From Martini to Marhaba

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When Martini Bar Restaurant opened in the Shops at Sunset Place this past December, I read various press notices about how consulting chef Frank Jeanetti would bring fine cuisine to South Miami. Jeanetti has been cooking it up around town for a while — at the Biltmore Hotel, Pacific Time, Nemo, and Pearl. He also runs his own catering company and recently opened a restaurant called Ernie's.

The Martini Bar Restaurant's Website boasts colorful photos of enticing meals, and the menu is intriguing: harissa barbecued steamed mussels with tomatoes, candied chilies, and scallions; duck confit pizza with caramelized onions, arugula, and Maytag blue cheese; pork medallion Napoleon with candied apples, raisins, fennel, and smoked raspberry syrup; mahi-mahi tempura satay with warm potato salad and mango rum sauce. Admittedly the dishes read as though they may be a bit overwrought and even confusing, but the restaurant seemed inviting enough for me to take an out-of-town friend there for dinner — and for a review. Upon our arrival, we encountered a problem: Martini Bar Restaurant is not really a restaurant. If the owners would argue it is a restaurant, I'd counter that it certainly is not the sort at which we wanted to eat. Neither would you, and for that matter, nor would anyone else on this planet.

In retrospect I should have sensed trouble. We were about half a block away from Martini Bar Restaurant when a booming sound began assaulting our senses. Was there a live rock concert taking place in the mall's plaza? A few steps later it became evident that, unbelievably, the blaring blasts were emanating from our dining destination. A young crowd was loosening their limber limbs on a dance floor as we entered the dark, reverberating room, which looked pretty much like your typical Washington Avenue club.


Martini Bar Restaurant

Martini Bar Restaurant, 5701 Sunset Dr, South Miami; 305-665-3052.

Marhaba Mediterranean Cuisine, 5701 Sunset Dr, South Miami; 305-740-5880.

Martini Bar Restaurant: Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. and Marhaba Mediterranean Cuisine: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m

I shouted to a passing employee: "Is this a restaurant?"

"It's a restaurant and a club!" he yelled back.

"Which part is the restaurant?" I hollered.

"You're in it!" he screamed. "And there are also outside tables!"

I would have thanked him, but he vanished into the crowd. Plus my throat was getting hoarse. The outdoor seats were nearly as ear-splitting. I'm sure this place is more amenable for lunch and maybe on certain weeknights, but we arrived prior to 9:00 p.m. on a Thursday evening. How would potential patrons know which days and what hours they could dine without risking permanent hearing loss?

To tout this place as a restaurant and promote Frank Jeanetti as the resident "master chef" (that's the term that links to his bio on the Website) is deceptive. The word martini in the moniker is misleading as well — Fallujah would be a quieter place to sip this classy cocktail. It shouldn't be difficult for the owners of Martini Bar Restaurant to remedy things, though; they simply need to remove the first and last words of the name so it reads Bar. Jeanetti's name is more problematic: It is written in bold print across the top of the menu. I don't begrudge any chef for trying to earn extra money via consulting work, but when the price for such ventures is a tarnished reputation, one might wonder if it's worth it.

A good rule of thumb: Never eat at restaurants that aren't restaurants. So we moseyed up the block to Marhaba Mediterranean Cuisine for dinner. The exceedingly friendly staff and mellow surroundings were much appreciated. The 100-seat dining room put us at ease too, though despite bright Middle Eastern embellishments, the décor looked a little coffee-shop cold.

A fulsome fattoush salad kept the good vibes flowing — the mix of lettuce greens, cucumbers, green peppers, radishes, scallions, lusciously ripe tomatoes, and fried pita croutons splashed with sumac-spiked vinaigrette (sumac is a berry that when dried and ground, becomes a fruity, astringent spice).

We passed on the familiar hummus, falafel, and baba ghannouj appetizers in favor of more distinctive selections, such as malfoof: five slender, cigar-shape cabbage rolls stuffed with mildly seasoned ground beef and rice. A thin lentil soup garnished with a frizzle of fried onions proved routine, yet the olive-green pickled baby eggplant that composed makdoos were anything but. The vegetables were the size of, and possessed a taste and texture similar to, the bright red pickled cherry peppers served at kosher delis and Italian buffets. Inside each tantalizing tiny round of eggplant was a savory relish of garlic and minced almonds.

Most main courses are grilled kebabs of lamb, beef, chicken, or shrimp skewered with peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Cubes of full-flavor lamb were moist and chewy, strips of chicken breast overcooked, and a long, narrow kafta kebab of spiced ground lamb terrifically tasty. "Marhaba's shrimp" is the only entrée that doesn't touch the grill. Instead six fleshy crustaceans are delectably sautéed with peppers and onions in an aromatically spiced tomato sauce. Dinners come with a choice of two sides. Go with the crisp, clean fries, because angel hair rice was bland and soppy, and couscous was bland and dry.

Only two desserts are offered: baklava and a diaphanous disc of milk pudding pooled in rose syrup and capped with pistachios. Like the rest of dinner, it was pleasant enough. In a way, Marhaba was to our evening what Gerald Ford was to America after Richard Nixon: a calming if unspectacular antidote to a debacle.

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