The Kindest Cut of All

During the past two months, someone has been blitzing Miami with a half-million-dollar publicity campaign. Press releases galore. Metrobus shelters overwhelmed by this big spender's gaudy, big-as-life likeness. A tie-in with American Express. A Huizenga production? The Estefans at it again? Schwarzenegger? Stallone? Madonna, maybe? Or Rourke?

Try again. Nick's has come to town.
Promoted as "the largest new restaurant in the USA," Nick's Miami Beach, an enormous 1000-seat seafood eatery that rivaled the Hard Rock Cafe for hype, opened in mid-December at the Miami Beach Marina. Owner Nick Nickolas, who owns six other restaurants in Hawaii, Chicago, and Boca Raton, poured seven million dollars into the 27,000-square-foot operation, signed a 25-year lease, hired about 250 employees, and relocated both his corporate and his personal headquarters to Miami Beach. More facts: The main dining room has been designed to resemble a street scene from a Mediterranean village -- and it really does. Three private dining rooms seat 6, 8, and 36 guests respectively. A nightclub called Ruby's (named for Nickolas's two-year-old daughter) seats 250. The South Pointe Ballroom accommodates up to 400. An informal raw bar and a VIP room complete the monolith.

Not unlike the color photo of a grinning Nickolas on his smarmy "Meet Nick" bus-stop ads, these big, bald-faced stats were frightening to contemplate, much less to confront. (That photo, incidentally, must be seen to be fully appreciated: matching tie and hanky; tinted, Jimmy-the-Greek spectacles A the overall impression is Very Successful Bookie meets Very Powerful Mobster.) I've been in monstrously ambitious seafood houses before and what I invariably found was impersonal service and mediocre cuisine. I'd hoped South Beach, at least, was immune to this type of establishment. But at Nick's my preconceptions turned to misconceptions as Nickolas himself, beaming like a benefactor, greeted every customer as they walked in. (In the flesh, he looks far more legit. Suffice to say he should fire his photographer.) A small army of hosts personally seated each member of our party, and the wait captain whisked the napkins across our laps so quickly we never even saw where they'd lain on the table.

In a classroom, good behavior tends to stop when the teacher faces the chalkboard. Nick's waiters, including those who were obviously in training, were professional and attentive even when Nickolas had his back turned. I encountered a type of service unusual not only in South Beach (where decent service is an anomaly) but in South Florida in general. It was as if the staff actually respected our need to dine.

Respect continued with delivery of wine, a basket of sliced sourdough bread, and two kinds of whipped butter -- one spiced with red and jalapeno peppers, the other plain and sweet. Even sweeter was the panorama through the bay windows, where near and far lights from the docked boats glowed like moons across the water. This is an angle on the rough-around-the-edges marina that Miamians, who know the area well enough to bypass it, haven't yet seen.

But Nick's isn't merely a room (or many rooms) with a view. The fare is as rich as the sights. We tried the baked escargots drenched in pesto butter, a delicious combination of tender snails, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and fresh chopped herbs. We also sampled the baked clams casino -- small, white-water clams flavored with minced green peppers and bread crumbs and elevated from staid status with a strip of salty pancetta. A squeeze of fresh lemon cut the buttery sauce floating around them.

Conventional as some appetizers are, the list also includes several innovations and surprises. Nickolas draws not only from the menus of his other restaurants, he also makes use of native products and markets. Thus the juxtaposition of seared ahi, a Hawaiian fish, with fresh Florida stone crabs. He also borrows on the ethnic contributions that have made this region's cooking noteworthy in national food circles. We tasted both the black bean soup and gazpacho. The black beans were soft but still whole, the broth thick and appropriately seasoned; the gazpacho was an appealing, bright red (if Americanized) version, chunky with finely chopped onions, cucumbers, and peppers.

Entrees also called on a variety of influences, ranging from the Mediterranean to Maine. We polished off the plate of lamb chops Mediterranean, four chops grilled to pink. Spiced mashed potatoes, the comfort food of the Nineties, and a feta cheese and kalamata olive sauce enhanced the pungent meat perfectly; strong flavors often clamor for other strong flavors to accompany them.

The same theory of strong-on-strong held true for the 22-ounce porterhouse steak. We requested that this huge, juicy cut be prepared with a sun-dried cherry and sauerkraut sauce, a topping that is listed with the pork chops. The tangy fruit and pickled cabbage worked beautifully over the medium-rare, succulent beef. The smooth potatoes worked well here, too.

Another oddly wonderful sauce dressed a hearty yet tender swordfish steak. Named the "Lou Angelo" after one of Nickolas's chefs, the combination of soy, chopped tomatoes, ginger, and ground pepper tantalized the palate like a good wine, with a variety of flavors. Unusual for a fish dish, this preparation had depth. And as with the lamb and the beef, potatoes appeared alongside A and surprisingly did not overpower the fish.

Just as you can't go to Joe's without ordering stone crabs, it's impossible to dine at Nick's without feasting on live Maine lobster. I generally prefer smaller lobsters, but here they begin at two-and-a-half and peak at five pounds. (Oh, what I suffer for my craft.) A sweet, steamed two-and-a-half pounder, one of the best I've ever had, put me first in ecstasy, then in agony when I realized I couldn't possibly finish it. For me, a bigger lobster was a drawback; I'd like to see the option of a lobster for more modest appetites. Another liability was the price: At $16 per pound, the cheapest lobster weighed in at a whopping $40. Two cod cakes were bland, oily companions -- such a heavy meal would have been better accented by crisp, green vegetables. The marked de-emphasis on greenery (all vegetable side dishes are offered a la carte) was disappointing.

A quote from Nickolas at the top of the menu reads, "There are a million ways to go broke, but eating or drinking isn't one of them!" If that's true, then why, after dinner at Nick's, is there nothing in my pocket but pocket? And why a three-dollar valet parking fee when part of the attraction is the "ample free parking" in the 450-space lot? Still, there is some solace: In this current season of economic setbacks, Nick Nickolas's own financial commitment is, at the very least, a vote of confidence for the future of South Beach. At most, the month-old eatery is an institution in the making, guaranteed to bring the bucks back to the Beach. Eat at Joe's? Looks like the stone crab syndicate may finally have some competition. And though you might have to tip the valet attendant, here you don't have to tip the maitre d' in order to sit down.

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