Restaurant Reviews

The 'Tude Gang

The Food Gang isn't what it thinks it is. It thinks it is an informal gathering spot for gastronomists to enjoy simple, unpretentious meals at affordable prices. Yet witness the Maine lobster paella: a succulent tail and claw draped atop a pan-fried, puck-shaped disc of saffron rice studded with chorizo and "English peas" (a pompous name for the common green variety). A puddle of buttery lobster sauce is pooled around the rice, and though the promised roasted peppers are missing, it's a tasty enough dish. Wouldn't it have been simpler and less pretentious, though, had they just cooked the rice fresh upon order and served it steaming hot (you know, like paella), rather than shaping, frying, and saucing it? And while $29 isn't a lot for a lobster dish, when coupled with one of the appetizers (which start at $11), or even a simple house salad ($12), we're talking at least $40 — without water or wine; coffee or dessert; tax or tip. Maybe they should have called this place the Gucci Gang.

Upon entering the Surfside storefront, formerly home to Restaurant Juliette, diners pass through a small market whose sterile shelves are sparsely stocked with Harry Cipriani sauces, Fauchon jams, Petrossian products, potato chips, and pancake mix. The 80-seat dining room is all clean, modern, and sleek, its horizontally paneled white wood walls brightly striped by thin photo murals of Mediterranean food. A few tangerine-tinted accents likewise contribute color, mostly around the full-service bar area that takes up the front of the space. Music drones to an endlessly repetitive beat.

An assortment of garlic-marinated olives provides a welcome entry to the meal, as do warm slices of bread neatly tucked into linen. The wine list is inviting as well, a smartly selected spectrum of distinctive labels ranging from $23 to over $300. Our dinners here didn't fall on a Wednesday evening, when free wine and tapas tastings take place, and unfortunately we didn't know that tapas are on tap every night. We didn't know because the blackboard of tapas offerings was not within sight of our table, and our waiter, one of a number of black-clad bodies bumbling about the room sans managerial oversight, never mentioned their availability. Neither were tapas brought to our attention on a return visit. This is one of those wait staffs so busy having a good time among themselves that they forget about everything else.

So we started with a regrettable pizzette with a pale, pliable crust topped by two half-moon snippets of artichoke bottom and one shriveled roasted tomato per slice, and a miniscule veneer of goat cheese patted on like baby powder. An aromatic tinkle of truffle oil was also applied to the dry and insipid pie: perfume on a pig.

Truffle oil gets splashed onto all sorts of foods here — short ribs, mashed potatoes, risotto — as if it were some magic elixir that alone could lift cuisine from humdrum to haute. A starter of Serrano-wrapped asparagus was also to have come dressed with truffle vinaigrette, but there was only a touch of the fungus's flavor to be found. More problematic was the lack of any dressing on the frizzled leaves of frisée that bedded the pert green spears. There was likewise no trace of the menu-listed "lemon dust" (must have blown off the plate on the way in from the kitchen); a poached egg accompaniment, meant to spill its lush yolk over the ham and greens, was either the smallest ovum ever produced by a chicken, or the largest ever hatched from a quail. Either way, there was hardly enough yellow to spray a speck of lemon dust.

"Niçoise olive dust" (i.e., dried, finely chopped olive) was scattershot all over a plate of griddled calamari, but the four tender squid bodies could have used some salt just the same. They needed some pepper, too, and a squeeze of lemon or splash of vinegar — something to give the dish flavor. We didn't expect a promised garnish of "gazpacho" to be much more than a sampling-size splash on the plate, but we did expect at least that. What we got was a quartered plum tomato — that also could have used some salt. Other starters include an "organic crudité" of, according to our server, "broccoli, carrots, celery, and one other thing;" steamed mussels; tomato and mozzarella salad; lobster salad; and Canadian foie gras two ways.

The lobster and foie gras appetizers cost $23 apiece, which is to be expected when dealing with such luxe comestibles. A pan-roasted veal chop doesn't generally come cheap, either, but $43 seems awfully expensive considering the modest plate-mates of fingerling potatoes and mushroom sauce. At David Bouley Evolution we could have had milk-fed Randall Farms veal with parmesan-herb crust and chanterelles! For four dollars less. Chef Howard Kleinberg, last manning the stoves at Ivy Aventura, previously earned his stripes in respected local kitchens such as Mark's South Beach and Timo. He is an experienced chef with more than a modicum of talent. But Bouley he is not.

Nor are the ingredients utilized here anything special, as evidenced by the aforementioned crudité. The frisée underneath those asparagus spears, and other micro-greens encountered in various dishes, were of perky, top-notch quality. Serrano ham and saffron show up in a couple of dishes, as does fleur de sel, an upscale sea salt. Blood oranges might be deemed exciting by some, and warm lentil salad that comes with a duck-two-ways entrée is composed of dark, sturdy French LePuy-brand legumes (spiritedly sprinkled with aged balsamic vinegar). All else is pretty much standard.

That duck duo was the best meal we had here, a thick, meaty breast impeccably seared outside and juicy within, a leg of confit voluptuously soft and flavorful. Short ribs star in a pair of main course bargains — plumped into cannelloni with black truffle cream ($19), and braised to fall-off-the-bone tenderness in a rich, rosemary-accented jus ($23). We were less enthralled with snapper en papillote. The small square of fish was fresh enough, but roasted tomato and grilled, crunchy fennel below, a smattering of cold field greens on top, and a side of sweetly delicious red pepper marmalade proved strangely disjointed accompaniments.

Three very basic desserts are offered: apple tart served with cinnamon ice cream; chocolate "soufflé" (chocolate bombe with liquid center) with crme anglaise (vanilla sauce); and a ramekin of bread pudding with crme anglaise. We chose the last, which was brought to us with steam streaming from it just minutes after being ordered. The suspiciously microwavey consistency was that of a very hot sponge — no crunchy texture, no discernible custard. On another evening we chose the apple tart, also dished in a ramekin, but the puff pastry crust was fresh and crisp, the ice cream an apt and refreshing match.

The Food Gang's co-founders are Patrick Charpentier, former managing director of the Remy Cointreau Group, and his brother-in-law Clement Frandjian. A statement on the front of the menu portrays the Gang as "a group of food enthusiasts with a passion for quality and integrity in cuisine," whose "mission is to share this enthusiasm with our guests, neighbors, and friends...." Enthusiasm and passion are wonderful things, but they are no substitute for hard work and talent. If they were, air guitarists would be famous, Al Sharpton would be President, and The Food Gang would be as good a restaurant as it thinks it is.

9472 Harding Ave, Surfside; 786-228-9292. Open daily for lunch 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., for dinner 6:00 p.m. to midnight. Market is open Monday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein