You Can Go Home Again

So you're an inventive, creative chef, tops in your field. You finally run your own place, and you're doing fusion things with regional ingredients no one in South Florida has ever seen before. You're booked to the max every night with reservations. Your patrons adore you. The media, local and national, laud you. The awards come pouring in. Your pride and pleasure in your restaurant is a longboard, and you surf this wave for several years before you take a look around and realize ... there's another wave beyond the first one. And one beyond that, and they look bigger and better than the one that's been giving you such a steady ride.

So you open a second restaurant in a more competitive arena. This one's got glamour, sophistication, and a big chunk of dough invested in its interior design. But you don't worry. You have a waiting list nightly. Your new customers admire you, and the critics, for the most part, are raving. One or two express some doubts about your dwindling attention to your first child, but the waves beckon, and you heed them.

So in between fundraisers and trips out of town, you open a third restaurant in an exclusive locale. And suddenly the critics are not so kind. It's taking too long for this kitchen to get it together, they say. You're spread too thin, doing more managing than cooking. And the clientele is whispering that the first restaurant, the one that started it all, is in decline. Rumors fly.

So the ocean has gone flat, and you need to generate a wave. You take stock. What has gone wrong? You turn back to your first project, notice a patina of what might be neglect and age, like a sheen of grease on an old kitchen wall. You recall what it was like to spend twelve hours a day there, inspecting produce, writing new recipes, building your reputation. You close down that first restaurant, shocking the food-biz cognoscenti. For renovations, you say. But people love to talk about you, and doubt you. They think certain predictions have come to pass. You quietly go on with your project, getting a little carried away. What started as a face-lift becomes a total overhaul as you tear up floors, knock down walls, redo the kitchen -- even resurface the parking lot. You get back behind the line and design a new menu. You make your name all over again: Mark Militello.

New and improved, Mark's Place in North Miami reopened the week before Christmas after having been closed for almost three months. Apparently not everyone knows yet. On a recent Friday evening, I had no trouble getting a reservation, and the restaurant had free tables (though the staff initially tried to seat our party in the bar area, for what purpose I'm not sure). And not everybody might expect the sight to which I was treated -- a clearly rededicated Mark Militello in his chef's whites, in charge of his flagship kitchen.

"Settled back into" and "refocusing" were among the phrases Militello used when I called later and asked him to describe his return to the 110-seat restaurant, now a slightly less formal, more inviting dining room with warm woods, etched glass, and secluded tables. He has simplified menu items -- at least in terms of their descriptions -- and is trying to introduce more salad plates. Most important, he told me, he wants to keep prices down, and so is avoiding "that airplane thing," flying in only some poultry (duck and quail) from California and wild mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest. For the rest he's depending on local vendors to supply even the out-of-state stuff. Though he's always been rather publicly and protectively ferocious about his use of regional and seasonal products, Militello seems to have backed off that bone for the time being and is taking the best of what he can get. That might have sounded questionable had I not already eaten a very good meal at the restaurant.

I'm not sure how successful he is at the pricing game, though, when one is expected to pay fourteen dollars for an appetizer composed of two smallish blue spot prawns, freshwater shrimp from Sweetwater, Texas. But I'll tell you what Militello is great at: cooking these babies. Succulent and lobsterlike, the prawns were laid out on a bed of creamed potatoes that exuded the aroma of the seafood. A potato crisp lidded the pair, providing the crackling crust that gives this dish its imaginative name: shrimp brulee.

The restaurant had run out of cracked Bahamian conch with black bean-mango relish and vanilla-rum sauce, so we opted for a starter similar in texture. Squid stuffed with artichoke, fennel, and creamy mascarpone was masterly, the white mollusk fork-tender. A black olive-pesto vinaigrette was a salty-herby concoction and an ideal complement to the mild mascarpone, keeping it from blandness. We did find the service of this dish odd, however: Half of it (two pieces) came out with our other appetizers, with the news that the rest of it was "on the way." Two minutes later the other half appeared on the table.

Militello has kept obscure menu references to a minimum. There was one I was curious about, the "crispy confit of duck 'Taiwana' with French lentils and Dijon mustard vinaigrette." Turns out this dish is named for a tony St.-Barts eatery famous for its tasty (and very pricey) lentil salad. Militello pays homage by cooking the tiny gray-green legumes to al dente perfection, then dressing them with a tangy mustard blend. The crowning achievement, golden duck confit, was a rich and delicate treasure centered on the lentils.

Main courses, labeled "specialties," are heavy on the fish and seafood, and all of them sound enticing. It was difficult settling on striped bass with rice beans and lime leaf sauce, but we were not disappointed. The two sweet-fleshed fillets were pan-fried to ochre on one side; the other featured the crisp, buttery skin of the fish. The lime leaf sauce was a tart, aromatic elixir, and the rice beans -- tan and shaped like rice, popcornlike in texture -- were unusual and delicious.

Halibut is an out-of-region ingredient Militello scores from a nearby purveyor, and we could find nothing wrong with his supply. I have a special fondness for halibut -- it's the fish I served at my wedding reception -- because of its misinterpreted sturdiness. A white fish from northern climes, halibut handles well but has a delicate flavor. Militello emphasized the dichotomy by coating the fish with crabmeat, an underscoring that brought out the flavor of both main ingredients. A hearty ragout comprising mushrooms, asparagus, and salsify, plus roasted potatoes, finished the plate, though the side dishes paled in comparison to the fish.

In contrast, the complements to a grilled baby hen -- springy rosemary noodles wetted by a foresty mushroom jus -- took center stage. The nest of pasta deserved just as much attention as the quartered sections of young poultry, which had been stuffed under the skin with goat cheese and herbs, then grilled to crunchy goodness. The moist, juicy hen was garnished with asparagus and sweet whole baby carrots.

No sides could distract us from the loin of lamb -- not the accomplished butternut squash mash nor the roasted beet relish. Actually tiny lamb chops, these were fantastic, stuffed like the hen with goat cheese and herbs, and also with walnuts, then crusted with crumbs as a finishing touch. The tang of the cheese was a beautiful match to the musk of the lamb, roasted to a tender medium-rare.

Regulars will probably be relieved to know that Militello, who used to be his own pastry chef but now utilizes the talents of Matt Lazarchik (a former Mark's Place employee who has also worked at Nemo on South Beach), is keeping the basic recipes he designed years ago -- which became citywide favorites -- on his dessert menu. We tried two of them, the fluffy and creamy peanut butter pie with chocolate sauce and vanilla cream, and the incredibly rich, bittersweet wedges of chocolate torte known as "Kit Kat"; they were just as sinful as they've always been.

"I swore I'd never serve them again," Militello told me ruefully. But customer demand is a potent factor, so he brought them back. Things could be worse, he admitted: "Some chefs work all their lives for a couple of signature dishes." A settled statement from a settled man. Truth is, some chefs work all their lives for other people and never open their own restaurants. Mark's got three, and they all shout his name.

"Settled back into" and "refocusing" were among the phrases Militello used to describe his return.

Mark's Place
2286 NE 123rd St, North Miami; 893-6888. Open Monday -- Thursday from 6:00 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m., and Sunday until 10:00 p.m.

Duck "Taiwana"
Crab meat-crusted halibut
Loin of lamb
Peanut butter pie


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