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Friday, August 27, 1999
Globe-trotting chef still reigns at home
The Miami Herald  by KENDALL HAMERSLY
Allen Susser, chef, is Allen Susser, conglomerate, these days -- a fusion cooking pioneer, cookbook author and globe-trotting foodie, a Wolfgang Puck on a smaller scale. Dial him up at www.chefallen.com.

The risk inherent in all this activity outside home base, Chef Allen's in Aventura, is that his devotion could be diluted, much as Puck's was as he thrust his tentacles into airport fast-food spots and Downtown Disney. But this is clearly not the case: Chef Allen's remains among the cream of South Florida dining, at or near the top of the list, managing to package A-1 quality ingredients in ever-interesting ways.

For this, you pay plenty. Chef Allen's is one of the region's most expensive meals, a place accessible for most only on special occasions, and worthy of it. You will be attended to briskly and professionally by dapper servers. The dining room is a pleasant, if Old Florida-dated place, with large, comfortable chairs and plenty of space. There is no faux-upscale attitude or dancing on tables -- Chef Allen's is about serious dining.

Daily changes
Susser's offerings change daily (updated on the website), including a desgustation menu and, in summer, tasting menus from various countries. The chef is on a mission right now to expose for all the world the glories of the mango: The Great Mango Book is due out in summer 2001, and in researching it, he has traveled to India, Thailand and elsewhere, exploring the fruit's thousands-year-old traditional uses in indigenous cuisines. "It's the fruit of the people," he will tell you, and it's clear he believes it.

South Floridians with mango trees are taking advantage of Susser's passion for the fruit: Bring in a wheelbarrowful from your yard and he will feed you for free (call first, and don't push the load through the front door; this is a nice place, remember).

When you do go through that door, you will be hit with the aroma of a crackling fire, as if you've entered November New England. It's Susser's wood-burning grill, found on a trip to Paris, and on it he prepares an appetizer called wood-roasted portobello ($10.75). Two mushroom caps are grilled to tenderness on the wood fire, then served with slow-roasted eggplant, roasted peppers and onions, seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil, cumin and ginger. Completing the plate is goat cheese from Laura Chenel, a Sonoma County, Calif., producer of highly touted cheese.

Susser's menus are geographically eclectic. There is a loose theme of fusion, sometimes even within dishes, but usually representing the Caribbean, the Far East, the American Southwest, Italy and France. Bahamian lobster and crab cakes ($13.95) start with the Caribbean -- a sofrito of tomato, onion, garlic, basil, white wine, green onion, crushed red pepper, ginger and thyme -- reduced and then mixed with Bahamas-caught lobster and lump crab meat, bound with a bit of bread crumbs and then pan-sauteed. The cakes rest in a French pool of beurre blanc sweetened slightly with vanilla bean, served with a bright and fragrant tropical chutney of mango, papaya, red onion and brown sugar. The cakes are meaty and soft, two to an order.

Too big for cowboys
Entrees are generally not in massive portion, but one -- tamarind chili BBQ cowboy steak ($34.95) -- was nearly unfinishable. It was an 18-ounce piece of prime rib, one of the first cuts off the bone, grilled and served with a beefy, rich red-wine reduction flavored with Anaheim chile and tamarind, a bit of fusion in every bite. The steak was relentlessly meaty, wonderfully juicy and tender. Served alongside were a dollop of mashed potatoes flavored with guajillo chile and a salsa of sweet corn off the cob, red onion, jalape–o, lime juice and olive oil. Not a spicy salsa -- Susser's food is rarely aggressively hot -- but a bright and interesting one.

Fish and seafood are always prominent here. This night, tuna ($27.95) was pan-seared and served on a busy but well-put-together plate with a purŽe of roast garlic and white bean, pan-sauteed spinach, tomato, capers, olive oil and plenty of fresh basil, a terrific contrast of sweet and salty, the beans giving heft. Tuna was served rare, with a beautiful red color and texture.

Yellowtail snapper ($25.95) was seasoned with ancho, chipotle and cayenne chiles, then pan-seared, served with variations on a theme of orange -- fritters of hand-grated sweet potato with diced onion, flat-leaf parsley, cinnamon and garlic, and calabaza cut into large wedges with honey, ginger, tangerine and orange juice and star anise, and baked into soft, luscious spears.

A trip to India
This night's tasting menu was from India, $52 for a four-course meal. To start, a pair of huge diver scallops were pan-seared in clarified butter, ginger, garlic and mild chile, served with cauliflower parboiled and then cooked in green curry flavored with turmeric, cumin, cardamom pods, fenugreek and the Indian spice astafadia. Diver scallops are a silver-dollar in diameter, and these were meaty and wonderful.

Next came a pair of luscious jumbo shrimp, marinated in lime and cumin and then yogurt, saffron and green mango, cooked in an extremely hot oven to simulate the Indian tandoori, seemingly one of the few devices Susser does not have. The hot-roasting makes for tender shrimp, and the flavor is fascinating. Completing the plate was a fresh tomato chutney with green chile, mustard oil and seeds and fresh curry leaves, a tart foil for the sweet shrimp.

Next up: a six-ounce tenderloin vindaloo, in a rich lamb-bone stock flavored with onion, cumin and garlic, star anise, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. It rested on a bed of basmati rice with cinnamon and clove, aromatic and nutty. Tucked in here and there were succulent slices of grilled eggplant, flavored with cumin, nutmeg and chile.

The Indian menu concluded with homemade mango ice cream, eggless with reduced milk, palm tree sugar (has a raw and rich kind of molasses taste), with fresh mango purŽe folded in. It was frozen in a mold into a pair of tiny pyramids, with a handful of pistachios tossed on top.

From the main menu, a favorite dessert is milk chocolate and hazelnut "Kit Kat" bars ($6.95) -- not the real thing, of course, milk chocolate cookies filled with hazelnut, served with red papaya sorbet with a bit of lime juice.


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