The Sisters Act

"Those only who have sojourned in the ardent climates of the South can appreciate the delights of an abode combining the breezy coolness of the mountain with the freshness and verdure of the valley. Everything invites to that indolent repose, the bliss of Southern climes; and while the half-shut eye looks out from the shaded balconies upon the glittering landscape, the ear is lulled by the rustling of groves and the murmur of running streams...."
from The Alhambra

Washington Irving's prose romanticizes the Moorish-built fortress and palace complex of Spain's Alhambra A once the home of generations of sultans and later inhabited by Ferdinand and Isabella A a construction he alternatively appellates "the progeny of ruin," owing to its state of disrepair at that time (1830's). Yet Irving, whose book was largely responsible for stirring American interest in this "splendid pile," could easily have been describing the Coral Gables Hyatt Regency hotel, so closely A and purposefully A have the two designs been aligned.

The Hyatt's rust-red mimicry, complete with flowering courtyards, columns, and horseshoe arches (though minus unnecessary outbuildings and military reinforcements), is not an anomaly in a city which once boasted in its promotional literature: "Coral Gables, where your castles in Spain are made true." For the past decade the trend in architecture, especially as it concerns restaurant and hotel chains, has been to reflect the nature of the place rather than the nature of the chain. Consider just two examples: the Burger King on South Beach imitates the look of its Art Deco neighbors, and the McDonald's in Rome spouts fountains and alfresco sculptures. For Coral Gables to house its own Spanish palace, considering the predominance of Spanish Mediterranean architecture throughout the Gables, seems only right.

Just as it seems right that the guest quarters and facilities within the Hyatt should be named and fashioned after the original designations in the Alhambra. For example, the courtyard where banquets or cocktail hours are often held is called the Court of Lions after the Alhambra's Patio de los Leones, famed for its fountain of twelve stone lions that also function as a sundial. And the Hyatt's Two Sisters Restaurant, its five-year-old New World wonder, takes its name from the Alhambra's Hall of Two Sisters.

Castles are built as much of legend as they are of stone. Some insist that the original Hall of Two Sisters is named for two alabaster blocks that face each other in the hall itself, forming part of the pavement. Others, like Irving, prefer a poetic approach and believe the hall was aptly titled for the rival beauties of the sultans' royal harems, who lived between its walls. After dining in the luxurious ambiance of the Hyatt's version, pampered by the staff and the delicate attentions of the chef, I tend to appreciate the latter interpretation.

Though comparisons to a harem are not exactly apropos and border on the politically incorrect, the lush cuisine and decor of Two Sisters Restaurant do indeed bring to mind a captive existence. (The overstuffed booths are so comfortable it's practically impossible to rise from them.) Deprived of freedom and self-determination, women in a harem turned their attention to creature comforts, competing with one another for silken bedding, fine jewelry, gold-trimmed clothing, and, naturally, the sultan's favor. Were I trapped in a harem, my comfort A and favor A would be obvious: I'd be slave to the chef.

But only if that chef de cuisine were the Two Sisters' David Slatkin, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (also, coincidentally, the alma mater of restaurant supervisor Kimberly Howie). Slatkin, originally from Los Angeles, has worked at Turnberry Isle, Mark's Place, and Chef Allen's. In Miami this kind of pedigree could make him a king. And perhaps he should be. Because while the theme of the hotel may be Old World, the cuisine is without question all new.

Under the direction of executive chef Bryce Statham and along with pastry chef Steve Lidsey, Slatkin melds the elements of classic European, Asian, and American cookery into delicious innovations. Soft shell crabs are dusted with corn meal and served as a main course in a sweet plantain shell, with roast pecans and corn salsa. Roast Florida lobster and citrus combine with cream in a bisque, served with celery chips and chives. Inventive combinations such as these, often utilizing indigenous seafood, fruits, and vegetables, have come to be known as New World cuisine A a style of cooking that Miami helped put on the map and for whose crown our city's top chefs battle like feudal lords. How appropriate that a hotel patterned after a castle should host one of the premiere jousters.

Competition in the fine dining category is keen. Kimberly Howie rightly compares Two Sisters to neighbor Yuca, as well as Mark's Place and Chef Allen's. (I would add to this list Janjo's and BANG, and of course chef-without-a-restaurant Norman Van Aken, recently of a Mano.) The Two Sisters dinner menu, which changes weekly, reads like the others' in terms of ingredients A a plethora of wild mushrooms, baby field greens, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, and exotic nuts and fruits garnish the grilled meats, poultry, and fish. But also like the others, the courses arrive stamped with the chef's individual personality. The ingredients may be similar, thanks to the Florida coastline; the preparations, however, have their own distinctive brand of appeal.

The boniato-crusted shrimp, with a papaya-lime salsa, definitely appealed to us. Two jumbo shrimp were stuffed inside shredded, deep-fried boniato and served with a beautiful little salad of endive and other greens. Boniato, a root vegetable that tastes like a cross between a potato and jicama, is a sweet, fashionable item these days. It complemented the tender shrimp enormously, a welcome change from a more familiar version, the frequently encountered coconut shrimp.

My companion's appetizer, the chilled-grilled seafood sausage, was equally as fresh and even further along the evolutionary scale of New World cuisine. This pressed and sliced combination of lobster, shrimp, and scallops was far removed from what we normally view as sausage, a Lamborghini to a Jimmy Dean Model-T. Two saucer-size slices hovered over a red pepper coulis and a frilly escarole salad. In traditional cooking, a coulis refers to the juices that run out of meat while it is cooking; these are collected and transformed into a sauce. In New World parlance, coulis means a liquid puree, commonly of crustaceans or vegetables.

Another conventional sauce is made from the reduction, a brown sauce derived from the juices of the meat. This concoction is then cooked down to make it thicker in consistency and to increase its savorability. At Two Sisters, the sauce under our roast peppered loin of lamb was spiked with applejack brandy. The brandy flavor, a pleasurable addition, was readily apparent despite the too-salty demi-glace; the lamb itself, a startling rare bit of paradise, was served on a pancetta potato pancake, perhaps the source of the salt.

The starters were deceptively filling; I could hardly manage more than a few wonderful mouthfuls of my entree, the cashew-encrusted yellowtail snapper. This was a personal failure, as well as a missed opportunity, for rarely have I encountered such a well-prepared fillet, the rich nuts perfectly balanced by a lemon-butter sauce and a crunchy orange-jicama relish.

Service at Two Sisters was as royal as the marble wainscotting suggested. Both the waiter and the manager, Robert Stanfield, inquired after my meal, and the chef visited every table, only a few of which, unfortunately, were occupied.

Though an occasional wanderer or local regular may dine on weeknights, there is a worrisome lack of foot-traffic in this exclusive Coral Gables hotel setting. Clientele is sometimes limited to hotel guests. On weekends, however, the nightclub Alcazaba attracts a crowd, and Two Sisters is a prime choice for a predancing dinner. Sunday brunch and on- and off-premise catering also contribute to the Two Sisters' attractions, a restaurant which, like its namesake, is "a splendid pile," a lavish, impressive monument to pleasure.

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