Cyan Aura

In a recent Vogue magazine article, hotelier Ian Schrager told writer Charles Gandee that his newly renovated property, the 238-room Delano Hotel, "has zero to do with South Beach -- absolutely zero. I wouldn't invest millions of dollars based upon the continued existence of models walking up and down Ocean Drive."

I beg to differ. For starters, the reconditioned 1947 relic named for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is located on Seventeenth Street and Collins Avenue in the vapidly beating heart of the Art Deco district. Call it the first rule of real estate, call it codependency, but Schrager and the Delano would never have made a match if not for the well-publicized re-emergence of South Beach. Not even the most visionary of developers would invest $28 million of renovation money in a rundown beachfront neighborhood.

Then again, those of us who live here know that Ocean Drive is about as near to defining South Beach as alligator wrestling is to Miccosukee Indian culture. And Schrager is right in a way. The stylish sophistication of the Delano is beyond the Beach's current touristy reach, though it could point the way toward the area's future. As for models, Schrager needn't fret about their "continued existence" on Candyland Row. They're all traipsing in and out of the Delano's lobby, lounging in the 150-foot-long pool, and dining at Blue Door, the glamorous hotel restaurant in which Madonna is a partner.

Gandee calls the Delano a "safe haven for the dangerously hip." Safe may not be quite the correct word -- on the night we visited, the number of people tripping on the unexpected step that leads from the 80-seat terrace into the 90-seat dining room exceeded that of lawyers in the house. But hip pretty much sums up the Blue Door, where I made a dinner reservation a month in advance and still got a table that was positioned halfway into the wait station. (I also got the new chef, George Fistrovich, which was a plus.) The white-clad waitstaff, white table linens, immense white columns, and the sheer white curtains that cover the walls (falling dramatically from the 28-foot ceiling) are the perfect backdrop for the self-consciously chic who drape the white leather chairs. Who are, in turn, the mirror for the culinary strivings of the place: high-priced, beautifully turned out, and occasionally just a little too slimly built.

Appetizer portions, especially, seemed anemic. A timbalelike mold of farm-raised prawns a la grecque was so artfully constructed that removing any of the ingredients was like pulling hair pins from a model's head A you didn't know which one might tumble the coif. In this case, the prawns, or lack thereof, proved the appetizer's downfall. Though plump and lobster-rich, only two pink shrimp dotted the dish, which for twelve bucks seemed skimpy. The remainder of the refreshing edifice was composed of pale green chicory, sliced olives, pieces of artichoke heart, tiny asparagus spears, pearl onions, and half an oven-dried tomato, all tossed in a lemony olive oil. Maine lobster salad was a better bargain, chunks of the succulent shellfish interspersed with chopped pears and strips of root vegetables and coated with a light vinaigrette. A chä#vre tortelli -- creamy pungent goat cheese encased in noodle dough -- was a companionable accent. For loads of cheese, though, the caesar salad proved to be the way to go. Parmesan cheese encrusted each leaf of crisp romaine like ice on a winter windowpane. A few croutons dappled the lettuce, but the real focus here was the dressing, whose anchovy-heavy fragrance was ideal.

Sauteed foie gras was the star starter, evoking the hedonism of its surroundings. Rich as Madonna, sleek and springy as tofu, the delicacy had been seared to shell pinkness and rested on a meaty broth featuring braised chickpeas, diced carrots, fresh green peas, and spinachlike strips of Swiss chard. Expertly prepared, this dish made a convert out of at least one skeptic at my table.

The Blue Door's menu lists three pasta dishes, priced more moderately than some of the entrees but just as filling. A serving of squid ink gnocchi comprised a few good handfuls of the pasta dumplings, halved teardrop tomatoes, and shredded leeks, with Maine lobster mixed throughout. A bland broth, though, lent very little flavor, and the gnocchi, whose shape and color made them reminiscent of prunes, were dense, hardly the soft, potato-and-flour clouds we expected.

Much better was a pair of ravioli stuffed with mashed potatoes and soaking in a deep, balsamic-rich reduction, a hearty-in-attitude side dish for an entree of lamb loin. Sliced and fanned out on the jus-covered plate, the lamb itself was velvety and pungent, as satisfying as the finest filet mignon.

A fillet of cobia was inches-thick and pan-fried to perfection; white as our monochrome surroundings, the flesh was tender and flaky, though a lid of pasty tomatoes detracted a little from the fresh taste of the fish. The side dish, a molded concoction billed as fava bean and fried eggplant ratatouille, was actually a saute of the sweet vegetables, threaded through with tiny shreds of flash-fried leeks.

Farm-raised rabbit cooked three different ways was a stacked, pushed-together dish -- the Wonderbra of wabbit. The top level was a grilled loin of the lean white meat that, while refreshingly juicy, was too charred. Beneath were tastier nuggets, braised pieces of darker meat that tasted a bit like a roast turkey drumstick, while the bottom tier featured a mix of chopped zucchini, garlic puree, and shredded meat from the "rack," which was marred only by a few stray matchstick bones.

Dessert took so long that we watched a couple at a nearby table consume their entire meal. Despite their smart looks, the Blue Door's servers were slow and unsophisticated, with a three-course meal taking up that many hours. Fortunately, a warmed brioche was worth the wait. Doused with a fruity syrup and topped with plums, sour cherries, and cranberries, the eggy bread pudding was a delight. Of course, the patrons waiting three deep at the bar probably wished we had skipped the sweets course. But I'd no sooner do that than I would miss the dreamily intense Blue Door at the Delano. No matter how many models walk by.

Side Dish
Ever wonder who that Tom Austin guy is? Wanna see him do what he does best -- i.e., swelter? Watch him catch fire as one of the celebrity judges at Hot Pursuit '95, the third annual Greater Miami Chili Cook-Off, to be held this Sunday, November 12, at South Beach's Raleigh Hotel, 1775 Collins Ave. This year more than 25 restaurants and markets -- including Norman's, Lure, Nemo, Max's South Beach, Boulevard, and Embers -- will prepare their versions of the dish for guests and judges, including Metro Commissioner Katy Sorenson, Miami Beach Mayor Sy Gelber, South Florida Magazine publisher Nancy Moore, and Miami Herald columnists Dave Barry, Tara Solomon, Jane Wooldridge, and food critic Linda Gassenheimer. Tickets cost $35 for the main event, which begins at 4:00 p.m. All proceeds benefit Planned Parenthood of Greater Miami's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. To spice up your life, call the Chili Hotline: 441-6677.

If down-home chili-tasting isn't quite the gastronomic safari you had in mind, don your diamonds for the 1995 Annual Tartufi Tasting. In its ninth year, the festival features the precious white truffle, which goes for $900 to $1200 per pound. Approximately five pounds will be shaved over dishes prepared by esteemed area chefs, all for the bargain price of $60 per ticket. The ritualistic sampling of the "White Diamonds of Piedmont" takes place at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, November 15, in the Country Club Ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. The event includes a wine-tasting that features award-winning vintages from northern Italy. Call 665-2838 for tickets and reservations.

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