Culinary cage match
In one corner, haute cuisine, in the other, the wallet-pleasing alternatives. Stomachs, let's get ready to rumble!
By Danny Brody
Skyrocketing prices and tiny portions at hip, haute cuisine restaurants can be alarming, especially considering the fact that there are delicious low-cost alternatives abound on the local restaurant scene, if you just take a closer look. Perhaps not served on china by pouty model-types, and maybe no wine list or credit cards accepted, but the eating experience is not necessarily diminished by these factors. Here are some comparisons.
At Prime 112, Bill Clinton's favorite South Beach steakhouse scene, a starter of sauteed Hudson Valley foie gras with watercress, spiced pineapple jam, and Australian candied ginger will set you back $24. You probably didn't realize the Aussies were famous for their candied ginger -- at least one hopes they are, because the portion of foie gras, while very tasty, is diminutive, to say the least. The scene is lively but fairly predictable, with more gold chains than your average Vegas pimp convention.
Chez Merlin (178 NE 78th St.; 305-756-0908), a tiny six-seater in north Little Haiti, offers up their specialty foie et bonnane, or liver and bananas, cooked by a Haitian maman and served by the owner herself. For $3.50, you get a pile of moist beef liver cubes, lightly marinated in vinegar and served alongside a huge amount of the Haitian version of polenta, bright yellow and smooth, and, of course, a savory boiled banana. Wash it down with their homemade AK-100, which is a corn, vanilla and milk drink, pure island all the way. There's usually soccer on the TV, and one or two locals arguing politics.
Every sharp new Italian restaurant serves its own version of ossobuco, a braised veal-shank dish, and Sardinia on South Beach's Purdy Ave. is no exception. The lovely rooms here are all hushed curtains and rich, wooden wine racks, and the servers make you feel as though you're in on a special secret hideaway. When you order their beautiful, rich cut ($28), it comes served with saffron fregula and drizzled with a carignano reduction. You didn't know that fregula is Italian couscous, and that carignano is a type of grape? You can ponder your sadly limited food knowledge after your meal with a stroll through verdant Maurice Gibb Park, named after the late Bee Gee, and check out the mega-yachts moored close by on the Intracoastal Waterway.
Just across the Venetian Causeway, the S&S Diner is an ancient landmark on a desolate strip of NE 2nd Ave. still populated by hookers and crackheads. Inside, though, the smell of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, liver and onions and hot, black, coffee is reassuring in an old-fashioned way. The twenty or so stools (one or two are usually broken), are arranged around a horseshoe counter populated by two waitresses who alternate corny one-liners and sarcastic eye-rolling with aplomb. The veal shank ($10.95) is served over yellow rice and comes with two sides (try the salad with house-made dressing and the mac & cheese, although the canned beets are also pretty reliable). This is a big pile of meat, and you may be tempted to suck the last bits off the bone. After a cup of joe, wander across the street to the Miami City Cemetery, the final resting place of the Mother of Miami Julia Tuttle, as well as a monument to our boys killed in action in the Civil War... for the Confederacy.
This ubiquitous menu item first saw life at roadside hamburger joints, then got tarted up at places like Social at the Sagamore, where the Kobe beef sliders are three teeny burgers served with "melting" onions and gruyere cheese ($19). I'm not sure how "Kobe" these burgers are, but when you cook Kobe beef past medium-rare, it becomes almost inedible.
No such problems at Royal Castle (2700 NW 79th Street; 305-696-8241). While they pride themselves on "cooking everything from scratch," and how that may take some extra time, I'm not sure that you could call slamming frozen patties on a grill, topping with yellow cheese and cooked onion bits from a jar (you couldn't "melt" these with a laser) and placing them in a bun that arrived in a plastic bag of thousands "from scratch." In any event, they are delicious, and they still taste like the ones you had as a kid. A half-dozen in a cardboard box for $5.40 is a take-out bargain. Or better still, eat them at the lunch counter. The banter will flow, and although you might not see any models like at Social, the smell of frying catfish is pure Miami.
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