Sweet and hot. Might those words conjure up the name of a, um, "gentleman's club" to you? (See, I know how your smutty mind works). Actually, the adjectives accurately describe the cuisine at the new and bigger branch of the Banana Bean Cafe. And now for the ironclad irony: the two-month-old restaurant on Greenlawn Avenue occupies the space of - ding ding ding, you guessed it! - a former strip club.
So what happened to all the poles? This I pondered as I peered around Banana Bean, because the cafe had clearly eradicated any trace of its previous existence. Now the welcoming and comfy bi-level two-roomer looks a bit like a well-off person's expensively finished den or basement. There's a stout stone fireplace, some vacationy tropical decorations and a simple polished wooden bar crowned with "weathered" beach-style slatted window shutters.
In other words, the only thing that's racy in here these days is what comes out on plates - and in glasses. I mean, how else to explain a place that puts bacon into a Bloody Mary? On top of that, the spicy drink has so many garnishes, it's like a cocktail/appetizer. Call it a gazpacho-tini.
Yet I love that smoky, chewy drink, and I'm also a fan of this Banana Bean. Because even though it lacks finesse and proportion (especially with protein sizes and its hot and sweet flourishes), in a dangerous age of playing it too safe, I will happily champion a nervy independent place that errs on the side of flaunting excessive character.
Bored with lettuce? Then peel off to the Banana for one of their salads ($8). There's one that's heavy and earthy with massive, warm hunks of roasted beets topped with crisp golden pea shoots; there's another with bulky roasted chunks of warm butternut squash, manchego cheese and crunchy, candied walnuts dressed with a sweet "tupelo honey vinaigrette" (interspersed with gummy-ish pumpkin seeds).
I also liked the thick and smoky Cuban Black Bean soup ($3 cup/$5 bowl), but I really liked the Wild Shrimp and Corn Chowder ($5/$7). The latter - which was pure comfort - had lots of potato cubes in a light-orange corn broth that received plenty of flavor from two shrimp. It was unusually garnished with soft housemade potato chips that soaked up the deliciously creamy (but not overly rich) hot liquid.
Flash-fried Plantains ($6) were a near plantation's worth of sweet, ripe, whole dark logs - not the expected chips. That bunch came with a jammy yet incendiary "Ya-Ya Sauce," and the result was hard to stop eating. Unfortunately, the Cornmeal-Crusted Buttermilk Fried Oysters ($8) weren't - but only because of their puny-sized serving. Deliciously juicy inside, the mollusks came with an arugula salad and a bitter limey "green goddess dressing."
Also undersized but delectable was the crackly fried Soft Shell Crab ($14). Delivered on a po'boy sandwich, it got overwhelmed by French bread and a mountain of shredded lettuce.
There certainly was no shortage of pork on either the recommended Little Havana Cubano ($10) or the wonderful Calle Ocho ($9), which added a wild caper and olive salad to its slab of house-roasted tenderloin. And the hulking Duval Street Veggie Monte Cristo ($9) - built on three pieces of French toast - was packed with roasted veggies and great flavors.
In fact, the only sandwich I wouldn't reorder was the Islamorada Fish Taco ($10), whose fine lime-scented grouper just didn't mesh with its overdone sweet, rich and spicy add-ons.
Grouper resurfaced in one of Banana Bean's dinnertime entrees - Slash and Burn Grouper ($18). In this guise, I loved it. And there was lots to love. A super-sized mountain of fish was given a white-pepper-heavy, jerk-type rub. With it came huge crab tater tots that were more interesting than good.
The Pan-Roasted Pork Chop ($16) was neatly wrapped in good ham but surprisingly (for this place) was slight on the seasoning and accompanied by waterlogged rapini. Much better was the excellent Shellfish and Grits ($22) - a big old bowl of homey hominy enriched with lobster-butter sauce and chunked up with tiny scallops, lobster claw meat, shrimp and spinach.
In the end, even if the Banana slips occasionally, it mostly hits its mark. And it's one unforgettable and personality-filled mark at that.