Back at the Burner

"It's a “Max.'"

These were the first words I heard regarding Perry's, the new restaurant that opened in a former Koo Koo Roo space in Aventura's Loehmann's Plaza last week. The eatery is co-owned by Burt Rapoport, who rose to South Florida fame with erstwhile partner Dennis Max by way of three high-end Cal-Ital bistro chains: Raffles, Prezzo, and Max's Grille, which had many different locations with slight adjustments to the moniker such as Max's Beach Place and Max's South Beach. In these ventures, all of which exhibited a polished, urban style as notable as dark roots on a blonde, Dennis Max played the leading role of highly visible restaurateur and media darling, while Rapoport did behind-scenes financial and corporate work. The pair enjoyed tremendous success with their restaurants for many of the right reasons -- they served fare that was progressive but not pushy, with innovation in settings that were both recognizable and just a bit luxe.

After nearly two decades of working together, though, the pair had a much-publicized and rancorous split in 1999. They sold off their joint holdings, including the Prezzo in Aventura that is only yards from the place where Perry's now stands. Rapoport went north, starting a venture in a Hollywood Beach hotel that failed when the resort property went bankrupt, then found success in Delray Beach with Henry's, a country-style bistro with pine hutches, ceramic knickknacks, and blue-and-white color scheme that does not, for the record, look anything like a signature Max. As for Max, he launched Max's Place in Bal Harbour, which did indeed resemble a typical venture of his -- dark woods, big mirrors, black-and-white hues. Despite a splashy re-entrance into the Miami restaurant scene, however, Max's Place went under in about six months.

For a while there, we were Max-less. And unless you believe dismissive individuals who can't tell a pine hutch from a bamboo hut, we still are.

Perry's is actually as far from a "Max" as the security guards who patrol the plaza parking lot are from detailed observation. When we asked one where Perry's was located, she shrugged. "I never heard of it," she said, despite the fact that she was standing about 100 feet away (we spotted it as soon as we turned the corner and boy, did we feel stupid). The décor of the eatery is being described as an "inside-out dining room," and the weathered woods, paddle fans, and wood shutters do make it feel more Key West than Miami-Dade. The fare, conceived by chef-partner Grant Johnson, also a graduate of the Max academy, has more South Florida and Caribbean notes than I expected: Old Florida smoked beef brisket sandwich, arroz con pollo, grilled jerk chicken, and Havana skirt steak.

While it's too early to make a judgment call critically speaking, I will say that this area has needed a restaurant like this for quite some time, and I have heard many residents express their anticipation for the opening of this hip, stylish venue. If you go now, expect the same glitches you would at any other brand-new restaurant. Just don't expect a "Max."

The same goes for Dawn Sieber's six-month-old restaurant Kaiyó in Islamorada, with one difference -- I will make a judgment here. And it's not altogether a positive one.

Like Burt Rapoport, Sieber left a longtime post to pursue other ventures. Formerly executive chef at Atlantic's Edge at the Cheeca Lodge resort in Islamorada for more than a decade, she departed to open a resort property in the Caribbean. Now, about two years later, she's back in Islamorada with her own venture. But based on her culinary history and the reputation that she made concocting New World items, the neo-Japanese-cum-sushi-bar Kaiyó is nothing like you might expect.

Indeed I was surprised to find Sieber running a sushi bar, a detail about which I had read or been told absolutely nada. If anything I'd been led to believe that her signature dishes (along the lines of pan-seared sea scallops with farm-raised hearts of palm or a mojo-marinated veal chop over a yuca croquette with cilantro butter) might be on display, an assumption that persuaded me to travel from Miami Shores down to Islamorada just for dinner.

Naturally, just because Sieber worked for so long at one name-making restaurant doesn't mean her next venture can't improve upon it. And I do admire a few things about Kaiyó, especially when compared with Atlantic's Edge. While the Edge was sedate, a restaurant I would never dare to take a child, Kaiyó bustles with families and Conchs of all ages. Where the Edge was pretty and formal, Kaiyó is funky and colorful, a house-like structure converted into a multiroom restaurant set off by a fabulous, continuous mosaic border. The Edge featured a virtual book of wine; Kaiyó's list is small but highly select, with each wine clearly chosen to enhance Asian cuisine. No question, casual Islamorada was ripe for a sophisticated eatery along the lines of Shoji Sushi, Nobu, and Breez, but island-style, where reservations aren't necessary and jeans shorts make the dress-code cut.

Problem is, Kaiyó's fare itself doesn't quite cut it. The cooked items especially, appetizers like green tea crêpes stuffed with duck confit or Asian barbecued ribs, tasted pre-prepared. Food in general was lukewarm, portions small, and main ingredients inexpertly executed. The sirloin steak in an udon noodle dish was tough and tinny, nuggets of hard flesh; a whole fried snapper was so small we questioned the legality of the catch -- surely this one should've been thrown back and allowed to enter adolescence.

Service was another difficulty. The waitress we had at Kaiyó was surly and lazy to the point of dog-day-afternoon status. She was so rude we didn't want to add to her check total by ordering another bottle of wine or dessert, something we'd come prepared to do. In fact our entire experience at Kaiyó seemed so out of character for a chef-proprietor of Sieber's talent that we asked if she was on the premises. Unfortunately, the answer was yes.

I didn't have time or, to be honest, the desire to make another attempt at Kaiyó. Which is why I was delighted to see her set up a booth at the Bali Hai event at the Kampong last week. I may not have had a sterling meal at Kaiyó, but at least Sieber seems intent on re-entering culinary society. A few tweaks of the menu and some very much-needed staff changes, and maybe she'll regain her chops. Otherwise the welcome of her homecoming looks just a little less than certain.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick