Restaurant Reviews

Newly Debuted Lion & the Rambler Adjusts Menu to Fit Expectations

"Nori Millefeuille" is one of the inventive desserts at Lion & the Rambler.
"Nori Millefeuille" is one of the inventive desserts at Lion & the Rambler. Photo by RMStudioCorp
The trend toward restaurants that only offer pricey omakase and prix-fixe, counter-tasting menus in Miami and elsewhere is not slowing down despite rising inflation and an impending recession. The more complex the plating and intricate the beverage pairings, the more we're here for it, it seems.

Until we're not.

This is what chef-owner Michael Bolen discovered when he opened the tasting menu-only Lion & the Rambler in Coral Gables in mid-June. His ever-changing nine-course menu was priced at $120 — fairly affordable at $13 per plate — and wine/sake pairings were priced at $55. Dishes included trout roe with crème fraîche and nori; boniato with orange and macadamia; and a New York strip with charred onion and watercress. For dessert, a throwback Twinkie was reinvented with sesame amazake.

But after only a week of operation, feedback was mixed. On the one hand, he says, "It was phenomenal. People came here one night and then came back the next. They said it was the best they'd had since [Grant Achatz's Chicago-based] Alinea."

On the other hand, Bolen lives about a mile from the restaurant, so he's pretty well enmeshed in the community. "I was talking to my neighbors, and they were saying a lot about gas prices, rent, even just a gallon of milk being insane. They can't come in on a Tuesday and commit two hours to a tasting menu."

Another problem, he notes, was managing expectations. Because he had taken over the space that Chopped champion Giorgio Rapicavoli's Eating House had occupied, diners expected something creative and unique. Bolen, who did most of his culinary training at Sel de la Terre and L'Espalier in Boston (both have since closed) and, most recently, at Mister A's in San Diego, could certainly deliver that.

But Eating House was a neighborhood restaurant. And Lion & the Rambler had that "special occasion" connotation. "People wanted us to be more approachable," he says.

Moreover, the restaurant is eccentric and laid-back, with hand-painted lion frescoes by Canadian muralist Derkz, plates crafted by independent ceramists, and French cutlery. Yet it's also moody, with dark polished woods and ambient lighting. Plus, it has 42 table-top seats as opposed to the 10 or 12 counter-top spots many tasting lairs have.

To rub salt into the wound, the hyperseasonal restaurant was supposed to open six months ago, when South Florida bounty was in its prime. Now it's tropical fruit season, and it will be about another month before local farmers even think about starting their first vegetable seeds. So the dishes he tested back then needed to be reworked to accommodate what was available or he could import from elsewhere.

Of course, he notes, "food costs have been tough." And he's facing the same labor issues as everyone else in the industry. "Our employees — everybody is doing their best," he says. "We found some amazing, awesome people from other chefs/restaurateurs who recommended them to us. But we could always use more."
click to enlarge
Lion & the Rambler is a sleek, eclectic neighborhood spot in Coral Gables.
Photo by RMStudioCorp
It's not easy to give up on a dream. But it took Bolen only seven days to realize he had a slight misfire.

He's also not one to give up, period. "I thought, how do I take what we're doing with the passion and the love we have and boil it down to something simpler?" he asks.

The answer: Along with a nightly tasting menu now trimmed down to six courses, Bolen is offering à la carte menu items that feature tasting-menu favorites in larger portions and new items so that the restaurant can be what the neighborhood desires. Newly created dishes, launched last week, include spiced lamb ribs, golden tilefish with white asparagus, foie gras torchon with oats and pickled peach, and crispy sweet potato with aioli and pickled red onion.

The from-scratch aesthetic remains, as does the complexity behind the dishes. For instance, Bolen uses house-milled flour for bread service and makes his own koji (a Japanese fermentation starter). He also ferments his own kombucha, which guests will still be able to enjoy, along with low-proof, rare, and imported spirits, including beer, sake, and wine.

"At the end of the day, this restaurant isn't about me," Bolen says. "It's about the community, and it's about the people that I'm working with. If it means me changing the concept to make people comfortable coming into the space, then that's fine. We're gonna stay true to ourselves but take it more in the vein of everyday."

In reality, all the San Diego native did was prove himself to be flexible and egoless — two character elements both rare and welcome in today's hospitality environment. All the more reason to ramble over to Lion & The Rambler, gas prices notwithstanding.

Lion & the Rambler. 804 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 305-603-7612; Wednesday to Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Happy hour daily 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
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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