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City Hall offers popular food for the masses

City Hall offers popular food for the masses See a photo slide show of City Hall.
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City Hall Restaurant. Funny name for a dining establishment in light of the way folks are feeling about government these days. What was the runner-up choice — Goldman Sachs Café? But not to worry: The food here is honest.

Upon entering the grand, two-level, 6,000-square-foot art deco space, guests are greeted with a warm welcome at the podium up front. It's as though the hosts are running for office and need your vote. Workers here require all the patience they can garner, because this 201-seater has been filling to capacity and rocking more than a British Parliament meeting with an open bar.

To the right of the podium is a long wall of tall windows with seven blood-red leather banquettes jogging along it. A backlit WPA/Depression-era-style mural depicting cosmopolitan life in New York (by Andrew Reid) stretches 80 feet across the top of that glass wall. Another mural, by Miami-based artist Michelle Rojas, adorns the back wall, with more banquette seating below it. The floors are lacquered concrete, the ceilings shine with new embossed tin, and dark wood tables and chairs share center space with an 11-seat, full-service mahogany bar. Chrysler Building-inspired accents enhance and complement the décor, including silver deco grillwork lining the staircase leading to a mezzanine dining area. These design elements, as well as a voluminous crowd, help make City Hall seem like a big-town restaurant. So do the acoustics — the sounds you hear are that of conversations, not blasting music.

See a photo slide show of City Hall.

The mayor of this vibrant venue is Steve Haas, who greets patrons as they come and go. He appears to be familiar with many of them, which isn't surprising given his tenure as two-term chairman of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, as former co-owner and operating partner of Soyka Restaurant, and as longtime restaurant manager for China Grill Management. The dramatic décor and mass appeal of the cuisine exhibits a bit of CGM influence, but a better comparison would be to the casual-chic American restaurants in which Dennis Max has always specialized (Café Max, Max's Grille, and so forth).

Executive chef Tom Azar is a veteran skipper who has been in the game since 1991. Azar is often referred to as a protégé of Emeril Lagasse, a label well earned after working 17 years with the New Orleans icon (including as chef de cuisine for Emeril's at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel from 2003 to 2008). A few Mediterranean and Asian ingredients slip into his City Hall agenda, but it is mostly a bill of popular old-timey American classics given an updated twist.

The key word here is popular. You like meat loaf? Of course you do. Then you'll surely love a whole lot of it, as in a slightly dense (but not dry) miniloaf sweetly glazed with tomato marmalade, flagged with frizzy fried onions, and paired with flawlessly cooked skinny green beans, a side of old-school gravy, and a dish of mac 'n' cheese.

Yes, City Hall already knows you like mac 'n' cheese too. This stellar sweet-and-salty rendition is threaded with chorizo and contrasted by a light lift from maple.

More gastronomía americana comes via fried chicken boasting a crisply battered coat, juicy meat, and pan gravy — with a dish of local honey on the side. Red bliss mashed potatoes on the plate are ideally prepared — the potato softened and enriched by buttermilk and heightened by chives. Bacon-flecked corn likewise accompanies the bird. These are big plates of food.

City Hall is generous with its patrons and accommodating when it comes to prices. Appetizers and pizzas run $10 to $14.75. More than a dozen entrées are in the $17 to $24 range; a few go for less, while a New York strip steak and filet mignon are respectively $30 and $33. Shareable desserts are $10 to $12.

Timpano is the sort of kitchen-sink concoction I usually avoid, but it's something of a signature item here. The contents: meatball, sausage, penne, rigatoni, and four cheeses — fontina, ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano — baked in a sizable dome of "pasta" (really more like the crust of hearty wheat bread). A traditional, mildly sweet marinara sauce helps wet the firmly adhered ingredients. The taste proved surprisingly satisfying, like a cross between mac 'n' cheese and an Italian Sunday supper, with bread included.

That timpano is hearty, especially during these warm summer months. On the other end of the spectrum is a more weather-friendly plank of miso-sauced, sesame-seared North Atlantic salmon sided by steamy baby bok choy bulbs and pecan-and-shiitake-studded rice — each component deftly prepared.

A separate "Sidebar" section of the menu highlights pizzas and burgers. One of the pies is a fresh, lightly baked, puffy-crusted specimen topped with house-made mozzarella cheese, sliced ripe tomatoes, basil, oregano, and marinara sauce. A house-blended burger comes buffed with Brie, applewood-smoked bacon, and caramelized onion. Other sides, dubbed "Supporting Decisions," include tri-color French fries, creamed spinach, crispy Brussels sprouts with lemon pepper aioli, and Southern-style collard greens.

Appetizers are pegged "Opening Statements and Commitment Before Decisions" (are you picking up a theme here?). A bowl of mostly plump, Guinness-steamed mussels arrives with fennel, ground chorizo, and a spicy tomato-shellfish broth glimmering with a Mediterranean gust of garlic and saffron. It's unusual to see what looks like ground hamburger meat on a mussel, but the shellfish stands up to the bold partners (although some diners at the table thought not). Two rouille-topped croutons are soggy.

Tuna tartare introduces firm, dark cubes of the fish perfumed with truffle-soy vinaigrette. A petite crown of mashed avocado on top, dabs of papaya on the plate, and fried won ton chips alongside are all pretty much superfluous. Accompanying wakame salad, however, is delicious.

Not everyone loves oysters, and those who do are likely to be disappointed by the quartet of fried, blue-cheese-crusted ones served here. The cheese obliterates the mollusks, which are further burdened by nubs of applewood-smoked bacon and a tart arugula cream smeared on the plate (although the latter two ingredients tasted terrific with bread).

See a photo slide show of City Hall.

Caesar salad is a twist-less, straightforward version with winged strips of romaine tossed in a creamy dressing anchored by an assertive anchovy presence. This kitchen isn't shy with flavors. Again, however, the crouton — "Caesar-baked" bread toasted on just one side and not at all crisp — comes up short.

Pastry chef Gail Pretzfelder's chocolate banana pudding pie is nothing resembling a pie, but rather a parfait glass layered with the namesake ingredients, graham cracker crumbs, and lots of whipped cream. A fresh, crackly tuile ascends from the glass; two long-handled spoons help diners dig to the bottom. The flavors will surely satisfy fans of the more traditional rendition, but I would rather eat a real pie — a word that should be placed in quotation marks on the menu. Anyway, as Chubby Checker might have said to Joey Dee: "Some twists are better than others" (sorry, but this reference is for geezers only).

As is often the case, service was snappier on a bustling night than on a less busy one. The latter occasion featured an amiable but almost bumbling performance, such as delivering a bread replacement before we'd started the first and serving us main courses while appetizer plates still filled the table. On the prior visit, with a full house, the crew kicked in but the cooks were quite slow in getting the food out.

The establishment is just two months old, so we give the team a vote of confidence toward improvement. We likewise endorse the restaurant as a welcome and needed addition to an increasingly populated neighborhood. This is one City Hall that serves its constituents well.

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