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October 4, 2000
Chef Allen's, Aventura
Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel  by M.L. WARREN
It's hard to believe that the perennially youthful Allen Susser is about to celebrate the 15th anniversary of his eponymous restaurant. Since Chef Allen's opened in 1986, the group of young chefs known as the Mango Gang has had its ups and downs, but most of the times have been up. Susser has been the most stable of the lot, setting up shop in one location and maintaining a dogged devotion to it.

Aventura has not become the dining Mecca its early supporters hoped for. Most of the restaurants in the area focus on satisfying desires that extend from fast food to mid-level comfort food proffered by expansive outposts of national chains. Chef Allen's remains unique in its upscale aspirations and attainments.

Susser is a leading proponent of what he calls New World Cuisine, which he says (in cookbooks and in person) is "about balance, contrast, fresh foods and flexibility." While that may be a statement suitably vague and promissory for a campaign season, it is also easy to apply it to dishes he creates and the atmosphere in which he serves them.

The restaurant is softly lighted with large modern paintings on the walls and soft music in the air. There is a quiet dining area adjacent to a small bar at the front and a larger dining room opening off the large glass-walled kitchen. While some chefs focus on microscopic portions served at tables too small to set up a chessboard, Susser offers seating for nearly a hundred patrons at tables big enough to let a party of hungry feeders stretch out a bit.

I like that because it gives space to admire the elegant plating that is a hallmark of Susser's kitchen, and room for the large and elegant stemware accompanying the large wine list. An opening culinary salvo such as large, perfectly grilled scallops with arugula, mango, chilies and lime ($12.95) needs some space to be appreciated on its pristine white plate. Other plates have bright patterns and unusual shapes to show off other Susser trademarks such as a quintet of mushroom dishes ($26.95 for two) and Caribbean Antipasto ($24.95).

The mushroom taster is a must-try dish. On a single platter, Susser offers a moist and smoky portobello mushroom grilled with a variety of vegetables and splashed with balsamic vinaigrette; a flavorful mushroom, leek and truffle quiche; wild mushroom ragout in a pastry "chopstick"; shiitake with green onions and mashed potatoes and a timbale of oyster mushrooms. Whew! It takes longer to describe it than for a pair of ravenous diners to devour the dish and beg for more.

Susser's long affection for combining seafood with citrus and other tropical fruits is evident in the Caribbean Antipasto that includes citrus-seared tuna, amazingly tender conch ceviche with a hint of pineapple, calamari lightly spiced with jerk seasoning and some barbecued shrimp with orange and chipotle. Also good among the starters is the meaty lobster-and-crab cake with fruit chutney ($13.95) and the quintessential Susser soups such as a recent cold mango soup with crab, cumin and coriander ($12.95).

Like the soup, the rest of the menu reflects seasonal bounty providing variety alongside a more slowly changing roster of signature dishes. I can't imagine dinner at Chef Allen's without the moist roast duck, this time of year glazed with mango and served with mustard spaetzle and green mango chutney ($27.95). There is almost always a dazzling grilled veal chop ($35.95) and a thick tuna steak seared quickly on the grill to retain a rare center ($27.95). Susser is serving it these days with black rice from China, crunchy grains with a nutty flavor so good it is easy to see why the Chinese emperors kept it hidden away for centuries.

My favorite dish on a recent trip to Chef Allen's was a thick chunk of grouper crusted with chopped pistachios, roasted and served with an delectable fricassee of rock shrimp, mango and leeks ($23.95). It's the sort of dish that Susser handles well, pulling in so many influences one wonders if it will be too much, only to discover he knows perfectly well the boundary between complexity and excess and never strays over it. From foie gras-stuffed chicken ($23.95) to huge scallops cooked with herbs just past quivering and accented with roast shrimp and grilled radicchio, Susser always keeps a firm hand on that sense of balance that he says marks his cooking.

The food is the main event at Chef Allen's, but the crisp, professional service adds to the enjoyment, and one of the county's best wine lists (thankfully served in excellent stemware) further enhances the experience.

Oh, yes, there are also desserts. Prodigious desserts including perfect souffles, chocolate samplers and, best of all, a "kit-kat" confection of chocolate and hazelnut that will satisfy the most calorie-hungry diner.

Of all the Mango Gang chefs, their proteges and successors, Susser is perhaps the most gregarious. With the personality of a teddy bear come to life, he stages frequent forays into the dining rooms to be sure everyone is as happy dining as he is cooking. Carrying his culinary ambassadorship one step further, he now offers a weekly "Chef's Table" in which he will personally prepare a prix fix dinner ($100) complete with wine for 8-10 diners. The menu changes every week to reflect whims of the season and the senses. It's not the only way to meet Chef Allen, but it's a good one.

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