Monday, October 03, 2011

NeMesis, My Nemesis...

There is a trend in Miami dining, as everywhere else, to put the chef’s face on everything.  Like the chef?  Love the restaurant!  This works for the most part because chefs caught on some time ago that they could be more successful, i.e., make more money, by pretending they were more than just cooks, more than just a face behind a stove.  In fact, in case you weren’t aware of this, most chefs would have us believe that they are actually super-heroes saving the world from evil, and teaching our children about the good in all of us.  In other words, they have read the official restaurant PR manual backwards and forwards (or their PR people have, and then related the highlights), and understand that their true personalities may need to get subsumed in their desire to connect with their customers, and especially their customers’ wallets.  (Although of course there are also many chefs who believe their own PR and have their own costumes.)

This kind of thing works well for most creative types, like filmmakers or visual artists, who can be total assholes on the set or in their studios, but then clean up for the press junkets and gallery openings and make with the charm to boost the box office or the opening night sales.  Chefs have become a subset of the Hollywood/Chelsea elite, with their own TV deals, book deals, and consultancies, raking in the dough without ever having to cook a lick in a real kitchen.  Some seem to disdain the actual cooking, in fact, as a simple rite of passage that must be endured in order for one to get to the other, more fun, more lucrative ventures.  So if you plan on successfully engaging the public six nights a week in a very public way, there is a way to go about it, even if you have a not-ready-for-prime time attitude about your customers and your critics.  All you have to do is get a copy of the playbook and study it at home.

Unfortunately, Micah Edelstein has not done her homework.  The chef at downtown’s ‘NeMesis’, has come out of the kitchen to attack her detractors, and in so doing has stumbled, perhaps fatally, over her own clogs.  It is one thing to be upset when the food critic from the Miami New Times puts your restaurant name at the top of his ‘Worst Restaurant Names’ list.  It is quite another to fail to understand that Lee Klein is the least self-aware ‘critic’ you are ever going to read, and that when he tries to be funny, he usually comes across as mean-spirited and petulant.  That is because he has no sense of humor and is not funny-but hey, you can’t take another guy’s failings personally.  The name is your baby, and perhaps that name has been swirling around in your head for many years and has a very sentimental attachment.  So complain to your mom and move on.  No one cares about your name like you do and no one ever will.  Shrug it off, invite the guy to taste your food, and then sit back and bask in the good will you’ve created by being a better person.  But patience and tolerance for other people’s opinions doesn’t seem to be Ms. Edelstein’s strong suit.  So maybe she should stop reading Yelp?

As a bartender at a lovely dive on Biscayne Boulevard a couple of years ago, I took care of a lot of drunks and lowlifes, and occasionally a Yelper or two (I also ran the Yelp site).  Whenever a negative review appeared on Yelp, I would contact the poster privately, and offer to refund their money and buy them a beer (no one ever asked for a refund, but all took me up on the beer).  When a blurb would appear with incorrect information in one of the local publications, I would politely but firmly, and with my inimitable sense of humor (I actually have one), take issue with the incorrect information, asking that it be corrected, and move on.  Most people responded positively, and many became regular customers, good tippers, and friends.  But there were also legitimate complaints about the bar that needed to be addressed, and I was grateful that there was a forum where people could be honest about their concerns, and where management could respond privately.  I emphasize ‘privately’.  But who cares if the owner/chef is sullen or even outright nasty in her online diatribes?  It works for Anthony Bourdain, right?  Doesn’t her spewing get attention and maybe some name recognition that might make people decide to wander into NeMesis, see what all the fuss is about?   

And that’s where it all falls apart.  For NeMesis the restaurant is not about bravado at all.  In décor, and especially, in the menu, it is a timid affair, limp and bland, a weird amalgam of past culinary-trend highlights that never quite come together, created by a chef who does not seem to have either the temperament or the talent or  to pull it off.  The dishes I tried were all either bland, boring, barely recognizable, or baby-sized.  Perhaps that is the result of having a six-year-old run the front of your house, I’m not sure, but it may be time to put the grown-ups back in charge.  The adorable six-year-old, I might add, is the chef’s daughter, a delightful little girl who delivers plates and also tells you how her day is going.  This is very charming, of course, but I could see how this behavior could turn alarming and then make you start to wonder, “Why am I babysitting the chef’s child?  Will I get credit for this on my bill?”  I am not against children in restaurants, that is a necessary evil when you live in a society that breeds; but the social compact does not include me taking care of your children against my will.  Unless there is an emergency, and I don’t consider ‘I have to make potstickers’ an emergency.  Should someone call Protective Sevices?  Maybe when the kid starts valeting the cars? 

Or maybe she should be in the kitchen-perhaps she possesses a bolder hand than her mom?  For starters, the duck pot stickers were so bland I had to be reminded what we ordered.  I get more flavorful dumplings, at four for a dollar, on Eldridge St. in Chinatown.  What’s the point of using an upwardly-mobile item like duck if you can’t make it taste as good as the ‘lesser’ pork or chicken?  You can charge more for it, I guess.  The P4 dish was just a mess, couldn’t tell potato from the pancake from the other two ‘P’s’, and the chicken sausage in the dish was replaced with flavorless duck sausage.  The hearts of palm salad looked and tasted like it came straight from a catering table, and the grouper special was small and disappointing, very little flavor.  But at least there was no duck in either.

Seriously, the ‘90’s are over.  And you can’t have it both ways-either you are a small unpretentious establishment that serves serious food at reasonable prices in a warm neighborhood location, or you have giant celebrity photos gracing your walls and your grouper entrée costs $31.  And the pose of gracious chef cannot be maintained when the obviously uncomfortable chef makes a tableside appearance to mutter something unintelligible while you’re trying to have a quiet conversation with your companion after a long day.  Look, I don’t mind when Michel Richard stops by the table to tell you to “eat your vegetables!”  His French charm and bravado are legendary, and infectious.  But not everyone can bring off that kind of exuberance, and when it falls flat, it is not only unnecessarily intrusive, it is just sad.  So maybe stay in the kitchen, perfect your recipes, and let the six-year-old run the front of the house.  The service was excellent, so the kid must be doing something right.

1035 N. Miami Ave.
Miami, FL  33136