BRIO Tuscan Grille Facade

BRIO tuscan grille

What do you get when dining at a Tuscan-themed chain in a mall off the 75 freeway in Southern Florida? An Italian meal where you’d rather leave the cannoli, take the gun.

I avoid eating in malls only slightly less than I avoid eating road kill. I’m sure there are exceptions but the preponderance of “casual dining restaurants” found there are bland corporate chains with better slogans than food: Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood; Come hungry. Leave happy; When you’re here, you’re Family. So my expectations were set low when dining at BRIO tuscan grille whose slogan incidentally is: To eat well is to live well.

Unfortunately, here you will eat and live only slightly ‘weller‘ than an Olive Garden because like most corporate concept restaurants, BRIO executes its theme better than its food. It’s owned by a corporation called BRAVO | BRIO Restaurant Group publicly traded under the symbol BBRG. Typical of corporate restaurants, BRIO homogenizes the cuisine so it’s not too ethnic to offend any taste but not recognizable as what was originally made in the country of origin. Also par for the course, they have many locations throughout the U.S. in places with names like The Shops at such and such, so and so Mall or fill-in-the-blank Village. I stopped by this one in The Shops at Pembroke Gardens on my way to catch my flight out of Ft. Lauderdale airport.

I would guess they all follow a similar layout. This BRIO is a cavernous 8,400-square feet; filled with enough tables and booths for 260 and a faux-Tuscan-stone stamp on the walls, ceilings and the many hanging lights. It looks nice but has as much soul as The Cheesecake Factory.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, reading down the menu sounds like a Romper Room magic mirror roll call for meat.

Romper, Bomper, Stomper Boo; tell me, tell me, tell me do; magic mirror tell me without defeat is this menu full of meat? I see shrimp is having a special day. I see beef, calamari and I see chicken, chorizo and lobster. Going more omnivorous than vegetarian in a restaurant like this would be like heading to Sizzler for a nice steak. So as I weighed my few veggie options, my server Luis brought my bread and crispy flat bread.

The flat bread looked better than it tasted. The bread however was pretty good. It was warm and I’m a sucker for warm bread. The outside was crispy and the inside light with a hint of sourness but it lacked that made from scratch artisinal complexity that makes even carb counters fall off the wagon. The bread is served with a promising looking dip they called peperonata: tomato, onion, herbs and olive oil cooked together.

Unfortunately it leaked more oil than a BP rig with as much saltiness as the Dead Sea. If this had been a more traditional rustic peperonata with chunks of veggies and included red peppers, it would have been A LOT better. Switching to the other spreads wasn’t any better. The butter had that just-removed-from-the-chiller hardness and as little flavor as the cheap tasting olive oil.

I had higher hopes for the citrus garden salad I ordered. Fresh fettuccine tossed with spinach, peppers, carrots, scallions, basil, cilantro, dried cranberries, sliced almonds, lemon vinaigrette and topped with citrus glaze for $9.95.

Fresh cilantro and scallions made this salad spring to life. The raw red pepper added a sprightly crunch and veggie sweetness; the toasted almonds a nutty roasted dimension and there were just the right amount of dried cranberries so the salad didn’t take on that fruit cake quality you can get from the heavy handed use of dried fruit.

Fresher tasting salad dressing with little to no sweetener and better quality pasta served warm would have improved this salad. Also, at the end of my meal I was unpleasantly surprised to find a few small pieces of chicken at the bottom of my bowl. I would guess it  slipped in accidentally at the prep station. When I pointed it out to Luis and the manager, they offered me dessert and when I declined they comped my lunch.

I found BRIO’s customer service to be very good, their decor only good and their food a step down to ok. I would have enjoyed it much more if the roles were reversed with ok decor, good service and very good food. Instead, like fruit in the grocery store, everything at BRIO looks better than it tastes.

BRIO tuscan grille
14576 SW 5th Street
Pembroke Pines, FL 33027
(954) 431-1341
Locations throughout US

For more information on the author, please visit Brian von Dedenroth.

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Chardonnay and Miami Skyline

Area 31

When traveling for work, I’m in a new city every day of the week. Think George Clooney in Up in the Air without the sexual encounters. And after an exhausting day of planes, cabs and rent-a-car’s I appreciate it when the hotel restaurant is good enough to keep me on the property. Area 31 at the Epic Hotel in Miami Beach is one of those.
Located on the 16th floor of the Epic, you have the choice to dine indoors or alfresco; surrounded by Miami skyscrapers

and canals.

When the background music and conversation adds to a restaurant’s ambiance it enhances your dining experience. When it doesn’t, it’s as pleasant as listening to Steven Tyler sing the national anthem. Unfortunately, next to the dining space, Area 31 has a raucous outdoor bar where club music, loud conversations of Spanglish and smoking is de rigueur. Why does the smoke always drift toward the non-smokers?

