Some restaurants come and go. Fewer come and stay. And a rare group sticks around long enough to eventually develop maturity, confidence, and an intangible sense of permanence. Pilar Restaurant & Lounge is unusual in that it already exuded those attributes when it launched in Aventura's Promenade Shops in 2003.
From the beginning, the décor of this 82-seater possessed a timelessly classic feel. The muted earth tones, hardwood floors, soft lighting, and lacquered tabletops create the sort of simple yet suave setting equally suitable for the Mad Men era or on the Madison Avenue of today.
The ambiance is likewise difficult to date because of what it lacks: TV sets. Loud music. Reverberating acoustics. Arctic air-conditioning. This is a place for quietly and comfortably sharing food, drinks, and conversation. In other words, Pilar's dining room is ideal for dining.
The menu has changed over the years, but chef/owner Scott Fredel still uses the same bait to lure patrons: fresh, delicious meals at an exceptional value. Then again, why switch bearings when you've consistently netted enough diners to fill your restaurant nightly for nearly a decade?
Service remains a sea of smiling, welcoming, efficient workers. The narrative of the meal flows as smoothly as a Hemingway story (Pilar, after all, is named for Papa's fishing boat): menus, verbal recital of specials, water and beverages, a plate of sliced bread (ciabatta and raisin-walnut), butter — and then the food begins to arrive.
First up: rock shrimp spring rolls and yellowfin tuna two ways. The latter delivers a neat cylinder of sesame-slicked tartare and pepper-rimmed slices of fresh tuna tataki delectably dressed with cucumber relish, shiitake mushrooms, and shiitake vinaigrette. Weighty wonton chips are meant to serve as tuna-scoopers, but the thick texture and fried flavor can overwhelm the fish.
The papery, darkly fried wraps of rock shrimp spring rolls, however, provide just the right crispness and taste to counter the soy-sauce-accented shrimp mousseline. Other basic but appetizing options include shrimp cocktail, steamed mussels, and fried calamari.
Several salads exemplify the menu's modus operandi of appealing to a wide array of tastes. They include caesar; chopped; spinach with apple, feta, and roasted walnuts; an Asian toss with orange vinaigrette; and roasted beets with goat cheese.
A trio each of pasta and risotto are also well diversified, with chicken, clams, and rock shrimp anchoring the former and grilled short rib, grilled vegetables with truffle oil, and rock shrimp with goat cheese defining the rice dishes.
The rock shrimp rendition, ordered as a second course, was rushed to the table just after starters arrived — the only timing mishap of the night (you might call it the one that got away). Tender, nearly translucent nuggets of the little crustaceans come nestled in rice exuberant with wine, vegetable broth, goat cheese, and garlic. A skewer of three grilled medium-size shrimp rests on top, with a stack of Pecorino-Romano shavings atop that.
Fredel, a local who's made good, attended the Culinary Institute of America after graduating from Miami Beach Senior High. He went on to build a resumé that carried him from Chanterelle and Le Cirque in New York City to stints with star local chefs of the time: Norman Van Aken, Mark Militello, and Kerry Simon. Friedel's last gig prior to Pilar was at Rumi, during which he received the prestigious invitation as guest chef at the James Beard Foundation Dinner.
Fredel also is an avid angler who regularly participates in competitive fishing tournaments, and is undoubtedly one of America's only chefs who's also a United States Coast Guard-certified fishing captain.
Impeccable cred as chef and fisherman — those are pretty ideal talents for the owner of a seafood-centric restaurant. And if Fredel doesn't personally head out each morning to reel in the catch du jour, his knowledge of seafood surely helps ensure pristine product on the plate.
Fish dishes here are lifted rather than weighed down by accompanying garnishes. An assertively grilled square of local mahi-mahi ("just came in today," our waiter claimed) is billed as being drizzled with brown butter, but ours touted a tad of garlic oil instead. More important, it boasted a clean flavor of fresh fish and char. The mahi meshes well with a sprightly salad of fried plantains, fresh palm hearts, red pepper, avocado, and cilantro in a light vinaigrette.
Another worthy catch: moist fillets of sweet, mellow yellowtail snapper draped over a mound of buttery polenta with grilled asparagus and dabs of roasted red pepper dressing. Credit for the consistently spot-on execution is shared by owner Fredel, who is on premises each night, and his longtime chef de cuisine, Carl Skuza.
Pilar is thought of mainly as a seafood restaurant, but there are nearly as many meat entrées as fish. Thick disks of juicy duck breast, offered as a nightly special, please with a sweet balsamic reduction sauce and darkly caramelized Brussels sprouts.
Angus skirt steak, pork tenderloin steak, and Asian-marinated beef short ribs roll from the grill, as does an Angus burger capped with shaved onions and cheddar cheese (an excellent choice for lunch). A free-range chicken gets pan-roasted — presumably on the range.
Whether you choose land or sea, count on your entrée ticket costing under $20 — unless you order the $29 center-cut eight-ounce filet mignon, which is accompanied by a choice of any two of a dozen side dishes. They include sautéed bok choy, grilled asparagus, sweet potato mash, French fries, and polenta ($5 each à la carte).
Like everything else here, prices have remained steadfast. A shrimp spring roll on the 2003 menu was $6; nine years later, it's $8. Desserts were $6 to $8; they're still $6 to $8.
A wine list favoring California and Italy features bottles averaging $30 to $50. Some 20 wines poured by the glass cost on average $7 to $9.
Just about anything you order here feels like a steal, including desserts such as homemade chocolate chip banana cake (more chocolate flavor than banana) — two moist and generous hunks that can easily be shared. Warm walnut-apple pie paired with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream likewise satisfies. Key lime pie and ice cream are the alternate choices.
In an interview many years ago, Fredel charted his mission: "To show that a restaurant can be friendly and affordable without sacrificing creativity, style, and quality."
With his steady hand at the helm, Pilar has stayed that course.