Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Route 9 - Coral Gables

It seems I've already had a good bit to say about Route 9 without actually giving my own opinion. After New Times came out with a mostly negative review (subsequently corrected for several factual errors), and the Miami Herald gave it a three star review the same day, some people asked which I thought was "right." To which I initially responded, "I actually can get where both are coming from. I contain multitudes." Upon which I expanded: "if you were to ask me right now, I'd tell you that it's neither as good as the Herald review makes it sound, nor as bad as the New Times review makes it sound."

It's actually somewhat remarkable - and perhaps a bit unfair - the degree of attention that's been directed at Route 9. This was not some highly heralded, loudly trumpeted celebrity chef opening. It's a small-scale place, run by a young, first-time restaurateur couple, that had been open less than two months when both reviews dropped. But the trope is that any publicity is good publicity, and that would seem to be true here: the place was busy and bustling this past weekend, when I went in once again to see what's been going on.[1]

The young, first-time restaurateur couple is Jeremy and Paola Goldberg, and the name "Route 9" comes from the location of their alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Though their prior work experience includes time spent at local restaurants including Timo, Johnny V and Escopazzo, they both look barely old enough to drink at their own restaurant. They took over a spot along the more northerly end of Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables that was previously occupied by the unheralded Mexican restaurant, Don Chile. With some paint and elbow grease they've turned it into a cozy, clean-lined place for which they've assembled a menu of mostly straightforward, comfort-food style dishes with some Latin and Mediterranean touches.

The selections lean more heavily toward starters and small plates than entrées, particularly if you include the "charcuterie and cheeses" section that leads off the menu. Here you will find, among other things, an item described as "Roasted Hebrew National Salami with Spicy Mustard." And it is pretty much exactly as described: a thick round of old-fashioned Hebrew National salami, scored deeply with a hedgehog pattern, given a bit of a sweet glaze, roasted till warmed through, and served with some spicy deli mustard. It is something of a nostalgic pleasure, bringing back fond memories of salami and eggs at Rascal House. But while technically accurate, it is also something of a stretch to call this "charcuterie" - and to charge $13 for it, for that matter.

A better value is the guacamole and chips, listed among the "sides" (all $6), which brings ramekins of both a creamy guacamole studded with diced tomato, and a pleasantly ruddy, thick salsa, with an almost pesto-like texture and an assertive but not overwhelming dose of spicy heat. Freshly fried, crisp and ungreasy tortilla chips are provided for scooping (and they're glad to bring more if you just ask). Even better still is the grilled feta salad, with hearty chunks of tomato, cucumber, and red onion, well-dressed in a pitch-perfect vinaigrette punctuated with oregano, all crowned with a big cube of nice feta cheese that's been seared on the grill and warmed through.

(continued ...)

Another fine way to start is with the poblano pepper stuffed with smoked mahi-mahi. The creamy, smoky fish dip plays well against the subtle heat of the poblano, and it comes with more of those tortilla chips for scooping.[2] And you can make an entrée out of the mussels, a generous bowl of small, plump Prince Edward Island mollusks, steamed open in a broth of white wine and tomato, and flecked throughout with bits of chorizo, a slab of crusty grilled bread riding sidecar for dipping. The mini-meatballs in marinara sauce were decent but unexceptional; the grilled baby squid, served over a stew of lentils and roasted peppers, offered a nice combination of earth and sea flavors, but the squid were a touch bouncy.

Among the entrées, the standout for me was a perfectly grilled pork chop from Palmetto Creek Farms in Avon Park in Central Florida. It had a beautiful burnished exterior, the fat crisped on the edges, the meat still juicy. An apple "chutney" on top could have used some more spice to merit the name, but this really needed nothing more. Everybody's got to have a burger these days, and Route 9's comes topped with bacon, balsamic-marinated mushrooms and sharp provolone cheese. It was a fine burger with good toppings (some might object to the tang of the balsamic in the mushrooms, though not me), which would have done better with a slightly smaller bun more in proportion to the patty.

Fish tacos, with cubes of sautéed cobia graced with some of that salsa and guacamole as well as a scallion sour cream, were not very much like any "traditional" fish tacos I've had, yet still a decent combination of flavors; but the fish is sort of unappealingly wet and drippy, and the tacos are a questionable value at $17 for 3, with no accompaniment (a lunch order came with 2 for $12).[3] A roasted bone-in chicken breast was a generous portion - actually both breasts, on the bone - but was lacking in character and flavor.

Vegetables, either as tag-alongs to the entrées or as side orders, could use improvement. Mashed potatoes which came with the pork chop had been overworked to the point of gumminess. The hand-cut french fries that accompanied the burger could have been crisper, though the pleasingly garlicky mayonnaise helped make up for it. Cauliflower gratin had good flavor but left behind a puddle of unincorporated cream; a mac-n-cheese which accompanied the roast chicken suffered the same fate (and was bland to boot).

Service, meanwhile, is already clicking on all cylinders, with Jeremy a welcoming and attentive host and the rest of the front of house (primarily Alan, a server who covers a lot of ground) following suit. The wine and beer lists are equally inviting: the selection of roughly 50 wines, diverse both as to geography and varietal, features as many bottles under $40 as over, generally at about a 2x retail markup (i.e., Mas Doix Salanques Priorat for $50), and the food-friendly beer list also focuses on small, craft producers (Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA, Belgian Saison Dupont).

