It seems that I have fallen into a relationship of convenience with PL8. Part of it is because the restaurant is down the street from my house. And since it changed over from Himmarshee Bar & Grille to PL8 this past September, it has become a default go-to among friends and colleagues.
Let's be clear that I am attracted to PL8: the bar tables of muscular wood and sleek steel, the abstract silk screens and varied textures that nod to nature. That accent lighting is easy on the eyes too, especially in the adjacent room at Sidebar, with its name spelled out in orbs like a retro-sexy Lite Brite.
Compared to other restaurants on Himmarshee, PL8 has the most varied and stylish menu. The small plates allow the opportunity to eat healthier than anywhere on the street. Diners can sample from a casual menu that includes seafood, beef and birds, snacks and wedges, greens and cheese, sliders, skewers, and brick-oven pizza.
A reliable light bite is the $10 local rock shrimp bruschetta with fresh ricotta, roasted cherry tomatoes, and a touch of balsamic. You get greens that aren't laden with calories with the $8 arugula and roasted corn salad with smoked almonds, strawberries, and a creamy, sherry vinaigrette. In both dishes, chef Brandon Whitestone nods to local ingredients and tends to detail by adding complexity with roasted vegetables.
And then there are times I find I'm cheering the place on, even when things aren't quite right. Take the $9 Caprese salad, with a tight, half-moon of cold burrata, which too closely resembles its cheaper mozzarella cousin from the Publix cheese section. With strawberries and tomatoes and watercress and balsamic and basil pesto, it's a noisy dish that lacks unity.
On another plate, some of the best fried chicken in town is mucked up on a slider with a square of watermelon. Biting down leads to a water-balloon effect, juice saturating the batter and soaking the brioche bun. Why not a relish with a little heat and acid instead?
There are also couple of things at PL8 that are frankly off-putting. Why must the restaurant play üntz music, as if a flash mob is going to show up and start shaking that ass at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday? Why does someone have to wipe the tables after I sit down, despite that it's not a packed house? Why are we looking at dirty plates at an empty table for 20 minutes?
Part of this inconsistency is because PL8 is sorting out its identity. When Himmarshee Bar and Grille opened in 1997, Second Street was a sleepy stretch with little foot traffic. As the area gentrified, then-chef Chris Miracolo culled the reputation of the restaurant with simple dishes that earned raves. Then in 2004, Dave Nicholas bought Himmarshee, with the intention to eventually revamp the place into a chef-driven, small-plates spot that would resonate with locals during a struggling economy.
This past May, Nicholas translated plans into action with the hiring of Whitestone, former executive chef at Allen Susser's now-closed Chef Allen's in Aventura. The dining room scored a face-lift and name change in September.
Some nights, PL8 nails food and service. The server at our outside table made my friend laugh more than once with his deadpan humor, syncopated with attentive, polished service. The kitchen was on, with its $12 Brussels-sprout pizza with pancetta, a satiating share plate.
On another day, however, a lunch with four women from work served as a stressful introduction. "Everything is wet," said one diner, remarking on soggy bread and ingredients saturated with oil. The most perplexing dish on the table, the $5 brick-oven-baked egg in a ramekin, was still liquid. Runny yolk, sure. But egg whites? I was bold and dipped buttered toast into egg jus, but the broth was too weird. Why hadn't it set?
Despite some flaws, I'm rooting for PL8. I'm even a little embarrassed to bring up my dissatisfaction. Here we are, barely past the honeymoon period, and already I'm being a nagging bitch. God knows, someone less critical can put quibbles aside and love the place for what it is: a solid neighborhood restaurant that's catering to a schizo crowd of foodies and boozers, clubgoers and tourists, from 11 a.m. until last call.
Yet these concerns can't go unaddressed. Behind the "small plates concept" tag line and the text-message-inspired name, the restaurant has the potential to be soulful. Kudos for trying to please everyone. Perhaps if PL8 were more consistent in the details and delivered a less muddled narrative, my relationship with the place would transcend convenient attraction to a more substantive adoration.