Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Red Light Revisited - Miami Upper East Side

I tend not to retread old ground when writing about restaurants here. When there are so many new places opening up, old places I still haven't gotten around to mentioning, holes in the wall I haven't even discovered yet, it seems a bit goofy to talk about someplace that's already been written up - particularly a place like Red Light, where my initial comments here were already based upon a pretty extensive body of data.

But a restaurant is in many ways a sort of organic thing: it can change, it can grow, it can mature, it can get old. Sometimes it's for the better; other times for the worse. I'm immensely gratified that with Red Light, which is approaching its second anniversary, it seems that the changes are all to the good.

I didn't realize until I started writing this that my first visit to Red Light was almost exactly two years ago; and that my initial write-up here was almost exactly one year ago. Since then, Red Light has not lacked for attention, especially of late: a couple months ago, Frank Bruni sang the restaurant's praises in the New York Times,[1] and more recently, Chef Kris Wessel was selected as a semifinalist for a James Beard Award.[2]

What I so admire about Chef Wessel is that instead of just basking in the glory and resting on his laurels, he's clearly used the attention, and the traffic it's generated, as an opportunity to up his game.[3] The location on the Little River still has the same ramshackle, bohemian funk to it; but the cooking - which I've always enjoyed - seems to have become stronger and steadier. When we were in this past weekend, the ingredients were better quality, the preparations more refined and precise - even some of the plates were new.

(continued ...)

We started with the fish dip, a creamy, lemony version made from wahoo smoked out back in that little red smoker pictured above. It's served with crispy cassava chips for scooping, along with a mound of spiky, peppery arugula. Where salads have sometimes seemed like afterthoughts on prior visits, this was well-seasoned, well-dressed, and given an interesting additional layer of flavor and texture with some sunflower seeds speckled throughout. The conch chowder, a mostly smooth, thick version, was also just delicious, the kind that makes your eyes open a bit wider with its vivid seafood flavors and an unobtrusive but invigorating burst of spice on the finish.

This shrimp-stuffed mirliton (a vegetable in the gourd family which goes by a number of names, including chayote, christophene, alligator pear, or in Caribbean circles, cho-cho) could lead to some fights over whether the dish has Creole or Caribbean origins (the real answer is probably "both"). The mild, tender mirliton is stuffed with a mix of diced shrimp, bacon, bread crumbs, and a bit of cheese to help bind it, and baked till golden brown. Kris plates this with a richly flavored, buttery shrimp broth, along with a few beautifully fresh head-on shrimp. It's still not quite as good as his wonderful New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, but Frod Jr. ordered those, so I knew I'd be able to snag a couple.

Those head-on shrimp are a good sign: aside from the joy of sucking all the goodness out of those heads, it means Red Light is busy enough that they can stock such things (which are highly perishable) without fear of not using them up. It's just one example of what I'm talking about when I say that Kris is using the recent attention as an opportunity to improve rather than coast.

In my initial comments on Red Light I raved about the quail, so it seems redundant to do so again. And yet this dish, which is always a little bit different every time I order it, just keeps getting better. This time around, it was lacquered with a sticky, sweet-tart tamarind glaze, and served over a bed of a salad made from crusty toasted ends of bread, wilted arugula, smears of goat cheese, soft, fragrant pears, some mushrooms, more bits of bacon here and there. The ornate Asian plate it was served on (which has the look of an estate sale find) added to the charm. And yes, the addition of a few grilled cheeses to the menu (including the "bratty kid" with plain cheese on white bread) is a good one. The one with fontina and applewood bacon is nice, but if the version with foie gras and starfruit jam is available, don't pass it up.

Meanwhile, Red Light continues to be a place where you can still eat relatively cheap: there's still almost nothing on the menu over $20, and most items still come in somewhere much closer to $10 (that quail goes for $12; the BBQ shrimp go for $9 for a half order and $17 for a full order). Let's just hope Chef Wessel can keep pace with all the well-deserved extra attention.

Red Light
7700 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Red Light on Urbanspoon

[1]No doubt Chef Wessel is grateful for the praise, even if I think Bruni was almost completely ass-backwards on what kind of restaurant Red Light is. After ordering a grilled cheese with bacon, he describes it as a place that "traffics heavily in fatty and starchy fare" and concludes "If you’re looking for spa cuisine, don’t look to Red Light." It's a goofy and off-the-mark characterization of a place where usually nearly half the menu is devoted to seafood, where sides invariably include greens and steamed vegetables, and where I don't think there's even a fryer in the kitchen. Whatever.
[2]We learned yesterday he did not make the cut to become a finalist, along with fellow South Florida chefs Michael Schwartz and Zach Bell of Café Boulud. No shame in that, for sure.
[3]I wrote this paragraph before reading an interview Chef Wessel recently gave, where he evaluated his own kitchen's cooking these days as only a "C", and said he's working on bringing it to a B and an A level.


  1. Hi Frodesnor!

    I love your blog. I have emailed you to - I was looking for a way to contact you about the Fairchild Food & Garden Festival coming up in April. We'd love for you to join.

    Let me know where I can reach you best,

    Thank you,


  2. Annie - Thanks! I did pick up your email, we're Fairchild members and if we're in town, we'll be coming out to the Food & Garden Festival.