By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Not for its taste, mind you, because frankly it sucked tastewise. From the moment you walked into a high-class hotel dining room, the characteristic smell of the place -- a kind of industrial au jus -- prepared you for exactly what was coming: overcooked, over-elaborate food whose degree of pretension was matched only by its high price. And yet many people loved the dishes served at such places; some even considered it haute cuisine, buying into the idea that the less spicy and more pricey a meal was, the better it must be.
But the snootiness that captivated my parents held no appeal for a kid like me -- I was drawn by the sheer entertainment value of the place. In short, hotel restaurants offered a great opportunity to play with your food. Steaks, for example, were often so overdone that, once shredded and rolled, they could be used as beefy BB shot, providing loads of under-the-table, food-fight fun. Desserts, inevitably loaded with cornstarch, also made for terrific toys; I recall a slice of lemon meringue pie that actually bounced. Those were the good old days.
Fast-forward 40 years to a recent meal at the Oval Room in South Beach's National Hotel, the 1940 Art Deco dreamboat that reopened with a splash two years ago after being lavishly restored. Fresh from researching a magazine piece on chef-run inns, my life (and dining) partner and I had concluded that New American cuisine, now decades old, had finally hit hotel restaurants. There seem to be hot hotel kitchens with superstar chefs in every major U.S. city: the Mercer Kitchen and Lespinasse in New York City, Fenix in L.A., Postrio in San Francisco, the Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe, the Windsor Court Grill Room in New Orleans, and, locally, in addition to the Oval Room, Astor Place and the Blue Room. I had heard that the Oval Room's Southern fusion wizard Marvin Woods had moved on this past summer, replaced by Rodney Renshaw, former chef at the Four Seasons hotel in Washington, D.C. The buzz on hotel food in general and on the Oval Room in particular has been so intense that I wondered if it was still possible to find one of those sucky hotel meals I loved so much in my childhood.
"Hello, Oval Room? I'd like to make a reservation for two."
Dinner actually began promisingly enough, owing to (1) free valet parking, and (2) a spectacular setting: a sophisticated main room with off-white walls, etched-glass chandeliers, a Deco-tiled ceiling mural that depicts a woman whose demeanor suggests her normal dining partners were Noel Coward or Cole Porter, and a floor-to-ceiling picture window/wall that provides a view of a palm-surrounded pool the length of, roughly, California. Both the main room and the pool area were open for dining. (The actual "oval room" -- located just off the main area, and so named because of a pink-and-green bas-relief oval design in its ceiling -- was not.)
In the air hung a trace of that unmistakable eau-de-hotel-restaurant smell -- not pronounced, but enough to cause concern. So we opted to sit outside by the pool. Bad move. First off, our settings were inelegantly deposited on the table -- no tablecloth, not even butcher paper with crayons. Still, it was pleasant to sit and listen to the sounds of a jazzy keyboard-sax duo that wafted from the main dining room -- at least until an alternative rock band started to rev, simultaneously, at the pool's far end. We decided to move back inside.
Once resituated, we ordered, and the first bite of a prawn cocktail appetizer, a special that night, catapulted us back in time four decades. Strongly touted by our waiter, this was not some nuevo Latino shellfish dish -- not even shrimp remoulade. No, this was shrimp swimming in the kind of radioactive-tasting red sauce I thought had been outlawed with the passage of the nuclear test-ban treaty.
We would have preferred the restaurant's signature starter, bourbon-cured salmon rolls, but it was unavailable, even though this was earlyish on a Saturday night. Our waiter's somewhat dubious explanation: The rolls take three days to cure. (On a return visit three weeks later, the rolls were still unavailable. Our apologetic, trying-to-accommodate waitress confided, "They've never had them anytime I've been working.")
Another appetizer, baby romaine in dough bowl with Caesar dressing, turned out to be considerably less interesting than its description. While not as gloppy as many Caesar salads, it was also less savory; and the "dough bowl" was reminiscent of a Tex-Mex fast-food taco salad shell.
The best appetizer we tried was "slow-baked potato pancake with sevruga caviar and chive sour cream." Though a bit less onion-infused than the latkes we frequently order from the Rascal House, the pancakes were far more subtly delicate -- so much so, in fact, that milder, richer creme frache would have been a more appropriate accompaniment than pedestrian sour cream.