By Victoria Pesce Elliott
Other than Joe's Stone Crab and perhaps The Forge, there isn't another top restaurant around that comes close to chef-owner Allen Susser's long-term success (22 years). A key to his staying power has been his willingness to change, perhaps most dramatically in the past two months with a new look and menu.
The neon lighting strips, glossy black chairs and glass blocks have given way to a warm, open, woodsy interior. The new, pared-down menu focuses on comforting, unfussy fare -- simple dishes with a gourmet sensibility, like smoked almonds and Manchego, whole roasted fish and wild Florida shrimp with pistachio pesto. Dishes are lighter than in the old days, and so are the tabs. The average entree price hovers around $25 -- a good 30 percent less than before. Plus, $4-$7 "snacks" and sides make it easy to sample lots of tasty tidbits for not a lot of cash. An extensive but well-managed wine list includes lovely, bright and crisp Rieslings, albariños and buttery chards as well as a full complement of reds and bubbles. Chef's pairings are some of the best I've had in Miami.
The light touch extends to the seafood-centric menu of mainly local or otherwise sustainable catches. Some of the best dishes use fantastic Maine lobster -- featured on a three-course, $36, Tuesday menu along with potatoes, corn, clams and chorizo plus Susser's perfectly delightful Caesar with unexpected sesame-seed crunch and lemon-zest zing. (A fruit cobbler completes the prix-fixe.) The best dish, and one I will continue to dream about, is his grown-up lobster macaroni and cheese -- gorgeously textured house-made noodles in a cognac-infused sauce dotted with nice-size bits of sweet lobster meat and slivers of porcini mushroom. Topping the list of exceptional seafood is a whole yellowtail snapper steamed in tea and served over nutty red quinoa with capers as briny as the sea. Also fantastic is the black grouper with perky rock shrimp, leeks, diced red pepper and onions in a rum-spiked coconut cream sauce.
Nearly every dish we tried at a pair of back-to-back dinners last month lived up to the iconic Miami chef's standards. Exceptions were a greasy side of eggplant fritters and a few oddly stale desserts on the Miami Spice menu. (As long as we're grousing, Susser ought to know better than to call a retro relish dish of carrot sticks, pickled onion, celery and pickles an amuse bouche.)
Kudos to Susser for mining the international larder, from tangy raita to fiery kimchee to tomatoes, capers, olives and thyme that come together beautifully in Mediterranean-inspired dishes. Grains beyond the usual suspects are also worth exploring, including the slick Chinese Forbidden black rice alongside a succulent duck breast in a red wine demi glace. Grits and cheese gussied up with a fine Manchego make for another superior starch, though the version with shrimp was marred by a bad, iodine-laced crustacean. A messy but utterly delicious soft taco Baja with ginger ale-coated mahi mahi, smoky chipotle cream sauce and green mango slaw is the kind of casual addition that makes this place so endearing. Just get extra napkins. A juicy Berkshire pork chop as pink and plump as a Canadian tourist is served with a delightful
chutney and scorched, chile-basted sweet potato fries.
A staff as eclectic as the menu is exceedingly warm and welcoming, if sometimes flustered on our visits by the new setup. On both evenings, at least one of our dishes went AWOL (servers blamed the computer), only to appear long after our entrees were done. (Yes, we were charged the full freight.) Still, glasses are kept full, plates cleared quickly and attitudes are generally professional.
The aforementioned Miami Spice dessert disappointments (a fridge-weary profiterole, a soggy-crusted creme fraiche cheesecake) were made up for another night by a double chocolate Valhrona soufflé, split tableside and served with a healthy dose of creamy ganache and super-sweet chantilly cream.
Overall, the redo is a resounding success. With a bit of menu tweaking and staff training, Chef Allen's should be good to go for another two decades or more.
Chef Allen's, 19088 NE 29th Ave., Aventura; 305-935-2900. 6-11 p.m. Sun-Thurs, until midnight Fri-Sat. Starters $8-$15, entrees $19-$42, sides $5-$7, desserts $7-$8
FYI: Full bar; corkage $25. Free and plentiful self-parking; valet available. Reservations suggested, especially on weekends; also available also at opentable.com. Miami Spice $36 dinner menu still available. AX, DN, MC, VS.
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Whole yellowtail snapper with red quinoa, capers and saffron tea(cq) is one of the offerings at Chef Allen's, 19088 NE 29th Ave., Aventura. Chef and owner Allen Susser has a new menu and a new look for his restaurant. Photo: Marsha Halper.