But it's not an impossible dream. Remember William Weld, the eccentric Massachusetts governor in the 1990s? Fiscally staid but socially hip? Not perfect but pretty darned good, and a lot of fun? Well, Miami's sea-seeking diners now have a similar contender (and one that promises to stay on the scene a good deal longer): Roger's, which opened in late April in North Bay Village.
From the outside, the newly built restaurant doesn't exactly exude hipness. It looks like what my gang growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, used to call "parent places," the kinds of restaurants the family would go to on special occasions. In fact Roger's looks like a big, fancy New Jersey steak house. And its setting is not quite in hip/hot Miami Beach, but a mile west of the Beach, along the causeway to the mainland. North Bay Village ranks roughly between Aventura and Kendall on the trend-o-meter.
Valet parking -- another thing my parents loved -- is mandatory but free at Roger's, something you'll never find on South Beach. And the attendants are very friendly. On a second visit, my dining companion and I were recognized as repeat customers; by the third, I was greeted like a regular. (In another plus by South Beach standards, my aging economy car was delivered gently at the end of the meal, not with a screeching halt, as though the driver were a NASCAR contender.) Dinner service was equally accommodating and cordial. And the huge, high-ceilinged, rustic-elegant interior conveys enough of the same welcoming feel that diners forced indoors by the summer heat needn't feel disappointed.
But despite floor-to-ceiling rear windows that look out over the water, Roger's strong suit is its expansive, palm-planted back lawn and dining patio. To one side, a giant tiki hut houses a bar and surrounding booths for diners who prefer a roof over their heads. Tables on a bayfront brick patio accommodate those who prefer the open air. Since the restaurant is on the causeway's north side, a primo nighttime view of downtown illuminated over the bay isn't possible, but the visuals are still spectacular.
The food wasn't as spectacular as the setting, but it's not intended to be. The idea here is casual comfort cuisine. And chef David Downes's stylish take on American (though mainly Southern) classics is very satisfying -- fairly simple stuff, but most of it cooked with more creativity than usual, and elegantly presented. The menu includes about a dozen entrées generously garnished with vegetables (with optional sides available for $4-$5 each). There are plentiful appetizers, sandwiches, burgers, and meal-sized salads to satisfy Roger's grown-up crowd, most of whom appeared to be twenty-to-fortysomething professional people, not club kids. For the real kids -- though none were in evidence during my visits -- there's even PB&J.
Among starters, the potato pancakes with sour cream and salmon caviar were standouts. The patties, about the size of silver dollars, were delectably crispy critters; with no discernible heavy filler, the delicate disks of pressed potato shreds held their shape, apparently, by divine intervention. The salmon eggs were popping fresh.
"Lil' burgers" on biscuits were also excellent, though nothing at all like White Castles (or the South's beloved Crystals). I've tried many chichi chef-made two-biters, but they're never prepared rare enough. Yet the insides of Roger's trio of thick hand-formed miniburgers were perfect: juicy-red and as flavorful as any gourmet hamburgers I've had (except at those places that cheat by throwing in foie gras and charging $40). The biscuits that substituted for rolls were tender and terrific, too.
With precision-cooked ground beef that had not been overworked to toughness, the full-sized Southern burger was equally tasty. Toppings were also quality: flavorful cheddar, fresh onions and mushrooms, and applewood bacon. A super-smoky barbecue sauce added savor. The dish was very messy, however, as the humongous flattened biscuit that served as a bun had baked up rigid rather than pliable, like an oversized cookie. My dining companion ended up with a handful of crumbling biscuit around his dripping meat patty, and a shirt flecked with sautéed onions.
Crispy calamari and fried green tomatoes were both disappointments, owing mainly to coating problems. The calamari came entombed in some sort of breadcrumb crust that, while nicely spiked with chilies, was just too heavy. And the cornmeal coating on the tomato slices was even thicker, with a tendency to slide off whole at first bite, leaving a naked circle of hard, undercooked green tomato. The accompanying sauces didn't help, either. A "sweet, hot dressing" for the tomatoes was tingly enough, but cloying and sticky, essentially a red-pepper jelly. The calamari's marinara tasted like homemade ketchup, and its mayo-based dipping sauce needed more citrus or spice, something bracing enough to cut the fried fat.
Crabcakes were also heavily breaded and had no crab lumps. But the filling, though of uniform texture, was real crab, not surimi, and starch filler was blessedly minimal. An added blessing was the cakes' slightly hot spicing.
While I prefer floured or battered fried chicken, Roger's crumb-coated version was cooked just right; even the white breast meat was moist and juicy. Accompanying coleslaw, an ultrafresh mélange of thinly shredded red cabbage and multicolored bell peppers, was the best I've had in years. Inexplicably, it was not available in the list of optional side dishes but would complement most of Roger's sandwiches or main courses. The side we did order, house-made creamed corn, was wonderful and enough to feed four.
An addictively crackly skin plus the rich gravy made Roger's roast chicken another winner. The gravy came in an elegant little silver cup that was, however, entirely too small. Servers did obligingly bring additional thimblefuls upon request, but c'mon, having to ask for more gravy four times is embarrassing. And the two biscuits that came with the dish -- which I'd expected to be as fantastic as those with the previous visit's lil' burgers -- were shockingly stale.
A piscatorian acquaintance especially enjoyed Roger's pan-seared mahi-mahi, which tasted deliciously fresh. Accompanying lobster mashed potatoes were not merely lobster-flavored (as are many pretenders of the same name) but contained numerous thumbnail-sized lobster chunks.
For dessert, the bread pudding with whiskey sauce sounded like New Orleans' custardy classic but turned out to be a compressed square whose dryness was not alleviated by either the syrupy sauce or a sparse serving of whipped cream. Lingering on with another bottle from Roger's reasonably priced wine list (bottles are grouped, with refreshing lack of pretension, under price categories ranging from $20-$50) would be a far more tempting finish.