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Photography by Michael Pisarri

People Pleaser

by Jen Karetnick | Miami magazine | October 21, 2011

I’ve never been a fan of the expression “Those who can’t do, teach.” For one thing, it denigrates educators, many of whom enter the profession for altruistic reasons despite its current deplorable state and sad pay scale. The phrase also assumes teachers are, first and foremost, failures at something more glamorous. Nothing is further from the truth.

General managers are the hospitality equivalent of teachers. They know the A through Z of restaurant operation (most times better than the owners), yet the dining public often treats them like has-been restaurateurs settling for a second-shot career. Let me be the first to school you: GMs need be thought of as an integral component of any restaurant, and not just for granting the occasional complimentary flourless chocolate cake to compensate for a botched reservation, but for being talents in their own right.

Such is the case with Steve Haas, who has worked as GM for some of the most exacting and demanding men in the business, including Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill Management) and Mark Soyka (Soyka), with whom he was also an operating partner. Not only did these guys rely on Haas’ back-of-the-house savvy and his front-of-the-house geniality—and so did patrons. In fact, Haas is so committed to superior customer service that he’s twice served as the board chair for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, and was one of the originators of Miami Spice. This guy knows the system and works it well. So when he finally decided to leave his GM days behind this past summer (after having bestowed his knowledge on others for decades), the only logical choice was to open his own place, City Hall.

One of Haas’ first triumphs at this crossover brasserie is the venue’s design. Once a Vespa dealership with the type of overhead fluorescent lighting that makes everything look green, the restaurant now features an 80-foot light-box mural by Andrew Reid, the same artist responsible for the signature FDR-related features at the long-gone (but still-mourned) WPA in South Beach. There are also metallic elements just about everywhere: on the hammered tin ceiling and in the form of Art Deco motifs on the staircase and railings leading to the second floor. The Deco vibe works to the restaurant’s advantage, and so does its dynamic layout.

Conversations at the eatery, which can take place at high-bar tables set for four or ensconced in cozier, diner-style booths, seem to revolve around sex or politics—or, as it befits Miami, a delicious mix of both. The atmosphere, with an esquire-ish edge accented by martinis served in their shakers and menu section titles that nod to the name of the restaurant (starters are referred to as “Opening Statements” while main courses are labeled “Primary Decisions”), is conducive to these kinds of dialogues. Yet the fare, overseen by Executive Chef Tom Azar (formerly of various Emeril’s restaurants) leans more towards the comfort variety—by the people, for the people if you will. There’s a wedge salad that’s actually half a head of an iceberg bedazzled with thick-cut bacon, ribald blue cheese and an intensely sweet-tart balsamic syrup; the hand-formed, house-blend burger is topped with brie, caramelized onion and applewood bacon and moistened with herbed mayo; and a garlic-herb-scented roast chicken with savory shallot sauce that’s so reliably juicy, I’ve dined on it multiple times.

Very little of the City Hall menu actually reflects Azar’s former zest-filled experiences. Seafood and andouille gumbo is the only real New Orleans item here. In addition to its pleasingly robust stock, it also offered up some shellfish, such as baby shrimp, on the one particular evening I visited. A chopped salad with blue lump crab meat, carrot, avocado, egg and tomatoes goes a little further west with the addition of white cheddar, tortillas and an intensely spicy (almost uncomfortably so) buttermilk dressing. A quartet of Maine sea scallops is skillfully prepared, but the jalapeño emulsion of corn-black bean salsa, applewood bacon and fried plantains under it merely results in fusion confusion, detracting from the supple sweetness of the seafood.

Azar is at his best when he keeps his plates to a regional theme. His North Atlantic salmon, embedded with sesame seeds like rhinestones, is a succulent, miso-glazed treat, ably supported by jasmine rice, sautéed baby bok choy and a smattering of toasted cashews. Likewise, his individual mini-loaf pans of meatloaf, crisp on the edges and tender in the middle, are delightful when accented by the addictive maple-chorizo mac-and-cheese, baby French green beans and fried onions.

As for Haas, his eye for kitchen talent extends to Pastry Chef Gail Pretzfelder, who designed the homey berry crumble tarts and apple-embedded cheesecake that Azar is responsible for putting out nightly. Haas met Pretzfelder while at China Grill Management. In fact, many of his servers are former employees, following him from Soyka or Tuscan Steak the way a college pupil follows a favorite teacher from course to course.

Customers, too, like to follow Haas, and the result is a restaurant that’s a microcosm of our city: gay, straight, Latin, Anglo, Haitian, conservative, liberal, native and tourist alike all break bread here. Diners range from clergy from nearby houses of worship to, yes, local area teachers celebrating happy hour and sharing pizza topped with duck confit and truffle béchamel. But instead of focusing on their differences, they concentrate on the “unconventional onion soup,” in which the onions are encased in dumplings. The only time politics enters the picture at City Hall is when electing what—and how much—to eat.

City Hall
2004 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Soups and salads, $8-$16; appetizers, $10-$15; main courses, $18-$33; side dishes, $7-$8; desserts, $10-$12

Where do I park?
Valet attendants on 20th Street will park your car in a lot about two feet away. If you keep driving for about 10 yards, you will find a free lot for restaurant patrons.

What should I wear?
The dress code is varied (you’ll see as many power suits as you will jeans-and-shirt ensembles), but do bring a sweater, as the air-conditioning can be intense.

How’s the bar scene?
Rocking. On certain nights, there isn’t a seat to be had.

Can I book a private party?
Yes, you can. A private room downstairs holds up to 40, while the upstairs area seats twice as many.