The trend toward restaurants that only offer pricey omakase and prix-fixe, counter-tasting menus in Miami and elsewhere isn’t slowing despite rising inflation and a looming recession. The more intricate the plating and the more intricate the drink pairings, the more we’re here for it, it seems.
Until we are no longer.
That’s what chef-owner Michael Bolen discovered when he opened the tasting-only Lion & the Rambler menu in Coral Gables in mid-June. Its ever-changing nine-course menu was priced at $120 — fairly affordable at $13 per plate — and wine/sake pairings were priced at $55. Dishes included trout roe with fresh cream and nori; boniato with orange and macadamia; and a New York strip with charred onion and watercress. For dessert, a throwback Twinkie was reinvented with sesame amazake.
But after only a week of operation, the feedback is mixed. On the one hand, he says, “It was phenomenal. People came here one night and came back the next day. They said it was the best they had since [Grant Achatz’s Chicago-based] Indentation.”
On the other hand, Bolen lives about a mile from the restaurant, so he’s pretty much integrated into the community. “I was talking to my neighbors, and they were talking a lot about gas prices, rent, even just a gallon of milk being crazy. They can’t come in on a Tuesday and spend two hours on a tasting menu.”
Another issue, he notes, was managing expectations. Because he had taken possession of the space which Chopped that the house of champion Giorgio Rapicavoli had occupied, diners expected something creative and unique. Bolen, who did most of his culinary training at Sel de la Terre and L’Espalier in Boston (both have since closed) and, more recently, at Mr A in San Diego, could certainly offer that.
But Eating House was a neighborhood restaurant. And Lion & the Rambler had that “special occasion” connotation. “People wanted us to be more accessible,” he says.
Plus, the restaurant is quirky and laid-back, with hand-painted murals of lions by a Canadian muralist Derkz, plates made by independent ceramists and French cutlery. Yet it’s also moody, with polished dark woods and ambient lighting. Plus, it has 42 table seats, unlike the 10 or 12 counters at many tasting dens.
To add salt to the wound, the hyperseasonal restaurant was supposed to open six months ago, when South Florida’s bounty was at its peak. Now is the season for tropical fruits, and it will be about a month before local farmers even think of sowing their first vegetable seeds. So the dishes he was testing at the time had to be reworked to fit what was available or he could import from elsewhere.
Of course, he notes, “food costs have been high.” And he faces the same labor issues as everyone else in the industry. “Our employees – everyone does their best,” he says. “We have found some amazing, great people among other chefs/restaurateurs who have recommended them to us. But we could always use more.”
It’s not easy to give up on a dream. But it only took Bolen seven days to realize he had a slight miss.
He’s also not one to give up, period. “I thought, how can I take what we do with the passion and the love that we have and boil it down to something simpler?” he asks.
The answer: In addition to an evening tasting menu now reduced to six courses, Bolen offers a la carte dishes that include tasting menu favorites in larger portions and new dishes so the restaurant can be what the neighborhood desires. Newly created dishes, launched last week, include spicy lamb chops, golden tile with white asparagus, foie gras torchon with oats and marinated peach, and crispy sweet potato with aioli and marinated red onion.
The from-scratch aesthetic remains, as does the complexity behind the dishes. For example, Bolen uses homemade ground flour for serving bread and makes its own koji (a Japanese fermentation starter). He also ferments his own kombucha, which guests can still sample, as well as weak, rare and imported spirits, including beer, sake and wine.
“Ultimately, this restaurant is not about me,” Bolen says. “It’s about the community and the people I work with. If that means I’m changing the concept to make people feel comfortable going into the space, then that’s fine. We’re going to stick with it. to ourselves, but let’s take it more in everyday vein.”
In reality, all the San Diego native did was be flexible and egoless – two character traits that are both rare and welcome in today’s hotel environment. All the more reason to stroll to Lion & The Rambler, despite gas prices.
Lion and the Rambler. 804 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 305-603-7612; lionandtherambler.com. Wednesday to Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Happy hour every day from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.