Rack's in Mizner Park: Comfort Food in a $4 Million Setting
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What does $4 million look like?
It starts with wide double doors and a hostess stand that's actually a warped tree trunk beckoning you inward. Then it leads you down two-toned wood-grain floors past a row of classy banquettes accented by ornate reading lamps. On the left, by the open kitchen, a textured wall looks like rock climbers should be scaling it. Push farther and you'll find a broad dining room ensconced in chocolaty shades, rich red carpet, and faux alligator skin seating.
So what does $4 million taste like?
Quite simply: burgers, pizza, and macaroni and cheese. Also: meat loaf, barbecue ribs, seared tuna, and French onion soup.
The strange juxtaposition of populist food and elaborate décor can definitely cause a disconnect, especially in a restaurant that cost $4 million to open. Rack's Downtown Eatery and Tavern has been drawing buzz for its extreme price tag since it opened three months ago.
Is eating here worth the cost? Well, the restaurant's wide selection of mostly casual American comfort food is a touch on the predictable side. But it's also approachable and well-executed. Take into account the visuals — a striking mix of timeless themes and hip accents that would feel at home in New York or Los Angeles — and the end effect is extravagant without being hoity, classy yet downtempo. Plus, Rack's presents a few culinary surprises.
It's difficult to talk about Rack's without discussing that obscene price tag. But what's interesting — and almost, well, refreshing — is that owner Gary Rack didn't borrow a dime to build this, his third and most expensive restaurant. That's almost an odd move in today's scene, in which restaurateurs collect unpaid debt like baseball cards. Rack explains his decision confidently: "I'm the kind of guy that thinks if you're going to do a deal and can't come up with the check, then you shouldn't be in business."
The stance seems to fit his all-American persona perfectly. A self-made businessman with a long history in the steel business, Rack first got into the hospitality game in 2005 with Table 42 (née Coal Mine Pizza) in nearby Royal Palm Plaza. At the time, the newly retired Rack envisioned his pizzeria as a place to eat and drink with friends and enjoy the fruits of his well-documented labors. Truth is, a guy like Rack — a Cardinal Gibbons alum who built a steel empire from the ground up — doesn't retire. After Table 42 came Rack's Italian Kitchen in North Miami Beach; it earned rave reviews for its authentic pizza and simple Italian fare. By the time that second restaurant debuted in early 2009, Rack had already set to work on his gem in Mizner Park. The two-year journey culminated with the restaurant's launch this June.
To make it work, Rack assembled an all-star cast. Matthew Danaher helms the kitchen — having come to Rack's from David Manero restaurants, he's a guy who's well-acquainted with gussied-up comfort food. On the visual end, designer Karen Hanlon — responsible for trendy joints like YOLO, Coco Asian Bistro, and Carmine's Gourmet Bistro — worked with Rack on the extensive redesign. Like much of Hanlon's output, the restaurant sports a palate of rich, earthy tones accentuated by a series of extravagant focal points. Chief among those is a series of chandeliers made from thick white nautical rope, stretching from the front of the restaurant all the way to the rear. Although strange in theory, the undulating waves of bright rope liven the room more than any ordinary adornment ever could. The result looks unlike anything you've ever seen — I've heard people say it evokes everything from Lovecraftian mythology to a school of giant, white jellyfish. Regardless of how you feel about it, as a visual cue, it's damned effective.
Though the focus is on American food, Rack says he modeled his restaurant after a more European dining experience, one that compels diners to linger for a while over drinks and shared plates. The menu, broken into easy-to-read segments, encourages that by allowing you to order piecemeal. Meanwhile, the indoor/outdoor pass-through bar is a smart-looking hub lined with tandem benches built for two in place of ordinary barstools (perfect for couples, oddly uncomfortable for singles). A selection of edgy specialty drinks made with fresh fruit and exotic liquors is augmented by a small craft-beer selection and equally succinct American wine list. Both are a bit high-priced, however — a Sam Adams draft, for example, costs nearly $7, and by-the-glass wine options hover in the low to mid teens. Hey, somebody has to pay for the chandeliers.
