood blocks; close-up food photos adorn white cinder-block walls in the smaller room to the right. Yet the most notable aspect of the whole space is that it's consistently filled with diners — plus there's almost always a line of people waiting outside for a table. That's generally construed as a positive sign when gauging restaurants, especially when the crowded establishment is situated, like Whisk, in a somewhat tucked-away locale, on SW 56th Avenue in South Miami.
The sign says, "Whisk Gourmet Food," but what makes the cuisine here so appealing is its non-gourmet nature. Sure, the fare is fresh and fine-quality, but that's not gourmet — that's simply good. Chef Brendan Connor and sister Kristin, both alumni of Coral Gables Senior High, have helmed the restaurant since 2009, when Whisk was a closet-size, catering-centric Gables venue — also with a line consistently snaking out the door for in-house lunches. The business moved to its current quarters at the end of 2010, and Connor has kept the flavor-drenched selections absolutely consistent. If you haven't heard of him, it's because the food at Whisk isn't about the chef. It's about the customer.
Menu selections reflect Connor's experience in the Charleston, South Carolina kitchens of Hominy Grill and the highly regarded Anson. For instance, pulled pork, bathed in a tangy mustard-based barbecue sauce and plunked atop a square of sturdy but tender corn bread, is pure Americana. So is a nightly special of Manchester Farms quail, also coated in mustard barbecue sauce but instead crowning a grits cake that's crisp on the outside, creamy-soft on the inside. Organic spinach, black beans, and the liquid from a honey-cider slaw merge into a moist and flavorful accompaniment alongside the bird.
Another starter culled from the specials list featured "Indian spiced" fried eggplant squares that weren't very spiced, but they achieved an Eastern accent when dipped into an alluring curried aioli on the side. Pork masitas, or panko-breaded nuggets of juicy white meat, likewise pleased with blue cheese dip and strips of pickled carrots and celery.
Meals served here are as heartwarmingly fetching as Thanksgiving dinner — especially in the case of roast turkey, dried cranberries, and goat cheese atop organic greens. Other salads come garnished with skirt steak, fried chicken, barbecued chicken, Charleston chicken (chicken salad with grapes), or fried green tomato. The last boasts crunchy corn-crusted discs of the namesake fruit alongside a mesclun-like mix of leaves with Parmesan shavings and an almost imperceptible sprinkling of crumbled bacon. The salad was barely coated in buttermilk dressing, but a requested side of the sauce solved that problem.
Fried green tomato slices are also proffered with dressing but sans greens as a starter, and they also come sandwiched with pimiento cheese, hydroponic arugula, and pecan-wood-smoked bacon between a choice of multigrain or whole-wheat bread ($8.95). That sounds pretty tasty, as does the traditional BLT. The same goes for a grilled skirt steak sandwich with blue cheese dressing and red onion confit.
The eatery's Friday burger, served only on that day, brings a beefy eight-ounce patty with a high pile of weekly themed garnishes and a side of fingerling potato chips sprinkled with Parmesan. It's $13.95, but it's also one of the best burgers in town.
The Whisk burrito has also garnered a loyal following. A full order brings two hefty wraps, halved and bulging with big, moist morsels of mojo-marinated pulled pork lechón, jasmine rice, black beans, avocado, shredded Muenster cheese, pico de gallo, cilantro, and Peppadew-spiked sour cream tightly wrapped in a soft flour tortilla ($11.95). It is eminently shareable as a main course, or if dining solo, you can get a half-order for $8.95 (which means you're better off getting two and taking one home for later).
Buttermilk-marinated fried chicken is a rotating entrée special. The ten-ounce frenched breast (with drumette attached) arrived too darkly fried, though the meat inside was moist. A creamy bacon-rosemary "gravy" was delicious, and the plate came generously piled with smashed potatoes, green beans, and honey-roasted baby carrots. The dish is $18.95, entrées top out at $22.95, and starters are under $10.
We ordered a half-portion of low-country shrimp 'n' grits, which translates to four sautéed, medium-size shrimp over creamy, buttery Anson Mills grits, with pecan-wood-smoked bacon bits, scallions, and meaty cremini mushrooms. The sauce offered mildly piquant Tabasco-garlic notes, but it needed a gutsier kick to really sing.
Side dishes are ever so basic: herb-roasted potatoes, black beans and rice, grilled corn, spinach sautéed with mushrooms, and jasmine rice with avocado and cilantro. Whisk's menu has hardly changed since 2009; this section might be an apt one to update a bit (perhaps a few seasonal local vegetables simply prepared).
Service isn't as strong as one would hope. For starters, it's slow. We waited too long for just about everything. On one occasion, we sat for quite awhile until appetizers appeared (no predinner bread is served), and then entrées were crammed onto the table just minutes later. The servers, friendly as they are, for the most part appear inexperienced, although some delays seem a consequence of understaffing; during peak dinner hours, they could use at least a couple of more workers on the floor.
Pastry chef Lorena Inostroza joined the team about eight months ago, but desserts are pretty much the same as always. The key lime pie, often cited as one of Miami's finest — including by me when I last reviewed the restaurant — is a beautifully balanced blend of sweet and tart, with a densely creamy body. A few fresh raspberries on the side came perfectly ripe. Rich, chewy blondies are another longtime favorite, as are home-baked cookies. The chocolate chip versions we tried were nothing special — they were freshly baked, but still the sort of soft round treat a home cook could concoct by following the recipe on a bag of chocolate morsels.
Whisk isn't perfect, but it's a friendly, affordable, crowd-pleasing neighborhood restaurant. Miami simply doesn't have enough of them.
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