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Most people associate Tony Roma with the huge ribs-and-chicken chain that bears his neon name. Some might even link him to the popular Playboy Clubs he opened for Hugh Hefner during the Seventies' bunny bonanza. But few would trace him to the inception and subsequent failure of forgettable nightclubs and restaurants in cities as diverse as Montreal, New York, and Miami.
Marty Dubin, co-owner of Nantucket, might be one of those few.
A former partner of Roma's, Dubin tried twice to jumpstart Roma-instigated operations in Miami. The first attempt, Tony's Pelican Harbor, opened in late 1990 to tremendous hype, an enthusiastic crowd, and a favorable review from this paper (June 5, 1991). But it closed soon after with little attendant fanfare.
Dubin blames the decline on weather. The restaurant, a 79th Street Causeway waterfront playground complete with white sand beach, arcade games, a souvenir shop, and a miniature marina, relied on that famed Florida sky juice -- sunshine -- for success. When eleven out of twelve weekends in a row were taken instead by storm, Dubin "stopped counting"; the partners cut their losses along with their boating customers' spring lines.
Their humble bow to Mother Nature was only temporary, however. Later that year, Tony's Pelican Harbor re-emerged as Porto Bello, an Italian incarnation of the same restaurant. But like a (pizza) pie in the partners' faces, Porto Bello failed as well, as definitively if not as dramatically.
This second pratfall marked the end of the Roma-Dubin partnership, but it did little to mar Dubin's determination. His ambition to open a restaurant on what could be, with the right talent, a lucrative site was matched by the managing prowess of restarateur Tom Billante, a founding owner of South Beach's Mezzanotte. (Mezzanotte is still considered, albeit arguably, to be the finest Italian on the Beach. It's also the designated meeting-house for the high-society, model-minded crowd, a throne threatened lately by the tiresome threesome: I Tre Merle, 411, and the newest Manhattan transfer BANG).
Dubin and Billante, who knew each other socially but had never worked together, seem tentative yet optimistic about third strike Nantucket. As its name suggests, Nantucket (the real Nantucket is an island off the coast of Massachusetts) is styled after New England lobster houses, in this case upscale ones like Boston's Anthony's Pier 4 and Jimmy's Harborside. Boasting bay-window views, these places are ultimately attractive to tourists, but serve good seafood nonetheless. Nantucket, perched directly on the Intracoastal, appears destined for the same fate.
The restaurant is not unattractive to residents, though. In fact, Nantucket's mid-November premier went unheralded by anything but local word-of-mouth. Judging from the business attained on New Year's Eve (Dubin estimates more than five hundred dinners were served, which means every table turned at least once in this massive 250-seat affair), Nantucket already enjoys a solid reputation for Northern seafood favorites along with a host of South Florida fish dishes. For example, Block Island crabmeat stuffed flounder ($16.95) and grilled salmon topped with arugula, radicchio, endive, and chopped tomato ($17.95) clash fins with poor relatives like red snapper Francaise with mushrooms ($17.95), and black grouper with artichoke, mushrooms, and potato ($17.95).
This combination of seasonal (what the defenders of the North call cold weather) and tropical entrees is strange but necessary to preserve the balance of Nantucket's balmy location with expectations of its northern namesake. However much it detracts from the authenticity, the menu reflects the unlikely marriage of New England to the South. And the decor plays pastor.
Designed by Jan Jones (who also is responsible for Baci and Hong Kong Louie's in Mizner Park), Nantucket highlights gas-burning fireplaces and lighthouses (even the tabletop lanterns are lighthouses) which present themselves like remnants from the Pelican Harbor's souvenir shop. Worn pilings, rubbed into crags by a mythical tide, punctuate hardwood tables and an already-scarred wood floor, painted to resemble white pine. Though the atmosphere is meant to be cozy and convivial, the gargantuan room defies a truly intimate experience. Too, the tropical touches such as the thatched roof (which is supported by industrial-sized metal pipes) and a pastel fish sculpture speak of Caribbean influences not generally found on northern isles.
