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"Without the freedom to criticize, there is no worthy praise." Beaumarchais
From its hidden entrance to its no-mystery menu, the restaurant has no airs to presage the quality of the food to come: from the pure, unadulterated taste of great grilled meat and the sweet Maine lobster freshly plucked from a tank to hefty sides and luscious desserts
By Simone Zarmati Diament
When I walked into Tara Steak & Lobster House, the first thing that came to mind was to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: "A steakhouse is a steakhouse is a steakhouse……" Add to this succulent Maine lobster, and that is exactly what its' all about.
Housed off the lobby of the Sonesta Hotel in Coconut Grove, around the corner from Dinner Key Marina, there is no access from the street, except by means of an elevator, or from the lobby of the hotel. So, while it may be the least likely spot for a restaurant in one of the few pedestrian neighborhoods in Miami, Tara Steak & Lobster House has positioned itself as what it is, without much fanfare.
Consistent with the restaurant's name, the décor unequivocally evokes that of… a steak house. The ambiance is not so much that of a men's club as steakhouses usually are; it is relaxed, comfortable, low-key to the point of being austere. Sturdy, old fashioned furnishings, a bar, black walls, dark oak floors, low lighting, some good artwork and wine racks on the walls set the tone.
It has no airs and nothing presages the quality of the food to come. The staff is as low-key as it is affable and proud of the menu, and their knowledge reflects real care, starting with their recommendation of cocktails from the bar or suggestions on a choice of wine. The wine list, which offers Tara house wines from Rutherford Ranch in Napa Valley California, by the glass or by the bottle, has a good selection of wines that pair well with seafood and meats.
Few appetizers but so fresh and tasty
While the freshly-baked bread rolls are small, starting with the appetizers portions are so abundant that they may as well be shared. The crab cake, a real stand-out, is the best I've had in a long time. It is not easy to make a delicious crab cake, yet it is so easy: the sweet shredded jumbo back fin crab is barely mixed with finely-diced red pepper, celery, onion and spices, lightly breaded and is fried to a golden before it is set over a bed of lettuce with a side of creamy mustard sauce.
The next choices on the menu were either jumbo shrimp cocktail or jumbo stone crab claws ($8 a piece), and of course we chose the seasonal crab claws, fresh, sweet fleshed and meaty. The quintessential South Florida treat came with the same mustard sauce as the crab cake. Although the crab claws were cracked and required little handling, waiters came with hot wet towels and lemon halves which they squeezed in our hands. A nice touch.
While the choice of salads is limited, ingredients are so fresh and tasty that even the much maligned iceberg lettuce, as prepared at Tara's, can aspire at making a comeback on fine dining menus. A wedge of crisp, fresh lettuce is covered in a tasty creamy blue cheese dressing with blue cheese crumbles and plenty of deliciously smoky bacon crisps. The sliced tomato and onion though was not as successful, mostly because it was smothered in Shabang sauce, which is also bottled and sold at the restaurant.
And while the menu offers a good collection of chops ($32 to $20 for lamb, Pork rib, Porterhouse of veal and chicken breast butterflied paillard-style, broiled and finished in a rosemary and white wine reduction) and seafood like thick slabs of Chilean sea bass in shallot white wine sauce, and North Atlantic salmon with mustard sauce and lump crab ($20), the reason one goes to Tara Steak & Lobster House is for steak and lobster.
The unadulterated taste of great grilled meat: as good as it gets
All meats come from Nebraska and the Mid-West and are dry-aged for three weeks, and all meats, except for lamb chops are de-boned and perfectly cooked to order: first under a 1000° broiler, then sliced, trimmed from fat, set on a platter, sizzled under a 1200° broiler to specified order and drizzled with butter (The Peter Luger method).
Meat connoisseurs don't usually like their meat pre-sliced, and first comers are asked if they prefer an uncut steak. The New York Strip that came in the Surf and Turf combo (you also can order it with filet mignon) was caramelized to a char yet tender and flavorful with the pure, unadulterated taste of good dry-aged, grilled meat. As good as it gets.
On both visits, three of us feasted to satiation on the Surf & Turf combo and both the meat and the Maine lobster were fabulous -- on one occasion it was stuffed with jumbo lump crab meat. Picked from tanks in the dining room and in the kitchen, the Maine lobsters can't possibly come fresher. Our 2 lb. steamed lobster ($78) was perfectly tender, moist and sweet, and served with clarified butter.
Generous cuts of New York Strip ($32), filet mignon ($34), T-Bone for four ($128) and Porterhouse for two or three ($64 - $96) can be shared, as can the hefty servings of accompaniments.
Luring vegetarians to a steakhouse might seem ludicrous, but they can actually dine on salads and accompaniments ($4 - $ 9) which are all good: the delicious Steakhouse potato platter is diced spuds sautéed in a pan and finished with paprika and spices under the broiler; and the garlic mashed potatoes are whipped to yummy consistence with garlic and spices to the point of being addictive. The spinach here is worth trying: with a touch of garlic and tasting of freshly sautéed spinach, it's earned its title of "damned good spinach." So are the sautéed button mushrooms cooked with white wine and broth, and the luscious onion rings.
Leave room for luscious desserts
Coffee is remarkably good at Tara but don't leave without dessert.
The menu lists the usual steak house suspects and portions are as hefty as everything else on the menu, and as good, and they must be shared: the Carnegie Deli Cheesecake actually comes from the famous New York Deli, as is a great here as it is in New York. Even the homemade whipped cream is unexpectedly tasty! So is the crème brûlée, a well-made creamy custard under a crackling layer of caramelized sugar.
There is the inevitable Florida Key lime pie, an original Martini Espresso dessert, three-layer chocolate mousse cake, pear crostata and a "Steak Cake," a rich chocolate fudge affair with chocolate icing and a white chocolate T drawing mimicking a T-Bone steak.
The recently opened Tara is unassuming, from its hidden entrance to its no-mystery menu, yet, when you walk out and take a well-needed stroll at the nearby Dinner Key Marina, you are glad that you're in on one of the good no-nonsense steakhouses in Miami.