The Unkindest Cut

When I reach with my pinkie to type the ampersand in Smith & Wollensky, the steak house that opened in December on the edge of South Pointe Park in Miami Beach, I frequently wind up writing Smith $ Wollensky instead. A psychologist might account for this slip as a manifestation of guilt over spending an exorbitant amount of money for food. Let's face it, the restaurant is expensive (though, to be fair, not as outrageous as some other steak houses). These eateries, by definition, are places where one goes to sate the appetite with big, pricey cuts of beef.

A reputable place for steak in New York City for two decades, Smith & Wollensky is planning a national expansion; first Miami Beach, then Chicago, New Orleans, and Las Vegas. The New York Restaurant Group, which owns the two S&W's -- as well as Park Avenue Cafe, Manhattan Ocean Club, and Citte, all in NYC -- took over the mildewing South Pointe Seafood House and Brewing Company and invested eight million dollars in replacing musty carpets with polished wood floors, painting walls and columns a pale cream, installing earth-tone Italian marble, hanging frosted light fixtures, and ditching the former restaurant's beer-making equipment. Wish they'd done as well with the food: The 560-seat eatery's start is about as rocky as Government Cut, the boulder-lined waterway the restaurant overlooks.

I have to admit my expectations were high. The NYC Smith & Wollensky has a sterling reputation, written up by magazines such as Gourmet as the "quintessential" meatery. A S&W opening here seemed more exciting than the launch of Morton's of Chicago, a steak house that premiered on Brickell a few weeks ago. I looked forward to a fabulous feast of caesar salad, filet mignon, and creamed spinach, a trio of treats in which I simply must indulge every once in a while.

S&W's caesar salad was fairly disappointing. Though the romaine lettuce was crisp and fresh, the dressing was flat and unpalatable. A chunk or two of anchovy and shavings of Asiago cheese seemed separate from the rest of the ingredients; lemon peel, tart bits of which we found scattered over the lettuce, was actually the dressing's primary, somewhat discordant note.

The Wollensky's salad was something of an improvement. Its dressing had a creamy garlic flair, and the romaine was accented with strips of crisp bacon and potato croutons, chunks of white potato fried until crunchy. But the tomatoes -- whole teardrop, halved cherry, and quartered yellow -- were of poor quality; the yellow tomatoes in particular were so mushy they could have been used for paste.

The restaurant gives a cursory nod to its location with South Beach ceviche, a cocktail glass filled with chunks of marinated salmon, tuna, and grouper. Tangy with lime, cilantro, red pepper, and tomato, the fish was juicy and firm, if a bit, well, fishy. (Purists might find a smattering of corn somewhat odd, but I thought the shucked kernels elevated this dish considerably.)

A pair of soups completely restored our spirits. The S&W "famous split pea soup," as the menu describes it, was delicious, an earthy puree garnished with croutons. Cream of tomato and eggplant soup, a special that evening, was even better. The eggplant added a suggestion of smoke, while the cream cut the acidity of the tomato base. Wonderful.

Eggplant showed up again in an appetizer of crabcakes with ratatouille; this time it was mixed with bell pepper, zucchini, onion, and tomato. The ratatouille partnered two pan-fried crabcakes, hearty with the shellfish but a little too moist, almost runny, on the inside.

I like the way the restaurant eliminates the struggle of having to choose a specific cut of meat for an entree: Seven dishes, labeled "meat classics," are all priced at $28.75. This way you're not tempted to pick the sirloin over the lamb chop simply because it might be cheaper. Filet mignon was excellent, the flavor musky and a little tangy from a house-made steak sauce; the thick, medium-rare beef was soft to the knife and supple to the tooth. We weren't as fond of the prime rib, which is usually one of my favorite cuts. Served with the rib intact, the meat lay in a too-salty jus and was girded by hunks of fat -- amount as much as the beef itself.

Seafood and fish lovers don't have as many options as meat eaters, particularly if you're not willing to indulge in Maine lobster at $17.50 per pound. We were more interested in the swordfish London broil, but we ultimately found the sliced fish steak fairly tasteless despite its marinade of rosemary, thyme, and lavender. A saute of onions and button mushrooms that covered the swordfish alleviated some of the blandness.

Several main courses are highlighted in boxes on the menu, including a "shellfish bouquet." We'd asked our server to describe this dish, and he told us the platter consisted of two clams, two oysters, two shrimp, and half of a chicken lobster (less than one pound); he characterized it as an appetizer, but we thought it would be enough for a light meal. He never told us, however, that not only was this dish served cold, over shaved ice, but that the clams and oysters were raw. The clams, rich in their liquor, were refreshing, but the oysters tasted a little funky. The cooked seafood was delicious, particularly the lobster, but we were disappointed in both a sharp cocktail sauce practically devoid of horseradish and an overly salty remoulade that served as tartar sauce.

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