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Wander down Ocean Drive, stop for a bite at the Terrace, the outdoor cafe at the Tides, and you'll be treated to an experience much like any other on the strip: You'll stand for long minutes at the host station waiting to be noticed, you'll be seated at an out-of-the-way table, and you'll be ignored by your server until you nearly expire from hunger.
But go inside music mogul Chris Blackwell's newly renovated hotel to the French restaurant Twelve Twenty, and you'll get something you haven't had on Ocean Drive since the early Nineties: fabulous food and superb service in a ritzy dining room.
That just about sums up a meal at Twelve Twenty, but it doesn't give away the whole story. For while the dishes are indeed delicious, the prices are downright outrageous. Executive chef Christophe Gerard's rich fare may appease a giant craving for decadence, but it certainly shrinks the wallet.
The 45-seat restaurant is a stunning little gem in one corner of the bright lobby of the Tides. Opened at the end of May, Twelve Twenty (named for the building's address) features comfortable chenille-covered chairs, a bar formed out of a single sheet of cut glass, hanging globe light fixtures, and a restored terrazzo floor. The place is neither overdone nor coldly trendy, and though the bar is popular, you can still get a reservation fairly easily from a friendly and helpful maitre d'.
Getting full was a bit harder to accomplish; portions on my recent visit were so minuscule that I wondered if I'd time-warped back to the heyday of nouvelle cuisine. Surprisingly it was dessert -- usually a bill-padding course -- that provided the biggest bites. A thin, crisp apple tart was unexpectedly large, practically hiding the dessert plate. But the galette of apples, accented by caramel sauce and topped with cinnamon ice cream, was slightly flawed -- too much skin and core had been left on the fruit, spoiling its baked softness. Traditional creme brulee made with vanilla beans from Madagascar (so notes the menu) was another hefty serving. We thought the burnt-sugar crust tasted a little too singed but we were delighted by the array of large, plump berries that tumbled over it, and by the two orange-flavored dentelles (like lacy cookies) that partnered the smooth custard.
Entrees, however, seemed irredeemably stingy. Squab was the one exception, an astonishingly meaty serving of the farm-raised game. Gerard, formerly of the famed Lespinasse in New York City, prefers to serve the bird rare, and he glazes it with a rich port wine-vinegar sauce as if to match the ruby interior. The musky meat, similar to duck, was garnished with a persillade aux pignons, a mixture of finely chopped pine nuts and blanched parsley that's combined with garlic and cream, and, inventively, a pair of poached pears.
The chef's other main courses were accompanied by side dishes that, while wonderful, amounted to little more than extra sauces. The vegetable piperade of stewed tomatoes and peppers was a lovely accent for the tender, roasted lamb chop, as was a breathy carrot-ginger infusion. But neither did anything in terms of bulking up the plate; the portion was so small I couldn't really take a bite big enough to form an opinion.
Pan-fried scallops and langostinos posed a similar problem -- though rich and delicious, the three crisp-edged scallops and two shelled prawns were hardly enough to whet the appetite, let alone satisfy it. A centerpiece of leek and tarragon stew was a creamy mixture with a marvelous flavor but little texture to support the shellfish, especially the langostinos, which were underdone and slightly slimy.
Steamed sea bass was a superior preparation, a skin-on fillet covered with a combination of fried shallots, julienne of garlic, and blanched lemon and orange zest, accompanied by a mild red pepper "essence" that was essentially a puree of red peppers, shallots, and vegetable stock. Tiny shoots of seaweed, sweet and fresh, fanned out from underneath the supple, flaky fillet.
I usually end my reviews with a description of the course that lingers last in my mind -- i.e., dessert. But in this case, it was memories of the appetizers that I took away with me. A starter of salmon "unilateral" -- so named because the fillet was pan-fried on one side only -- was torpedo-shaped and delicately crusted with Japanese breadcrumbs (it would seem these differ from, say, Italian breadcrumbs in that no crust is used to make them), and complemented by a tangy tomato compote and droplets of a soy sauce reduction laced with sesame seeds.
A dollop of parsley risotto sprinkled with julienne of deep-fried asparagus was another tempting way to begin the meal. The vegetable shards lent an interesting texture to the creamy, parsley-flecked risotto, which was beautifully cooked. But the crabmeat napoleon was the most memorable appetizer. Shredded crabmeat, sweet and tart from a citrus-zest marinade, was layered over mille-feuille "crackers," light flatbreads that were placed over a subtle cantaloupe coulis into which bits of honeydew and fresh mint had been dropped. This was a fairy wing of a dish, so airy and pleasurable that you weren't sure if you'd eaten it or imagined it.