The club vibe aside, the food from Executive Chef E. Michael Reidt is described as showcasing pristine, sustainable seafood from the restaurant’s namesake, fishing Area 31. I’m a sucker for culinary lagniappes. The meal starts with the worlds largest croutons which are a chewy way to provide a taste of of both white and raisin bread without risking cries of FOUL from the carb counting crowd. This crouton klatch is served with a dip of soffrito consisting of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, Provencal herbs and shallots.

I appreciate a chef who serves food which fits into the culinary culture of the restaurant, especially something I’ve never had like soffrito, but it suffered from too much tomato and not enough garlic, shallots and herbs.

At home I eat mostly vegetarian but when I’m on the road and especially in a place known for having great local and sustainable seafood, I have to try it. So I started with a small bite of wahoo crudo for $9. It is raw wahoo, garlic, olive oil, shallots and citrus powder – a mix of various citrus piths. The presentation was clean and fun with each glistening bite of wahoo skewered with a miniature bamboo harpoon.
The wahoo was meaty and substantial but did have a hint of fishiness. And like the tomato did to the soffrito, the citrus overwhelmed the wahoo adding an unwelcome bitterness. The same problem when you eat sushi doused in wasabi or siracha mayo and it’s all you can taste. This dish would be better if it were more ceviche-like topped with just citrus juice, no rind and a bit more shallot and garlic.

My next course was Florida corn soup for $11. Lump crab meat arrived in a bowl sprinkled with a dehydrated brown butter powder. Then Javier, my amiable server, poured a mixture of cream corn and rendered bacon over the top.

I don’t like bacon however I can’t call myself an OMNIVOROUS vegetarian if I’m not willing to try anything. And I’m glad I am because this is pork and seafood done right. Instead of an overwhelming salted pork flavor I’ve had in the past from dishes like prosciutto wrapped shrimp, in this dish it adds an extra dimension of richness and savoriness.

I chose a Flora Springs Napa Valley Chardonay ’09 to pair with my soup and entrée. It’s a mix of 50% French Oak aging and 50% stainless steel.

The creaminess of the corn matches well with wine’s roundness and buttery quality and the brininess of lump crab with the wines minerality. It’s a great pairing for this soup and a great setting to enjoy it.

For an entrée, I ordered yellow tail snapper with coconut rice, baby zucchini rounds, globe carrots, lump crab meat and a cilantro pesto for $27. Another great presentation, from the  bowl it was served in to table side pour of the cilantro pesto. But…

like the crudo, the snapper was a little fishy. As I experimented with different bites I discovered it was the skin that was adding the fishy funk and once removed it went away  but the fish was a still a little dry and chewy. This dish would be better with a richer and more substantial fish without the skin, replacing the lost crunch of the skin with some fried herbs, kicking up the flavor of the bland rice and adding rendered bacon. I’m kidding about the bacon…or am I?

For dessert I chose the Strawberry “Rock”. No. Not a wrestling doll combing the girlish innocence of the Strawberry Shortcake doll with Dwayne Johnson’s wrestling alter ego though that would be hilarious. If you smell what the Strawberry Rock is cooking? This strawberry rock is a dessert of macerated strawberries, tres leches cake and pistachio ice cream for $8

It was good but not great. The strawberry flavor comes nicely through but the strawberries could have been fresher. The dish has a nice variety of textures: hard, soft, crunchy, creamy but the strawberry rock tasted like cheap strawberry ice cream from Thriftys. The pistachio ice cream would be better with more creaminess such as in pistachio gelato. And pistachios roasted with sea salt would have added more interesting flavors than the candied pistachios. Overall, I’d give this dessert a pass.

I paired the dessert with a Kracher Auslese Burgenland Austria ’08 $15. It’s a viscous dessert wine with lots of orange flavor, orange rind, orange blossom and honey. It was a good wine and fantastic pairing with a dessert called Orange Rock. The strong orange flavor of the wine completely distracted from the strawberry flavor of the dessert. An orange liqueur like cointreau in the cake or an orange rind garnish might bring the dessert and wine better together but probably switching to a light berried dessert wine would be the best option.

Javier my server described Area 31 best when he said it’s, “food you can play with.” I appreciate that and even though some of the food you’d rather play with than eat, the knowledgeable and friendly service, the dedication to local and sustainable and it’s location are enough reasons to check out the Area.

Area 31
16th floor at EPIC Hotel
270 Biscayne Blvd. Way
Miami,FL 33131

For more information about the author, please visit Brian von Dedenroth.

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