“Are they giving the food away?” asked a friend who waited more than an hour for a table at the impossibly popular Whisk Gourmet.
Well, not exactly. But the reasonable prices, smart service and simply delicious food at this not-very-well-kept South Miami secret have the neighborhood gem packed for lunch and dinner six days a week.
Whisk started out as a catering company cobbled together by the sister-and-brother team of Kristen and Brendan Connor. They still supply plenty of party trays, which is something of a miracle given the constant bustle at their living-room-size shop.
The white concrete-block walls, bare wooden tables and slow-swirling paddle fans are a good match for the no-frills menu and an ambience that is about as cozy (and noisy) as a train-station café.
Big appetites are required for food that tends toward Southern comfort with fried green tomato sandwiches and crumbly cornbread with scallion honey butter but also borrows from Latin America with pork masitas and a tender pulled-pork burrito. They take advantage of what is fresh and in season to create very satisfying meals.
The dry-rubbed, grilled skirt steak is a lovely thing to behold — and eat. The blackened beef is sliced and fanned over fresh baby greens to show off the juicy, red interior, and then surrounded by an onion compote, roasted fingerling potatoes and green beans.
Other classics include creamy shrimp and coarse-ground grits with a sharp Cheddar edge that never veers into greasy territory. The thumb-sized shrimp (choose four or eight) are snappy and tender, and smoky bits of bacon and feathery scallion slices lend a beautiful balance.
But it is the fried buttermilk chicken as bronze as the tennis moms who frequent this spot that tempts even the most health-conscious diners, especially with its smooth mashed potatoes and irresistible rosemary gravy.
There are, thankfully, plenty of hearty salads that are made with such care and precision even strict dieters would not feel deprived.
The well-stocked Charleston chicken salad with toasty walnuts, sweet raisins, red onions and chopped celery held together by a tangy Dijon mayo dressing transported me back to country club weekends around the pool.
Someone behind the bar, which is often packed three deep, has an expertise and passion for solid beers and unpretentious wines. Grapes range from reisling to grenache, while brews include obscure rice lager and large-format bottles from Belgium, Brooklyn and Boulder. Draught selections like Old Brown Dog Ale from New Hampshire and Hop Ottin’ IPA are unusual finds in this town, too.
It would be a shame to leave without at least a sliver of dessert. Pastry chef Josue Malave manages to pull off simple slices of guava cake with an old-fashioned sugar glaze as easily as espresso flan with a toffee crumble. Or purists might just fancy a chocolate chip cookie or a slice of buttermilk pie.
The no-reservations policy is understandable, but still a shame since it rules this out as a place to take grandma, the kids or others who don’t take well to lingering in the parking lot for a seat.
Still, as simple and indispensable as the kitchen tool for which it’s named, Whisk is one of those precious places you almost hate to rave about for fear that the waits will get even longer.