Many people find big, noisy, sophisticated eateries intimidating. I, on the other hand, am scared of the small, cozy, intimate kind.
The fewer seats in the restaurant, I figure, the more likely it is the diner will be noticed. The clang of your cutlery echoes off the walls. Your conversations are overheard. Everybody, from the owner to the chef to the busboy, lingers over your table, wanting the same assurances: You're absolutely salivating over the food, you can't wait to refer the place to all your friends, you'll be back tomorrow.
Pan Coast, located in the Indian Creek Hotel in Miami Beach, is everything I fear in a restaurant. The grottolike dining room accommodates only twenty, with an identical number of seats on the landscaped patio outdoors. In such a petite place, chewing seems conspicuous, as do the chopping sounds emanating from the kitchen. And sure enough, there were owner Marc Levin (he also owns the hotel) and chef Mary K. Rohan. But although both were attentive -- Levin acts as host and eats his own dinner at the restaurant every night; Rohan visits tables wearing a plain white T-shirt and a stain-dotted apron -- they didn't overstay their welcome. And I didn't feel uncomfortable, I felt right at home.
Levin bought the abandoned Indian Creek Hotel (an Art Deco structure built in 1936) in 1991, renovated it, and reopened both hotel and restaurant in January 1994. The lobby in particular has been beautifully restored, with leather-bound trunks and other souvenirs of the steamer era scattered around the room. But the northern Italian restaurant (first called Indian Creek Cafe and later Cafe Paradiso) didn't quite meet the exotic promise of the front room. Pan Coast, named after the architect who designed the two-story villas on the hotel property, is Levin's third -- and most successful -- attempt at selling to hotel guests and neighborhood residents what he calls a "boutique" restaurant.
The name has felicitous associations beyond the literal. Rohan, a Miami native who was chef both at the Century and at A Fish Called Avalon, weds pan-Asian flavors to meats and the indigenous fishes of the South Florida coast. The results are a rather trendy but personalized blend of ingredients, skillfully cooked and designed.
The menu is small -- three appetizers, three salads, and four entrees -- but rotates twice weekly, so even regulars (of which there are a growing number) can be surprised. A cashew-dusted beef appetizer impressed us with its rich flavor and tender texture. Rounds of meat were lightly seared, then dressed with a mellow miso-mustard blend. An accompanying relish, composed of chopped cucumber and papaya, was a sweetly assertive counterpoint.
Wild mushroom salad, recommended by Levin's dinner partner, was a lovely presentation, slices of lightly sauteed shiitake mushrooms fanning out from a center of watercress, with crumbled Roquefort cheese and toasted pine nuts scattered on top. A garlicky Dijon mustard vinaigrette bonded the pungent and buttery components.
Given Rohan's culinary education at the Cordon Bleu in London, a bowl of lobster bisque was a letdown. The broth seemed too thin, lacking the cream and sherry flavors necessary to categorize it as a classic recipe, and her failure to endow it with anything that smacked of the Pacific Rim left it short of reinvention.
Levin claims he never ate fish until Rohan started cooking it for him, and I can see why he loves it now. She showed marvelous restraint with a main course of sake-steamed sea scallops and jumbo shrimp, whose only disappointment was that the normally-added crawfish were unavailable. Lightly scented with sake and ginger, the generous portions of scallops and shrimp had been cooked just shy of translucence, then bedded on crisp shredded vegetables. Chewy cellophane noodles supported the entire construction.
A rack of lamb had been separated into four juicy single-cut riblets and was served with a zesty Scotch bonnet-hoisin glaze that enhanced its characteristic muskiness. Creamy pureed sweet potatoes added a pleasant tropical touch, while a baby asparagus saute and chunks of vibrant pickled beets filled in the plate with earthy notes.
Tired of South Florida snapper, we opted for pork tenderloin, the other entree offered. The pork was delicious, sliced into medallions and seared in the same way as the aforementioned beef starter, and bathed in a guava-soy sauce. Robust and succulent, the tenderloin was a complement to the mild boniato mash that centerpieced it. Another side dish, perfectly cooked red-and-white whole bean "salsa," brought to mind a back-yard barbecue, especially when consumed out on the poolside patio, which, according to Levin, will soon have a canopy over it.
Like the menu, the wine list is small but select. Fortunately, the waitstaff is versed in both. We ordered a powerful 1993 Zaca Mesa Syrah ($21) after our waiter impressed us with a bit of wine trivia, informing us that this grape is one of the oldest varieties in the world.
Desserts are all homemade and come garnished with huge berries and slices of carambola. A thematic end to the meal, ginger mascarpone cheesecake was fluffy and spiced with plenty of the rhizome. A denser chocolate mousse cake had that silken flourless appeal I look for in my favorite fudgy desserts.
Just outside the Deco district, Pan Coast serves up-to-the-minute fare without the forbidding hassles of parking and attitude (there's plenty of one and none of the other). With lucky number three for each of them, Levin and Rohan have met their mutual goal: a boutique restaurant for a boutique community that's grown tired of shopping.
Forget the tree-trimming rituals, the annual viewing of Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street, the endless baking of sweet after sweet. Thanks to Abbey Brewing Co. brewmaster Raymond Rigazio and his partner Rich Dispenzieri, we've got a new ritual to see in the season: Christmas ale.
The duo answered the call for a local microbrewery back in July, when they took over the Knotty Pine Bar (at 1115 Sixteenth St.; 538-8110), the oldest tavern on South Beach. But they didn't give us Christmas until now. Last week the Abbey added the "double brown" Christmas ale to its house beers (porter, pale ale, brown, wheat, and oatmeal stout) and its assortment of regional and limited edition microbrews.
Making this seasonal goodie even sweeter is the fact that Rigazio and Dispenzieri have invested its brewing with a little tradition of their own. Each year, beginning with this one, they close the Abbey (which is open daily from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.) overnight on the weekend after Thanksgiving and trek down to Rockland Key, where the pub's brews are bubbled and boiled at the Key West Overseas Brewing Co. The staff then takes part in the process A smelling and tasting the grain and hops, loading the mill, et cetera. This way, Rigazio says, employees can describe the finished product to customers in intimate detail.
Of course, some of the customers might not need that description. Last time I drank at the Abbey, I sat next to Jeff Nelson, the brewmaster at Miami Beach's South Pointe Seafood House (at 1 Washington Ave.; 673-1708). Rigazio says they don't view their bars as competitive and frequently imbibe each other's recipes. Good to know, because when the tap drips, it also pours A Nelson recently unveiled his "75 Degrees and Sunny," a spiced holiday ale.
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