Tucked away in Coconut Grove's still-tony Grove Isle, Baleen can be a challenge to find and still hasn't overcome the mixed feelings of residents not yet sure they want the world beating a path to their well-locked door. It's worth the effort, though.
4 Grove Isle, Coconut Grove
Cost: very expensive
Credit cards: all major
Hours: lunch, dinner daily
Bar: full facilities
Sound level: moderate
Smoking: areas allowing and prohibiting
Children's facilities: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Even when restaurants at Grove Isle served ho-hum food (and there were several), it remained a destination for the excellent location on Biscayne Bay. The early '80s glory days of Grove Isle may be past, but Robin Haas has breathed new life into an often-troubled destination.
Haas, one of the original Mango Gang of innovative South Florida chefs, is more a guiding force at the restaurant than a day-to-day presence in the kitchen. There have been inevitable changes in the kitchen over the past few years, but the current regime has things fully in hand.
Eric Strong is in charge of implementing the restaurant's menu on a daily basis and he does a terrific job with a combination of longtime Haas classics and some new dishes.
The best example of that is a bite from one of Baleen's crunchy crab cakes, which are round and only slightly smaller than billiard balls. Crisp outside, melting within, they have a bright crabmeat flavor, no evidence of filler and an amazing affinity for the cooling avocado salad on the side ($16.95).
A small portion of seared tuna with wakame and mushrooms ($13.95) is another cooling starter, just the sort of lean and healthy item to offset guilt over ordering the rich lobster bisque studded with bits of claw meat ($8.50).
Baleen's plump steamed mussels with a tangy citrus-and-lemon grass broth ($9.95) are delightfully refreshing, as is a perfectly poised salad of arugula, pear and roquefort cheese ($8.95).
Haas signals diners with every dish that flavor doesn't always come at the price of weight and that delicacy carries its own strength.
Haas divides the menu into sections, focusing on seafood, available in either prepared dishes or simply roasted or grilled, and what he calls "landfood," meat dishes and one pasta option that is too easily overlooked. The large raviolo (when was the last time you saw it offered singly?) wraps up mushrooms, mozzarella and spinach and offers it in a basil-and-tomato broth ($17.95). For my taste, the roquefort-crusted filet mignon was a great cut of meat destroyed by an exaggerated glob of salty cheese ($28.95), but the large veal T-bone ($37.95) and the 18-ounce prime sirloin ($44.95) redeem the kitchen's carnivorous credentials.
Still, the meat dish I most often return to is a simple, chemical-free chicken roasted in the wood oven: simple pleasure augmented by goat cheese dumplings ($22.95) that is comfort food in fancy dress.
The wood oven that does so well with the chicken also gives a nice boost to the restaurant's fish selection, which on most nights includes grouper ($20.95), salmon ($19.95), large diver scallops ($24.95), Chilean sea bass ($23.95) and mahi-mahi ($19.95). Any of the fish dishes are also available grilled or sauteed at the same price, but the wood oven is too good to pass up.
One night, I had a whole snapper quickly deep-fried and offered in all its greaseless glory with Chinese herbs and vegetables ($29.95). It was moist, tender and perfectly balanced in its flavors. Strong also offers the Chilean sea bass in an elegant presentation with fresh herbs ($28.95), the flesh perfectly cooked and perfectly set off by a mound of leeks and fennel.
No discussion of Baleen is complete without a note about the restaurant's wine service. Under the management of Albert Omahen, perhaps the best sommelier in South Florida, the wine list is one of the best in the region. Collectibles float on and off the list, augmenting a solid foundation of excellent wines across a broad price range.
Good food, good wine, a terrific view -- on balance, Baleen is first-rate.
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