Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Red Light - Miami Upper East Side

[sorry, this restaurant has closed; but check out Chef Kris Wessel's new restaurant, Florida Cookery]

I first got a taste of Chef Kris Wessel's cooking nearly ten years ago, when he was the chef at a brief-lived restaurant on the western end of Española Way in South Beach called Liaison. Liaison lasted only a short time, doomed by a somewhat remote location made even worse by construction, but I still remember the New Orleans-influenced cooking, including some excellent N.O.-style BBQ shrimp and hearty grillades and grits. After Liaison folded, Wessel resurfaced as the chef at Elia, a Mediterranean restaurant in the cursed spot in the Bal Harbour Shops across from Carpaccio where a string of restaurants has come and gone (the latest to occupy the space, which has actually held it down now for a while, is La Goulue). Elia came and went too, and Kris Wessel seemed to disappear off the map.

Then about two years ago, strange signs of life began to emerge from a small restaurant space attached to what used to be the Gold Dust Motel on Biscayne Boulevard. The Gold Dust was, like much of Biscayne Boulevard at one time, a dodgy room-by-the-hour place frequented primarily by hookers and their clients, with a Chinese restaurant attached to it that Andrew Zimmern wouldn't eat at. The restaurant hung over the Little River, a small river feeding out to Biscayne Bay that at the time was dingy and polluted. It turned out that Wessel had taken an interest, and spent nearly a year cleaning up the River and the restaurant space. The River is now clean and is populated by birds, fish and the occasional manatee. And the motel, rechristened the Motel Blu (with rooms only for the whole night, thank you), now houses a restaurant built largely with Kris Wessel's own hands, Red Light.

Compared to what was here originally, the transformation is remarkable. The interior looks much like a 50's diner, with a counter bar with about a dozen stools around it, and about a half dozen booths along the windows. Downstairs is additional outdoor seating stretching right along the Little River, which you can gaze across and enjoy the view of the strip club next door (the neighborhood hasn't been completely cleaned up, and the restaurant's name is homage to what was, until recently, still the primary business activity on Biscayne Boulevard - yet in the span of just a couple years, Biscayne Boulevard is starting to become something of a Restaurant Row, though seedy elements undoubtedly still remain).

When Red Light opened in late March 2008, it turned out be one of the softest "soft openings" I've ever seen. For months, they were open only Thursday-Saturday, the menu had maybe a half-dozen or so items total (which would change up some from day to day), and the outdoor area by the River was still closed. The kitchen was often slow, the serving staff were well-meaning but inexperienced, but the food - and the prices - generally made up for it all. The BBQ shrimp I'd first had at Liaison were back, and were as good as ever, sometimes served head-on, and in a pungent sauce of shrimp-shell stock, worcestershire, butter, rosemary and lemon. The burger (with organic ground beef) was delicious, the fish was always fresh and local, and best of all, most items were available in 1/2 orders (generally under $10) and nothing on the menu was over $20.

Now a year old, Red Light seems to be really finding its rhythm. It's open 6 days a week (including late night) as well as lunch, the outdoor seating along the River is open and quite popular, and the menu, while still pretty short, usually features about 15 choices (most available as 1/2 or full portions) - and they're still almost all priced under $20. You can see Red Light's current menu here (though keep in mind that several items still change from day to day).

The BBQ shrimp are still as good as ever (though I've seen them head-on much less frequently). A more recent addition to the menu is a bowl of nice little Mediterranean mussels steamed with bay leaf and meyer lemon and served with very lightly crusted fried green tomatoes. We also recently had a nice app of pan-fried conch steak topped with a spicy green-chile relish. Kris's "hand rubbed, river smoked" ribs can be had in a 1/2 order (5 ribs) or full (10). When Red Light first opened these had a tendency to be tough, but either a change in method or using a better cut of meat seems to have remedied that problem. These are not gloppy with sweet sauce, but rather are mostly redolent with spice and smoke. A slaw of thinly julienned apple makes for an interesting, light pairing. Soups are often good, including a seafood gumbo studded with shrimp and blue crab, and a clam and corn chowder we had recently with an unexpectedly bright dose of lemon to enliven it. The skillet with fried eggs, morbier cheese, bacon, tomatoes and croutons is also very good, though I haven't seen it on the menu for a while.

The burger is still around and is possibly my second-favorite burger in Miami, behind only the burger at Kingdom. There are almost always a couple fresh, local fish to choose from (I've seen a number of interesting items, including strawberry grouper, hog snapper, tilefish), done with a variety of different sauces and vegetable pairings. But one of my favorite items is the quail, also available in 1/2 (one bird) or full (two birds) portions. The specific components of this dish tend to change with the seasons, but Chef Kris usually pairs the roasted bird (tender and meaty with just a tiny pleasant hint of gaminess) with some seasonal fruit, usually also a mushroom and bread salad or pudding, and a toss of fresh bitter greens. The first time I had this I described it as the "Holy shit that's good!" dish of the night - for those who've seen the movie Flirting With Disaster, think "Lonnie's special quail."* Since then I've had variations on the dish paired with a variety of different fruits - cherries, pears, plums, persimmon, local-grown mulberries (!) and the 1/2 order with one bird has got to be one of the greatest $10 dishes I've ever had. There are several side dishes available to supplement your meal, usually including whatever vegetables and greens are in season, and Little Miss F is always a big fan of the "sticky gooey mac & cheese."

Without making a big deal of it, it seems Wessel is quietly looking out for everyone's well-being. In addition to the strong focus on fresh, organic and local ingredients, Red Light's prep methods are generally pretty healthful as well. I don't even think there's a deep fryer in the kitchen.

The strong suit among the desserts is usually the ice cream or sorbet, all homemade and often some very interesting flavors (we had a dragonfruit sorbet once that was exceptional). Other options are usually pretty simple, like fresh fruit cobblers, rich chocolate cake, a nice chocolate pudding studded with rice krispies,a pecan tart.

When Red Light first opened, calling its wine list "carefully selected" would have been generous. There were maybe 3-4 options each for red and white, at most, though they weren't bad and were reasonably priced. Some more effort seems to have gone into that area of late, and there are now roughly 20 wines available, including some eminently drinkable items like Betts & Scholl Reisling and "Bitch" Grenache. If you're still underwhelmed, corkage is a very fair $10. The beer selection offers some nice items like Wolaver's Brown Ale and Rogue Dead Guy Ale (or, if you're a hipster who drinks crappy beer because you think it looks cool, you can get a can of Schlitz).

The kitchen can still sometimes be slow, and the service can still sometimes be flaky (I have learned my lesson not to bring big groups here), but the good food, the dedication to local ingredients, and the fair prices, all in a funky, relaxing setting, keep me coming back.

Red Light
7700 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Red Light on Urbanspoon

*"I'm sorry that I put windowpane in Mel's quail, and I'm sorry that you ate it."


  1. Going for friend's birthday based on this review, so thnx. Knew Kris from Liaison days as well. Good to know he's back!

  2. Just sampled his gumbo at the MiMo ART Boulevard Festival this past weekend. It's righteous! Prompts me to make a reservation for dinner next week!