An antidote for shopping angst has opened on the second floor of Dadeland Mall’s new Kendall wing. It’s called Earls Kitchen + Bar, and the energetic wait staff is so friendly and happy, you’ll swear you are someplace other than a mall.
That someplace might as well be Canada. Earls, a family-owned restaurant group from our neighbor to the north, prides itself on hiring people who are personable and passionate. These Canadians aren’t kidding. On one visit, a lively waitress engaged my teenage daughters in an animated conversation about high school. On another, a young waiter told us how much fun he was having working there.
Good cheer is contagious, eh? The sprawling place, open since March, already boasts a thriving night scene, with 40-somethings at the bar, families sitting together at the communal tables and booths, and young singles hanging out in the cabanas on the landscaped outdoor terrace.
Earls’ scattershot menu ranges from barbecue and burgers to Asian stir-fries and ceviche. With such a broad variety of dishes, Earls inevitably misses on quite a few. But the restaurant’s spirited vibe and creative cocktails seem to satisfy the crowds.
Here’s what Earls does well: Calamari has a delightfully different spin, with chunky Mediterranean cucumbers, radishes, Spanish olives, fresh dill and a Greek citrus yogurt sauce. A one-person tuna sushi cone takes advantage of fresh Florida fish, with a slightly spicy mayo and tempura batter cracklings.
Steaks in 7- and 9-ounce portions are cooked exactly to order — ours was juicy and red in the middle — with optional toppings of bourbon mushroom sauce, peppercorn demiglace, blue cheese or Cajun spices. Accompanying sides are more than afterthoughts and include options like garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal mixed vegetables with crumbled white cheese.
Sourdough, brioche and ciabatta made on-site with Earls’ own starters raise the bar for generic burgers and soups. Grilled, buttery hunks of bread arrive warm on personal wood cutting boards. Among the sandwiches, a chicken and brie option with fig jam, roasted apples, spinach and aioli makes an excellent filler for a soft, fresh bun.
Head chef Luke Verkuylen oversees an open kitchen with a bustling staff. The expansive, 8,500-square-foot restaurant seats more than 300, but tungsten bulbs, white subway tiles and wood block tables create welcoming warmth. Three bars cater to ever-changing, clever drink specials, as well as an extensive wine list and local craft beers on tap. Tall windows and doors separate the dining room from the wrap-around outside patio that overlooks Kendall Drive.
The Vancouver-based Earls has more than 60 restaurants throughout Canada, with a handful in Colorado and Washington. Dadeland is its first East Coast foray.
Quite a few dishes suffer from a generic, chain-restaurant-in-a-mall blandness. The ginger kick in kung pao chicken is muffled by soy sauce. Chopped mangoes in fish tacos and shrimp sushi are flavorless and mushy. Verkuylen’s kitchen could use a South Florida lesson in Key lime pie.
But an ultra-fresh strawberry shortcake — delivered by a smiling waiter — was a sweet reminder that Earls is helping this 52-year-old mall reinvent itself as a desirable destination for dining, not just for shopping.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense. Follow @MiamiHeraldFood on Twitter.