Kris Wessel was a semifinalist for this year’s regional James Beard Award, and he has my vote as one of Miami’s most talented chefs. At his quirky Red Light, Wessel melds Old South, Creole, Caribbean and Miami seasonings and techniques into an exciting, evolving cuisine that’s all his own. The lanky, soft-spoken chef-owner has a 15-year history of hits and runs. He delighted South Beach with the gourmet sandwich shop Paninoteca, launched a spot called Liaison on Española Way and wound up at the short-lived Mediterranean Elia in Bal Harbour. Then he disappeared for a good long while.
Besides the fact that Red Light is still here after two years, what makes the modest restaurant Wessel’s best effort to date is that it is truly his own. The scrappy, orange and red diner is like a place you’d find in Key West or New Orleans, where Wessel got is chops. It’s got spunk and charm, but only for those willing to overlook the seedier elements, including a sniffly, glassy-eyed valet parker. The prices certainly are in sync with the times, with the most expensive entree a tasty $20 New York strip steak served alongside a tangle of sweet long-cooked onions and a juicy grilled tomato.
Anyone who expects good service to go along with the fine cooking may find their patience sorely tried, but diners who bring bug spray, a sense of humor and a laid-back attitude might just put this quirky Little River spot in their little black books.
- Sweet and spicy barbecue shrimp in a nearly black sauce of slow-simmered garlic, shallots, cayenne, red wine and tangy Worcestershire
- Smoky wahoo fish dip served with perky sheets of arugula-and-elegant-sesame-seed flatbread for dipping
- Right-on-the-money local catch, including a brilliant red snapper with leeks and lentils
- Fantastically fresh, wonderous tile-fish braised with lemon fennel and served as a stew with little neck clams and sugarsnap peas in a rich calabaza broth
- Thick and juicy organic burger with tons of onions and melted white Cheddar
- Thick-as-Texas-toast slabs of buttery bread enveloping shredded oxtail with sweet guava jam, chevre and gooey fontina
- Sometime over-dressed, but always well-composed salads
- Old fashioned Sazerac cocktails
- A dozen or so reasonably priced wines (mainly Spanish with a few California and French selections)
- Homey slabs of chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream sidecars
- Seasonal fruit tarts
What Didn’t Work
- Gritty oyster pie
- Hours-long waits for food
- Glasses that remain unfilled & tables that remain uncleared