New York Eateries Hit the Beach
Branch restaurants open at the rehabbed Fontainebleau, with mixed results
Miami Beach, Fla.
Michele Oka married Fred Doner in 1966 in the swanky Gigi Room of the Fontainebleau Hotel. Daughter of a former mayor of this resort island, she wore a long white dress with nary a sequin on it. "I was a minimalist even then," she said at dinner last week. But now, Mrs. Oka Doner, an established minimalist artist with a big installation at the Miami airport, had put on a gold lamé jacket for a gaudy celebration of her past and the billion-dollar rehab of the premiere hotel from Miami Beach's midcentury heyday.
We met the Doners over dinner at Gotham Steak, the high-end restaurant that now purveys $68 seafood "towers" and $95 steaks in the same spot off the main lobby where the Gigi Room used to be. The Doners brought along another scion of another Miami Beach mayor: Mitchell "Micky" Wolfson Jr., a notable connoisseur of the decorative arts and founder and chief donor of the Wolfsonian-Florida International University museum, in the raffish Art Deco district of the island's South Beach. Mustachioed and resplendent in a florid shirt, Mr. Wolfson beamed at the Fontainebleau's neo-Modernist design and tied into a juicy veal chop with bone in, as ordered. "They've kept the whimsy and the elegance," he said. "Especially at night."
On our big night with the mayors' heirs, a full moon shone down on tranquil sand and the lights of Collins Avenue. The floor of the lobby bar shone blue (echoing the canonical mispronunciation of the hotel's name, Fountain-Blue). You'd hardly know that Metro Miami was a flashpoint for foreclosures in the current crisis if the Gotham Steak waiter hadn't offered you a discounted price of $75 for the 50-day-aged Niman Ranch steak and also suggested that the table might want to share the seafood tower.
Gotham Steak is one of three star-chef venues that have opened at the Fontainebleau since its renovation completed in November. It's a clone of Alfred Portale's Greenwich Village standby, Gotham Bar and Grill. Another clone is Scarpetta, a reduced copy of Scott Conant's remarkable neo-Italian place at the edge of Manhattan's Meatpacking District. A third clone, Alan Yau's long-rumored Florida remake of Hakkasan, his chic London neo-Chinese hit, opened here just two weeks ago. Since talk of a North American outpost for Mr. Yau in New York City had come to nothing, we figured we'd sample what the other establishments had to offer and give him a chance to get his seaside legs before tasting his food.
To prepare for our trip, we visited both Scarpetta and Gotham Bar and Grill in New York. These are both superlative and expensive restaurants. And they were both filling all their seats when we visited. We admired Mr. Conant's black maccheroni with sea urchin and other seafood and Mr. Portale's beautiful steaks and other fine comestibles. How, we wondered, would this intricate "signature" food transfer to a gaudy, big resort full of family groups?
In our view, Mr. Portale made the leap with aplomb. Mr. Conant fell, if not flat, then definitely pratwise. We started at Scarpetta Miami with a fritto misto, a mixed fry of seafood that was totally routine, just battered strips of indistinguishable fruits of the sea. His black tagliolini wasn't al dente but undercooked, and there was virtually no sea urchin in a dish explicitly billed as coming with mixed seafood, sea urchin and bread crumbs.
The waiter told us the roast chicken had been cooked "slow, slow," but it came out dull, dull and not outstandingly moist or flavorful. For $27, one might expect something better. Certainly for $42, or even a lower price, no one deserves a veal chop so fatty and rare you wished you'd stayed in your very nice oceanfront room and ordered a burger from room service. ("Oceanfront" is a key word for prospective guests at the Fontainebleau. The similarly labeled "ocean view" room I got was a curved sliver that didn't offer "sweeping views of the Atlantic" except from its outside terrace. When I complained, the hotel promptly moved me to an oceanfront room.)
How can it be that one fine cook botches a veal chop, while another, operating in the same hotel complex, turns out beautifully grilled, deeply flavorful steak? We'd be glad to chalk this up to an anomalous misstep, but then there were Scarpetta's other mediocre dishes, the underdone, undergarnished tagliolini, the blah chicken. So we're inclined to think something has gone sour between Mr. Conant and his Florida satrapy. Another sign, perhaps, is his menu's lack of emphasis on local ingredients.
Mr. Portale, on the other hand, has taken the trouble to procure some remarkable Florida heirloom tomatoes from Homestead to the south, for a juicy and refreshingly acid salad with watermelon, feta, red onion, basil and white balsamic vinaigrette. And he serves a Florida grouper, carefully grilled and garnished with quinoa, green beans, picholine olives, Speck ham and cherry tomatoes. So Mr. Portale wins this seaside smackdown.
Another winner in the hotel is the little bakery called Solo. It offers the bleary-eyed a kind of Starbucks experience -- latte is spoken here -- and house-made pastries. It also doubles as a source of extraordinary cakes bordering on the surreal, such as the chocolate and silver nested ovoid assemblage the size of a toddler.
So, on balance, our visit at the Fountainbleau was a dandy trip to the beach in a dramatic environment updated from the era when Frank Sinatra and Eleanor Roosevelt could find themselves sharing a table in the lap of semitropical luxe. Still, as the hotel's architect Morris Lapidus famously said, "Too much is never enough." One evening, we retrieved our rental car from valet parking and drove to dinner at Michy's, the culturally diverse Miamian bistro run by Michelle Bernstein in an unglamorous stretch of Biscayne Boulevard north of downtown Miami City and the Fontainebleau. Ms. Bernstein, who is herself of Jewish and Argentine heritage (and married to David Martinez), presides over the local food scene with a diverse and peppy menu that reflects the Miami outside its resort scene, with such dishes as a white gazpacho and a snapper garnished with mashed boniato, a white-fleshed Caribbean cousin of the sweet potato. This is a notable food world, worth visiting for itself.