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.

Another boxed entree, crackling pork shank, was a dramatic presentation. The shank stood upright over mustardy sauerkraut covered by what looked to be a crisp, browned crust. The crust, however, turned out to be pure fat, two inches thick. The pork was tasty inside, kept moist by the lard, but it dried out as it neared the bone. The pork was accompanied by a lidded jar filled with "firecracker" applesauce -- Granny Smiths spiked with chile peppers, an unusual garnish.

The third boxed entree we tried was easily the most successful. Veal "NY/Milan," a pounded veal chop still on the bone, had been breaded and fried to a golden finish. A salad of arugula, tomatoes, and red onions brightened the chop, but the succulent veal, like a thick Wiener schnitzel, didn't really need the distraction.

A steak dinner isn't complete without side dishes, of course. Smith & Wollensky may have the best creamed spinach in Miami -- minced greens smoothed with just the right amount of cream. Yuca pancakes, two large rounds cut into quarters and finished with sour cream, were heavy but flavorful. Whipped potatoes, though, suffered from an overdose of pepper; drizzled with herbed olive oil, they were almost too rich. And the hash browns should be outlawed; they were stale, the chunks of potato chewy and lukewarm.

Pastry chef Marta Braunstein's desserts were decorative enough to entrance and savory enough to entice. Milk chocolate creme brulee was perfection, served in a glass bowl with a lid that had two truffles attached to its underside. We thought a square of carrot cake was a bit too fruity with raisins and coconut, and not cakey enough. Its white chocolate top was stenciled with a likeness of the New York Smith & Wollensky facade. Clever.

But here in Miami we require more than just an etching of a steak house to be impressed. Several things need to improve at S&W. Service, for one. Our waiter, apparently too busy to wait for a pause in conversation, took to tapping us on the shoulder whenever he wanted our attention. The meat could use a trim. And above all, the kitchen needs consistency. Unless these things come to pass, Smith $ Wollensky -- oops -- is destined to become just another pretty picture, framed by the sun setting over Government Cut.

Smith & Wollensky
1 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 673-2800. Open daily for lunch and dinner from noon until 2:00 a.m. Saturday and Sunday brunch from noon until 3:00 p.m.

Wollensky's salad
$8.50
Crabcakes and ratatouille
$11.50
Crackling pork shank
$22.50
Veal NY/Milan
$29.75
Milk chocolate creme brulee
$6.75

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