"That's so not true," muttered the server as she set down our incredibly grease-free and supple fried calamari appetizer, napped by a marinara sauce to which hot peppers had been added. "What a scam."
Of course no one really takes a commercial's claims as gospel. But the folks at By Sarah have a particular reason to be offended. Unlike the Macaroni Grill, a corporate chain posing as a family Italian restaurant for which actors in the ads play chefs who argue with each other (in fake Italian accents, no less) over the placement of a single caper, By Sarah really is, well, run by chefs. And that does explain the very sophisticated, and very good, Italian and Continental food.
By Sarah, Inc., a decade-old catering company and café, is owned by Sarah Moos and her husband, Joseph, who a few years ago ran the well-regarded Coral Café on Ninth Street and Washington Avenue in South Beach. They moved next to North Miami, where their first By Sarah location on 125th Street and NW Seventh Avenue burned down. The pair then took over the restaurant formerly known as Café Primola (and before that, Cluckers, a rotisserie chicken joint) about a year ago. The new place has the look of a contemporary South Beach restaurant, but it lacks the haughty attitude.
In fact supping here can feel like being a dinner guest at someone's home, or at your own house (with someone else doing the cooking -- say, your mom). The service is so honest, forthright, and friendly (most of the staff has worked with Moos at more than one of the locations) they'll greet you like friends on only your second visit. One night I even wound up showing my baby's picture to the waitress (hey, she insisted). Some evenings you can dine next to Moos herself, who often relaxes with family and friends in the 50-seat dining room over a plate of lobster and crab ravioli in a shrimp bisque sauce or a veal chop grilled with mushrooms and rosemary-infused tartufo oil.
The décor is the same as when Primola, which was the sister restaurant to Café Prima Pasta, occupied the spot: dark woods and forest-green walls, hung with hundreds of framed caricatures, pen-and-ink drawings, and black-and-white photos. A bar runs nearly the length of one side, leading into the kitchen, and serves both as a place for patrons to drink and as a convenient display table for the homemade desserts.
Those sweets (which range from Boston cream layer cake, Heath bar chocolate cake, and chocolate pudding pie to pineapple upside-down cake) bear exquisite testimony to the homemade quality of the fare. The menu claims the food is roasted, sautéed, fried, and baked by "Chef William," but pay no mind. Executive chef Oricuisus Bousie has been with the company for about a year, and in that time he's earned great respect from the waitstaff. They rave about him, but won't reveal his secrets; I know, I tried to pry one out of them. But they all refused to tell me what was in the sauce that dressed a sliced flank steak. The juices from the succulent meat mingled perfectly with the peppery brown sauce, which tasted just a touch like caramelized sugar, or the top of a crème brûlée.
One of the best, and most reasonable, ways to sample those desserts is to order one of the evening's special main courses. These entrées are framed by the soup du jour or a fresh and crisp house salad with a lovely, balanced vinaigrette (for an extra charge the kitchen will substitute a superior caesar salad, pungent with Parmesan, garlic, and anchovies) and your choice of cake or pie.
The regular menu needs to be revised, not just because the chef has changed, but to rid the list of erstwhile appetizers like the beef and salmon carpaccios, which the staff says just didn't sell. Same goes for the wine list, offering American, French, and Italian vintages from $15 to $33: Some aren't in stock, and others have been replaced by wines from other nations. Still you can glean a pleasant starter or two, not to mention a decent glass of South American house wine. We particularly enjoyed the endive salad. The petals of endive, stuffed with crumbled blue cheese and diced toasted almonds, displayed a pretty catering touch; it's easy to imagine these little tubes as finger food at a wedding. Chopped tomatoes and cucumbers counteracted the richness of the cheese, and a honey-infused rice-wine vinaigrette brought the whole dish together.
Aside from desserts, however, the main courses are where the focus lies. Bousie has a wonderful touch with sauces, particularly the ginger-orange Grand Marnier sauce that laced a Hudson Valley duck breast. Roasted to a crisp-skinned medium-rare, the duck was sliced and served atop a puddle of the aromatic jus. The bird was garnished with a verdant tree of broccoli so ideally cooked that it had neither lost its color nor retained its tooth-flossing fibers.
Ditto for the asparagus tips that entwined with fettuccine and rock shrimp. Sautéed in a delectable sour cream blend, the vegetables popped between the molars as much as the succulent shrimp, which were themselves reminiscent of crawfish tails.
When a chef is as careful with his materials as Bousie is, I'm always tempted to test him with veal scaloppine. Bousie's version, pan-sautéed veal medallions, pounded and coated with a tangy lemon-caper sauce, won me over completely. I only regret I didn't have enough guests with me to also order another house specialty, snapper française.
As worldly as the fare is, however, don't be surprised if the servers are casual and neighborly, announcing how hungry they are when they serve your lamb shank or roasted rack of lamb with a mustard-crumb crust. At one point, some time after a waitress asked if my tattoos were real but before she urged me to eat up so I could have that lusciously moist pineapple upside-down cake for dessert, I could have sworn I was dining at home with my mom. What else to do but give in and do as she says?