Route 9: Great service but inconsistent food

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There's a sweet, old-fashioned story behind Route 9 restaurant. The moniker derives from the highway that sweeps by the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Owners Paola and Jeremy Goldberg met while studying there. Before schooling, they had worked as prep cooks in Miami eateries. After graduating in 1991 2003, they managed restaurants such as Timo, Johnny V Las Olas, and Escopazzo. Less than two months ago, they opened their own dining establishment.

There is something dulcet about the restaurant as well: No bar dispenses trendy cocktails, blaring music is out, and the only flat-screen TV set is tucked into a nook/lounge out of view of most of the 60 seats. The storefront dining room on Ponce de Leon Boulevard is defined by wood plank floors, laminated tables, upholstered chairs, and little else. This is a place where you can eat, drink wine, and talk with friends without distraction.


Route 9

1915 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 305-569-9009; route9miami.com. Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Brunch Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

View our Route 9 slide show.

The cooking here is described as "American-style cuisine with a bit of Latin and Florida flair." But on the occasions we visited, ceviche of the day and fish tacos were the only Latin dishes among some three dozen items (although the menu changes often). The Mediterranean region and America seem to exert the most influence on the food. The bill of fare is composed of charcuterie and cheese plates, soups and salads, nine small plates, eight main plates, and sides. The first category encompasses artisan cheeses with olives and jelly; burrata cheese with fig preserves; prosciutto with almond-chive pesto and ricotta cheese; and roasted Hebrew National salami with spicy brown mustard.

Roasted Hebrew National salami? I had fried bologna as a kid but never heard of this one. The most surprising thing about it turned out to be the shape, which was that of a small muffin. Taste-wise, imagine eating a very dense, salami-flavored hot dog.

Though it is refreshing to see a selection of "small plates" devoid of pork belly and noodle bowls, this menu could have been written decades ago. The grab bag of bites includes olives with pickled peppers; grilled squid with lentils and roasted peppers; focaccia with blue cheese and Granny Smith apples; mussels with chorizo; baked goat cheese with olives and soft garlic cloves, served in hot olive oil and addictively good spread on bread; and sticky chicken wings, which should have been labeled spicy chicken wings — or at least described as piquant. Still, they were the tastiest things we sampled.

A smoked-marlin-filled poblano pepper arrived sliced diagonally into four pieces, with fried flour corn tortilla chips in the role of crackers. The fish spread was tasty, but the dish could have used another component. Some mini-meatballs in marinara sauce were raw inside; others (there were eight altogether) were cooked through and unremarkable. Cream of tomato soup registered a tinny blandness reminiscent of Campbell's.

The selection of main plates includes a couple of lunch-style foods such as a cheeseburger and fish tacos "with housemade guacamole" (as opposed to the canned variety?). The trio of tacos, on soft flour corn tortillas, featured small cubes of sea bass cobia, apparently poached (definitely not grilled or battered and fried, as is tradition). A vinegary salsa sparked the flavor, but the price, $17, is steep for a street snack with no accompaniments.

Proteins on entrée plates were nicely executed: A small wedge of salmon steak and a cylinder of prosciutto-wrapped pork loin both boasted crisp exteriors and were moist and impeccably cooked within; flank steak, cut into thick strips, was flavorful. Accompaniments on each plate were wanting. Steak came with two long, skinny romaine lettuce hearts grilled and lightly dressed with blue cheese vinaigrette (meh); five little cipollini onions were served alongside the pork (less than meh); and salmon rested on a bed of bland, soggy, overcooked couscous (awful).

Homemade linguine with shrimp didn't work either. The pasta was too thick and dressed in olive oil, a splash of lemon juice, and nothing else. The shrimp were of the very small, tasteless variety. The four entrées mentioned range from $21 to $24, which would represent decent pricing if the food were better.

No complaints over a side of cauliflower gratin infused with truffle oil; the vegetable retained some crunch and wasn't overburdened by cheese. Other sides are fries with garlicky mayonnaise, balsamic-glazed Brussels sprouts, roasted garlic hummus with grilled bread, smashed red bliss potatoes, and sautéed mushrooms with herbs.

Banana cream pie is one of a few desserts offered each night. The word pie should appear in quotation marks on the menu, because the presentation is that of sliced bananas in a ramekin of soupy, condensed-milk-based cream with some crumbs lining the dish. Sweet and tasty, but not pie.

Usually when food is badly cooked, service wants as well. But Route 9 is an exception: The waitstaff here is excellent, and service is about as good as it gets: personable, knowledgeable, efficient, and professionally trained. Those years spent managing local restaurants evidently served the Goldbergs well. They might, however, want to revisit the CIA to take some refresher courses in cooking. A very thin line exists between simple, unpretentious restaurant fare and that which is boring and uninspired. Route 9 travels the wrong side of that line too often.

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