If you do start with the drinks-and-appetizers route, there's definitely a lot to try. Bar bites like barbecue ribs ($11), Buffalo calamari ($11), and gourmet frittes with Bearnaise sauce ($7) share space with retro-themed snacks such as fried goat-cheese salad ($12) and deviled eggs ($5; shades of the Office, anyone?). More interesting options tend to be pricier and, in some cases, spottier. A series of four potato chips topped with cedar plank-roasted salmon and a dill-forward sauce ($11) would've been fine eating had the chips been crispier. Tuna tacos (three for $14) employed a similarly flaccid fried shell but fared better thanks to a generous portion of succulent raw tuna and plenty of textural contrast from a crisp green apple slaw on top. Rack's mac and cheese ($8) is some of the best you'll find: a crisp-crusted gratin of elbow noodles made indulgent thanks to seven kinds of cheese and a whiff of smoky bacon.
The stunning décor leads to visual surprises all over the restaurant. Toward the front end is a gorgeous raw bar where a white-toqued chef tends to mountains of ice dotted with pristine-looking shellfish. Poking out of the snowy peaks are shrimp the size of a baby's arm and whole lobster tails, the latter of which find their way into sandwiches and monstrous Cobb salads (each market price). For me, though, it was all about the Blue Point oysters I ordered during one visit. Rack's sells only cold-water oysters; these puppies were priced at a cool $30 a dozen and served with a grassy black pepper mignonette and a wedge of lemon (my preference). If I had the same kind of money as most of the patrons here, I'd clean out these fleshy oysters nightly. Even so, the raw bar station has some missed potential. On first blush, it looks like a sushi bar, with stools saddled up alongside. But I never saw anyone sitting there. A larger selection — some nice crudos, perhaps, using local snapper or even imported Japanese fish — would complete the theme nicely.
A nearby pizza station is set up the same way. Behind the countertop seating that circles the station is a wood-burning oven. Judging from Rack's pedigree in the pizza business, I expected these pies to be legit. But at $14 for a thin, smallish pie, they're rather expensive. You can improve them with snazzy-sounding toppings for a dollar more each (Framini salumi is actually pepperoni; Emil's sausage is standard Italian), but I still found that the crust never quite came out as crisp or crackly as I'd have liked.
We found that sticking to the main plates gave us the best bang for the buck at Rack's, especially considering the restaurant's skilled approach to seafood. Salmon grilled with white and green asparagus or seared off with sesame seeds (the way it was during one visit, $23) is both beautifully cooked and plated. Crab-crusted sea bass and peppercorn-rubbed tuna with olive tapanade climb near $30 a plate but are made with the same care and attention. Meatier fare such as a thick-cut filet mignon ($31) and Berkshire pork chop with roasted apples ($23) are appealing choices, but they lack the same lusty draw as the restaurant's take on a gourmet burger. At $14, the burger is placed dead center on the menu in bold ink. Its name, the "three napkin" burger, conjures images of lip-smacking, messy goodness. With grass-fed Harris Ranch beef, smooth cave-aged cheddar, and gobs of caramelized onions, it lives up to the name.
Burgers, pizza, ribs, and tacos — most all of it is executed well enough, yes, but what I really longed for at Rack's was a dish I can't find anywhere else. Then I tried the trout almondine.
Trout's not exactly a fish you'll find on South Florida menus too often. Nor is almondine, for that matter — a grandmotherly, old-school French preparation you'd sooner associate with banquet menus than an American eatery. I probably never would have given it a second glance had one waiter not so thoroughly sold us on it when I asked for his opinion. The tall, lanky server claimed, in his boyish Southern drawl, that despite his years serving the dish in his home of Louisiana, he'd never tasted a better version than the one produced at Rack's. Man, was he right on. The silky fish, butterflied and served tail on, had none of the "lake flavor" freshwater fish sometimes has. Served with a fresh succotash of al dente butter and lima beans, micro greens, and sweet corn cut right off the cob, the flavors of the pan-seared fish were so vibrant and clean, it had me jonesing for more.
Best of all, at $19 a plate, I could afford to do just that. Sure, it's going to take a heckuvalot of almondines to pay off that $4 million overhead. But toss in a few more dishes like that to complement the widely appealing American menu and Rack's has a fighting chance.
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