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Restaurant Reviews

Rack's in Mizner Park: Comfort Food in a $4 Million Setting

To see more photos from Rack's, click here.

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.

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John Linn

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