Two bodies of water actually coincide within the restaurant. A pond stocked with peaceful koi -- Japanese carp -- fronts a spitting-fish fountain and is lined with tables and multi-colored director's chairs. Patrons can dine pondside after visiting the holding tanks in the lobby, where less peacefully, live Maine lobsters climb the glass walls in a frantic and futile attempt to escape. At $13.95 per pound with a two-pound minimum ($3.00 more per pound for baked and stuffed), these shellfish are almost as pricey as koi. One wonders how carp would taste steamed and served with drawn butter.
Of course, I eventually surrendered to my cruel whim and ordered a steamed lobster, though I declined the privilege of designating my own.(It's like choosing from which cow you want your steak.) But the lobster was expertly done -- firm, buttery flesh, not tough. Even without the touted side dishes of fresh vegetable and potato -- which never appeared -- I could not be distracted from my task. Still, I had anticipated at least a garnish.
Lobster was one of the few menu items that I recognized from my first visit earlier that month. (I also remember a baked crabmeat stuffed shrimp for $17.95, dosed heavily with salt). At that time, the menu had been undergoing reconstruction; since then, the selection has been finalized. However, rather than order new menus, leaflets were simply pasted inside the originals. Keeping in mind the price of a lobster, I would have appreciated a classier approach.
In fact, it felt as if Nantucket had been opened in a hurry. A little menu experimentation usually occurs during the first few weeks in the life of a restaurant, but this was a major revamping; while the appetizers remained consistent, like the fried calamari with marinara sauce ($4.95) or the East Ham steamers ($5.95), most of the entrees had been reinvented. Also, three separate styles of chairs littered the floor like garage-sale hold-outs. Staff was overly polite, even while in the process of training.
Our waiter recommended the New England white bean and pasta with mussels soup ($3.95), a generous, stewy brine filled with capellini and large mussels. For a person of less appetite, this and the pumpernickel onion rolls could be a meal. And my partner spoke lovingly of his starter, the steamed mussels ($5.95) with white wine, garlic, and herbs. He dipped their plump bodies in hot broth, then in drawn butter without reservation, admitting however the littleneck clams he tasted on his first visit were a more tender choice.
One explanation for Nantucket's uneasy start could be overextension. Dubin and Billante have simultaneously opened a family-style Italian restaurant in Orlando called The Big Dish, an undertaking sure to rock anyone's boat.
Perhaps this is also the reason for the Italian influences on Nantucket's final menu. Tomato sauces, lemon, olive oil, and garlic are the dominant ingredients. For instance, my companion consumed scallops and calamari Nantucket ($15.95) in white wine and tomato sauce with green peas (though the peas were absent, or had been substituted with garlic). Flavorful and filling, this dish would have been well served over a pasta. Main courses are preceded by a mild Caesar salad; white and red clam sauces ($14.95) are available over linguini. Shrimp are tossed in an olive oil with fresh artichokes, mushrooms, and a touch of garlic ($19.95). The ghost of Porto Bello? More likely, it is Chef Manuel providing the Italian presence, a hold-over from the Mezzanotte kitchen where he worked as founding chef.
It seems Nantucket's main problem is one all growing adolescents face: identity. Marty Dubin says stone crabs and other local favorites are included on the menu because in South Florida, "even the Chinese restaurants serve stone crabs." In the end, it's what sets Nantucket apart, not what makes it conform, that will tell. Personally, I'd enjoy a little more New England, a little less South Florida. But I'll settle for the diverse elements of New England, South Florida, and Italy which, if woven tightly on the Dubin/Billante loom, could well be the yarn to Nantucket's charm. Otherwise, it's just a giant (lobster) trap.
NANTUCKET 1279 N.E. 79th Street, Miami, 751-1200. Open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Open daily for dinner from 5:30 until 11:00 p.m.