Forget that the city has been renovating this area for years. Ignore that a recent explosion of upscale shops, galleries, jazz bars, and restaurants has drawn a curious Las Olas crowd south and a bored South Beach contingent north. Pay no attention to the popular monthly artwalk on Harrison Street, complete with live bands playing on the sidewalks. Any other evening, the doubters claim, those streets are empty. It's easy to be unimpressed.
Most of all, I guess, we should disregard the real diviners -- the business folk who detected enough potential to invest in Hollywood. And invest. And invest. Take partners Patrick Reilly and Dennis Doheny, the first owners of South Beach's ultrasuccessful Paragon nightclub. They don't just own the five-month-old Cafe Erte on Young Circle -- they own the entire block of Harrison Street on which the restaurant lies. They're currently renovating the old movie cinema adjacent to their restaurant, planning to turn it into what Doheny calls a "high-energy dance club." On the other side of the eatery, the two men are considering opening either a cigar and cognac bar or an upscale billiards room.
"There're always comparisons between us and South Beach or us and Las Olas," Doheny explained recently. "Who knows what's going to happen? But we've been watching the development and potential of this area for five years."
But sometimes, especially in the restaurant business, plans don't go as... planned. Not long after creating Cafe Erte's modern American menu that garnered rave reviews from other local newspapers, executive chef Anthony Sindaco left for a new job at the Floribbean Bistro in Boca Raton. (Sindaco certainly has had a peripatetic career here in South Florida -- I've reviewed three of his Miami restaurants in less than as many years.)
Reilly and Doheny replaced Sindaco with Jim Garrison, who worked as the executive chef at the Morrison House in Washington, D.C. The owners retained Sindaco's menu, however, and here's where I think they might have made a mistake. Many restaurateurs believe their repeat customers come back for the same dishes again and again, and in some cases that's true -- if the chef has stayed put. But bringing in another, highly trained chef to replicate someone else's recipes is like directing a stage actor to play a role the exact same way his predecessor did. The result is often a competent but lifeless performance, mimicry rather than interpretation. I say let Garrison have at it.
In truth, Cafe Erte hasn't been open long enough to develop much of a loyal following, so you'd think the owners would want to attract new customers, not just satisfy old ones. One way to accomplish that would be to enhance the list of appetizers. As they stand now, I thought the starters somewhat dressed up but dull: tuna tartare with mango vinaigrette and chili oil, house-cured ginger-and-wasabi gravad lax, beef carpaccio with artichokes and arugula, shrimp cocktail ($3.25 per "giant" shrimp), and beluga caviar with toast points and accouterments ($45.00).
Even though it seemed like another safe, seen-before choice, we decided to order one of the few hot openers, a roasted portobello mushroom cap overflowing with diced eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, and herb stuffing. The mushroom was juicy, the ratatouille-flavored stuffing slightly spicy, and an underlying bed of frisee fresh and green. Quality notwithstanding, my dining companion gave it a shrug.
He agreed with me that a cream of carrot soup, the only appetizer special that evening, was much more interesting. Dotted with sour cream and sprinkled with black caviar, the carrot puree was underscored by notes of celery and other vegetables, which added dimension and texture. The caviar was a nice touch, though I wished there had been more of it -- the brininess would have cut the soup's sugary aftertaste, its only flaw.
I've always admired Sindaco's facility with seafood as a main course, and hoped the new kitchen would come through on an entree of seared fillet of red snapper. Unfortunately the fish was overcooked and a little dry, though the preparation was lovely: Garnished with a tangy hearts-of-palm ceviche (marinated in lime juice), the snapper was layered over grilled potato "planks" and fresh spinach swirled with garlic. A butter sauce dotted with orange slices was drizzled on the plate but added little moisture to the fillet.