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Old Friends in New Hands

BY LEE KLEIN

Crystal Café,

Few restaurants are more associated with their chef/owner than Crystal Café was with Klime Kovaceski. The Macedonian-born charmer somehow managed to work the kitchen and dining room simultaneously -- all night, every night, six days a week. For ten years. On Mondays, when Crystal was closed, he'd come in and take calls, place orders, adjust the lighting, create new music compilations to play in his restaurant. Kovaceski was simply the hardest-working chef in town. Yet while he'd make frequent forays into the dining room to chat it up with customers, it was his lovely French-Canadian wife Huguette who molded the wait staff into the most efficient around; service was so superior that you'd swear you were in another city altogether. The Kovaceskis consistently courted and coddled their clientele with great care, so it must be coming as quite a shock to those regulars as they waltz in for dinner and discover that Klime has left the building.

They might suspect something is up before they even hit the front door: One of those tacky chef statuettes with built-in menu board has been placed at the entrance, which doesn't fit with the restaurant's fine-dining ambiance. Once inside, the clean-lined and contemporary room appears pretty much the same, with formal table settings, modern art on off-white walls, and a mirrored back wall that makes the 72-seat space look twice as big. The only noticeable difference in décor is by way of sleek, low-hanging lamps dangling above every table, each spotlighting a single bright flower. Nice touch.

New owner Sal Dicembrino, from Sicily, has wisely refrained from doing much tinkering since taking over in late summer. The waiters are still crisply trained, professional in demeanor, and well versed in the menu and wines. (There are fewer of the latter, the formerly voluminous list having been whittled down to a still-respectable array of global selections; mimosas and various aperitifs are now offered by the glass.)

Info

Crystal Cafe

726 41st St, Miami Beach

305-673-8266. Open for dinnerTuesday through Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m

The Kovaceskis' meticulous devotion to detail has been retained as well. When the tablecloth was swept of crumbs after dinner, my dining companion noted that it was the first time in months she'd witnessed a waiter performing that task. This restaurant likewise remains one of the few to be adamant about putting bottled water on ice -- Kovaceski could never understand why diners should drink cold white wine but warm water. There are fewer workers on the floor these days, which dulls Crystal's former laserlike attentiveness, but service remains very strong.

The menu reads almost word-for-word as before, with two exceptions: a smaller choice of accompaniments and slightly higher numbers next to the dollar signs. Crystal Café was always priced below establishments of its caliber, and still is, just less so. Kovaceski's kitchen crew is intact, too -- minus Kovaceski himself. Things started out, in fact, the same as ever with a warm round of baked-on-premises bread with floury, biscuitlike crust and steamy interior, delectable when dipped into a mix of olive oil, minced black olives, and garlic. The bread comes from an old Macedonian recipe, and along with the rest of Crystal's recipes has been handed on to the new ownership. The cuisine, therefore, continues to exude exuberant flavors, though not quite as exuberant as previously.

The downgrading of presentations is more noticeable, as are demonstrably downsized portions. Granted this restaurant had a reputation for proffering gargantuan plates of food, but that's precisely why the serving sizes, now sane, seem inadequate. I wonder how Crystal Café's loyal locals will react to paying more for less.

A signature salad featuring pistachio-crumbed goat cheese exemplifies differences between the old and new. The warm, crisply coated disc of chvre arrived nestled atop diced tomatoes drizzled with truffle oil, snippets of braised Belgian endive underneath that, the whole pile splashed and pooled in a syrupy raspberry-balsamic reduction and sprinkled with pistachio pieces. All in all a pretty plate yielding tantalizingly contrasting tastes -- but a deflated version of the bold braggadocio of before: spikes of endive protruding outward; a bountiful bouquet of basil resting on top; thick, lush syrup and truffle oil poured with abandon. Formerly $11.95, it is now $12.95.

A foie gras appetizer hit closer to the mark. Two meaty knobs of the liver, sharply seared and bursting with moist centers, came placed upon a short stack of three soft, lightly caramelized apple slices in a sweet-and-sourish sherry-enriched gastrique of caramelized sugar and vinegar. A sprig of fresh thyme no longer shoots upward, and the sauce lacked body, but these are mere quibbles in the face of such full, gratifying flavors.

A main course of chicken Kiev, with goat cheese replacing traditional butter, highlights Crystal's "new continental" style of cooking, while duck à l'orange shines a light on its deft way with classic continental. The former featured a tender, bread-crumbed breast rolled around goat cheese that gushed out appropriately upon the knife's impact; the latter brought lean, juicy meat crackling with crisp skin, a tangy orange marmalade sauce served on the side. Dinners come with a choice of two accompaniments, which include a scoop of smooth mashed potatoes; large chunks of plain, boiled carrot; sautéed mushrooms; steamed broccoli; and fresh spinach deliciously flash-seared.

Seafood osso bucco, another old Crystal Café favorite, has been translated less successfully. Then again, translations of translations rarely work out well, and this dish is already a seafarer's take on the traditional veal shank version, two bands of poached salmon wrapped around hefty hunks of Chilean sea bass (a mimic of the marrow). The fish was fine, as were meaty portobello mushrooms under each, but barely cooked strips of carrot, zucchini, and yellow squash beside it were bland, and the lobster sauce lacked luster.

Sal may not be as ebullient as Klime (pronounced klee-may), but give him credit for being in the house every night, along with his wife Maria José, both working hard to make certain that guests are properly catered to. He has also put his personal stamp upon the daily specials, which now highlight Italian cooking via items such as shrimp parmigiana, lasagna, and head-on langoustines grilled with garlic and olive oil. Because of these additions, Mr. Dicembrino refrains from calling the food new continental, preferring instead "new contemporary Italian Mediterranean," which is redundant and not quite as catchy.

Desserts were never my favorite aspect of Crystal; the kitchen here is too cramped to allow for a pastry chef, so sweets have always been of the imported-from-wholesalers variety. Just the same, there was a wide variety of options and the quality was good. Kovaceski did offer one excellent homemade dessert: palacinka, a fluffy crêpe crammed with fresh berries and capped with ice cream. But alas the palacinka is gone, and in its place a tray was presented with just four wedges of characterless cakes -- carrot, chocolate mousse, strawberry shortcake, and coconut, the last tasting like a Publix birthday confection.

I'll admit to growing a bit morose upon noting the palacinka's absence. It was as though a dear old gastronomic friend had departed without saying goodbye. I feel the same about the Kovaceskis' café, too. Yet upon wiping away the misty veneer of maudlin comparisons it becomes clear that, excepting those sappy desserts, the new Crystal still glistens, and remains one of the more desirable dining destinations on the Beach.

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