Having now been to Route 9 three times over the first three months, my opinion is exactly as I said a couple weeks ago: it's neither as good as the Miami Herald review made it sound, nor as bad as the New Times review made it sound. You can choose to focus on the things it does well, or on the places where it comes up short, and either way I think you'd be missing the whole picture. It's a comfortable neighborhood place where you can get some simple, unfussy foods along with some good wines and beers. It's run by an earnest young couple who are taking their first shot at running a restaurant and are eager to please. Only three months in, the inexperience sometimes shows, but they're on the right track.

Route 9
1915 Ponce De Leon Boulevard
Coral Gables, FL

Route 9 on Urbanspoon

[1] I'd already been in for one dinner very early on as well as a lunch, and also had met Jeremy and Paola before they'd opened up shop.

[2]Though there's nothing wrong with this dish as is, I'm inclined to agree with Lee Klein that it could use one more component to round it out.

[3]For comparison purposes, the very fine Ensenada-style fish tacos from Jefe's Original will set you back $2.35 a piece. If comparing to a truck is unfair, then consider the 4-to-an-order "Estilo Baja" tacos from Mercadito at $14.50 with made-to-order tortillas.


  1. Nice post, Frod.

    We have been here 3 times, one for each meal (brunch, lunch, and dinner)

    Brunch was with the family. 9 of us. Everyone loved, including my 5 year old son and 80 year old mother. The hits were the croque madame and eggs benedict.

    Lunch was with a client. We both had burgers and were extremely satisfied with both flavor and portion size (agree that the bun ratio was a little off, but the server said that the bakery they get from is going to start making a little smaller). Our fries were crispy and great with the mayo on the side.

    Dinner was the only time we had a problem. We went with another couple on a Saturday night (I know not the best night to go out). Food was great, service was personable, knowledgeable, and hospitable as with the other two visits. The problem was the sound. The high ceilings an wood everywhere seem to be causing quite the acoustic problem. It was very hard to hear each other.

    So, if my biggest complaint (admittedly often a pain), is acoustic level on Saturday night, I think this couple is on to something great. We will do our best to support often and spread the word, as we want Route 9 to be in CG for a long time.

  2. Glad you enjoyed. It is a welcome relief to see independent neighborhood places in the Gables again after such an influx of chains the past few years (something I should have mentioned in my post).

    I would also agree with you about the sound. Between the high ceilings and hard surfaces, it is a very loud room when full (as it was when we were there over the weekend), to the point that we had trouble carrying on a conversation.

    That's a problem most restaurants are grateful to have, but eventually they may need to do something to address it. First, though, they need to get a sign up outside!

  3. I agree, Frodnesor. It is nice to see more independent neighborhood spots in the Gables again.

  4. After reading all of the hooplah (sp?) over the past month, we finally made it to Route 9 tonight.

    We had a great experience. The food was on point and the place is very cozy. Most importantly, the staff is such a welcome change to the Miami scene. They were friendly, knew much about the menu, and made us feel at home. It was not surprising how they act after meeting the owner, Jeremy. He was a great host, and it seems that he hired people who were an extension of himself.

    Thank you, Frodnesor, for continuing to write about this place. You are the main reason that we decided to go (and we are returning tomorrow for brunch)

  5. You should try this place again. Your review seems quite off a year later but still shows up on the front page of google. It is a disservice to a hard-working couple. Why would you even post this after 3 months of being open?

    1. Chris - It's not at all unusual to write about a place after it's been open 3 months. In fact, both of Miami's dead tree publications had already done reviews weeks before I did mine. There was a time that 3 months was the benchmark, but both the Miami Herald and New Times have been routinely publishing reviews within 10 weeks of openings lately or even earlier.

      It is a simple - sometimes unfortunate - fact that every review is a snapshot. Many places get better over time, many also get worse, but if I tried to go back and rewrite and update every review I've ever done I'd never have time to write new material.

      I've actually thought about ways to address this - I've seen one site that puts an arrow next to their list of reviews to show whether a place has improved, worsened or held steady since the review - but haven't actually implemented anything.

      I have been back to Route 9 since writing this and it has - as I suspected it would - improved. Jeremy & Paola are hardworking and dedicated and they've developed a nice and well-deserved following for Route 9 in the Gables.

  6. I just read over all of the stuff with New Times, Miami Herald, and your analysis of the "kerfuffle." You were pretty clear that it was against your opinion that a negative review should be written that soon into a new restaurant of first-time owners. So justifying your negative review based on that seems like a moot point. The fact is that the way you wrote about the restaurant would turn off most diners. While I appreciate your success and ability to get onto page 1 of google, in this case it has a negative impact on a restaurant (and owners) that we have found to be some of the most gracious in this city. We have been about 5 times, each with different people, have had 0 bad experiences, and given "kudos" by all of our dining companions. The food is of high quality and the service/hospitality is outstanding.

    The reason I got to this page is because one of the groups we brought out (who loved the place and have since brought friends of theirs) originally said we should go somewhere else based on your review.

    Further, as I have read through many of your other reviews, I am shocked that Route 9 is one of the only negative ones I have seen.

    1. I'd encourage you to reread the last paragraph if you think this is a "negative" review.

  7. I'd encourage you to reread the review, as a whole, if you think this is doing a service to these folks. I go back to my previous point of saying that friends did not want to give them a try because of you.

    1. If you think my purpose here is to do a "service" or "disservice" to restaurant owners then you're entirely off the mark. I give honest, hopefully reasonably well-informed, opinion. Period.