New American Nostalgic
It was Friday the 13th. What better night to plan a long drive out of town? I figured if I put some distance between myself and my usual haunts, I could foil the Gray Lady of Doom she'd be shuffling through South Palm raw bars, fingering the Blue Point oysters, and I'd be miles away in Jensen Beach, perusing Michael Perrin's New American menu at 11 Maple Street. Dining out on Friday the 13th is a safe bet, I figured, since chefs are going to take special care not to poison you. And all over South Florida, the ultrasuperstitious were staying home. Hence, more peanut butter pie for me.
That peanut butter pie has been on the menu at 11 Maple Street for 20 years, but I had yet to scarf a single mouthful of it. 11 Maple Street is a destination restaurant, the kind of place people are willing to take long drives to get to. Even if you're the kind of annoying know-it-all who thinks expending an hour's worth of gasoline for a single restaurant meal is, in this age of global warming, a bit beyond the pale, you're going to find your ethics relaxing as the traffic starts to thin out around Jupiter and the setting sun turns all that yet-to-be-townhoused scrub the color of gold dust and tangerines.
It's a beautiful drive, in short; there are fields of pine and causeways to cross, there are ocean views to glimpse, and when you get to Jensen Beach, you're going to find a jolly Main Street filled with bars and surf shops and the sound of a Caribbean band playing somewhere. The ladies in the arts and crafts galleries, housed in a colony of wooden cottages, will have switched on their string lights and thrown open their doors; their handmade wind chimes will make a pleasant racket in the breeze. 11 Maple is set just off the main drag; it's a 1905 Florida house built of Dade County pine that has been expanded over the years by the Perrin family chef Michael; his wife, Margie; and his mother, Anita. You pass under an arbor draped in flowers, climb a set of stairs to the front door, and enter a warren of cozy nooks: small rooms sometimes big enough for only one or two tables, mismatched chairs and built-in banquettes, more flowers and candlelight, and random salvage elements a turquoise French door or a multipaned shabby wooden window. The pine beams of the high roof are exposed; there's a loft tucked over the kitchen. Several years ago, the family added a romantic brick garden room with a wall of French doors and an open-air patio surrounded by tropical plants.
Charming, but not cloyingly so. Anita Perrin, who's responsible for most of the decorating, hasn't gone overboard with the chintz. The house is pretty enough and cool enough, with those slowly rotating ceiling fans, to make you wonder seriously how we ever thought building flat-roofed hovels out of concrete block in South Florida was such a great idea you look at that crazily pitched pine ceiling, the wide porches and open windows, and you want to weep with nostalgia.
Michael Perrin, a self-taught chef and former marine biologist, has said his culinary style was influenced by Alice Waters, whose Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, has been setting the standard for organic, locally grown, sustainable meats and produce for three decades. The Perrins keep a small garden at the restaurant, they source grass-fed beef and wild game and organic salmon, and they find the best locally caught seafood available. You pay, of course, for these fine ingredients all of the entrées on Friday the 13th, save the hanger steak, were more than $30, and a Black Angus prime tenderloin was $45.
Perrin's menu has many strengths, particularly in seafood. Appetizers include pan-seared spotted skate wing from Maine (a ray, popular with trendsetting restaurants like French Laundry and Trio), with Baja bay scallops; pan-fried Caicos conch; a single, huge sea scallop with black truffled butter; and Hawaiian kona kampachi, a sustainably farmed yellow tail, served as sashimi. We split a Pacific blue crab cake ($13.95), a gloriously generous serving of the sweetest, most delicate crab, held together it seemed with nothing but sea air, perched on a couple of disks of fried green tomato which tasted vaguely of fresh tobacco leaves (or maybe that's the wistful fantasy of an ex-smoker); licorice-y fennel shaved over it all, and a pool of buttery, carrot-orange essence sweet enough to sauce a dessert, but it worked. We polished off a plate of delicious, crumbly carrot biscotti with it.
One of the difficulties with Perrin's reliance on local and seasonal ingredients is that his menu tends to repeat its flavor profiles. We had some trouble choosing dishes that complemented one another without overlapping ingredients. Fennel, for instance, was everywhere with the crab cake and the escarole salad, with the pan-roasted black grouper. Saffron essence went into the organic salmon and the grouper. Roasted or oven-dried tomatoes duly made an appearance in many dishes. And there's a sense of strain in some of these concoctions, a grasping for effect that finally broke the back of one of our too-clever entrées: the oak-grilled organic salmon with a stew of Littleneck clams, broccoli rabe, leeks, saffron gnocchi, and tomato ($32). The salmon was absolutely divine as silky, as deeply colored, as full of flavor as you could want; it just melted on your tongue and tickled your palate with traces of oak and fire. With a centerpiece so lovely, everything else felt unnecessary, heavy-handed. The stainless-steel pot filled with clam stew and broccoli rabe and fairly mushy saffron gnocchi and tomato, despite the welter of ingredients, never rose above the bland. Why bother with a flavor as delicate as saffron if you're going to hide it so thoroughly? I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but here was too much food. It was a full orchestra breaking down into discord when what you yearned for was the sound of one clear note.
My pan-roasted local black grouper ($35) was certainly the cleanest-flavored example of that fish I've tasted since my teenaged summers in the Bahamas. Perrin had paired this beautiful fillet with gigantic, whole grilled prawns, salt-encrusted and lightly blackened; fried, sliced fennel; orange saffron essence; a couple of fresh whole green capers; and a tepee of fat, green spears of asparagus. He'd even included the prawn heads, and their shrimpy brains had dissolved into the most delicious mush imaginable. You could scoop them out and fork up a bite of the delicate grouper, a nibble of fennel, a smear of the orange sauce, and you were just so happy.
Also on the menu and looking worth a try: elk tenderloin with faro and butternut squash, whole baby barramundi with Thai green curry, and oak-grilled Muscovy duck breast with confit and winter root vegetables.
A word about the service. It almost ruined our meal. And it almost ruined it in a way that's very hard to explain. It wasn't that anything was slow or late or conspicuously botched. But our waiter made us feel like an inconvenience. He either didn't want to be there or didn't want us there maybe two ladies dining alone, with our single glass of wine and a split dessert, didn't feel worth the bother. Maybe his attitude was colored by an altercation at the next table, where we overheard him insisting that a customer had ordered something the customer thought he hadn't. I don't need effusive gestures, I don't want bowing and scraping, but you'd need a pick ax to cut through the ice on this guy. He was none-too-polished either: Reciting the specials, he wiped his nose with a finger, then inexplicably used that same hand to adjust the position of my bread plate. Yuck.
If only because 11 Maple is a hike for most of us, the service ought to rise to the homey elegance of the décor, to the level of care taken in the cooking (I've heard similar reports from other diners, so I don't think our experience was anomalous).
We consoled ourselves, nursing our hurt feelings with that peanut butter and chocolate pie ($8.95). It's hard to argue with a dessert that tastes exactly like stuffing your maw with two kinds of fudge simultaneously, that fudge studded with slivers of dark chocolate and topped with waves of whipped cream. It was so rich that we couldn't get down more than a bite or two. But with its retro whiffs of butter, brown sugar, and vanilla, it seemed exactly the right kind of sweet to be eating in these Old Florida rooms. The shine of "newness" may have worn off a bit, after 20 years, from Perrin's New American cuisine. But somehow that makes 11 Maple even that much more precious.
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