By Bill Citara
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Back in the days when cars had tail fins and Elvis was a hound dog, the Morris Lapidus-designed Eden Roc hotel was one of the hottest celebrity hangouts in town. But cars got smaller and Elvis got fat and, like a lot of Miami Modern structures, the Eden Roc went through a period of decline and decay until a group of smart business types realized its innate architectural value and superior moneymaking potential. Twenty-four-million-dollars worth of renovation later, tail fins are still out and Elvis is mulch. But the Roc is back, unveiled earlier this year with a high-gloss retro look that harks back to an earlier, more genteel era, before trash was Euro and traffic was wall to wall and South Beach was the sandbox of Prada-clad poseurs with abs and brains chiseled out of fine-grained Italian marble.
The same notion of looking back to the future was applied to the Roc's upscale restaurant, harry's grille. (Yes, lower case and extra e.) Named after Harry Mufson, one of the hotel's original owners, the grille is stylish but not too, its ambiance formal but not too, its menu contemporary but not too.
The food is good but, unfortunately, not too.
4524 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33140
Region: Mid/North Beach
If it's true what they say, that God is in the details, then harry's needs to get religion. In just one meal: bread left out long enough for the surfaces to grow stale and dry; caesar salad made with knife-cut, sadly wilted greens; virtually unseasoned salsa with a pair of softshell crabs; crme brélée with the oddly gelatinous texture of Jell-O; terrible coffee and espresso; two different wine lists handed out during the same meal; excruciatingly long waits for everything, even with a mostly empty dining room.
There's more, but we'll get to it in a minute.
First let's touch on a few bright spots. The crabs with the tasteless salsa -- two impossibly tiny things, about the size of a newborn's fist -- were nicely done, lightly floured and pan-fried to golden, brittle crispness. They arrived on a platter drizzled with chili oil, flanking a mound of roasted-corn/black bean salsa, which was made with starchy kernels of corn and hard, undercooked beans, and which was as dull and flavorless as baby food. Too bad; with any kind of decent salsa, this would be a fine dish.
Another visit's jumbo lump crabcake had its moments. Truly made with jumbo lumps of ocean-sweet crab, it was a bit pasty but offered good crabby flavor highlighted by dollops of sweetish mango salsa and sour-spicy Asian chili sauce. The advertised kim chee and wakame slaw, however, promised more than it delivered. If any of the incendiary Korean pickled cabbage actually was in there, it must have been applied with tweezers, because all I got was the crunchy-slippery Japanese seaweed salad that I can buy in little plastic tubs at my local Publix. Good stuff, but slaw it ain't.
As for the caesar salad, let's just say it was fit for a serf, not an emperor. I can't tell you much about the dressing, because there wasn't enough of it to taste, and our request for more went unfulfilled. I can tell you that the romaine could have been a whole lot fresher and that the old, crusty anchovy fillets used as a garnish never should have made it out of the kitchen. Details, details.
Entrées, thankfully, were better. Best was pan-seared tilapia with a rich, creamy hash of lobster, potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, and artichoke hearts (not very fresh, yet another detail). Even so, it was hard to fault the quality or quantity of the fish: two sizable fillets, mild flavored and flaky beneath a crisp, well-bronzed surface. Very nice.
Harry's signature sesame-crusted tuna loin was a competent entrant in the seared raw-tuna school, a genre that's gone from obscurity to ubiquity faster than you can say, Sorry, Charlie. Two fat chunks of meaty fish, one a little too tendon-y to yield tuna's prized buttery, filet mignonlike texture, were rolled in black and white sesame seeds and cooked just long enough to firm up the outside while leaving the interior barely warm. A sweet-tangy papaya-lime sauce, some stir-fried vegetables, and jasmine rice shot with ginger and green onions filled out the plate.
So ya don't like fish, padnah? Harry's kitchen can rustle up what it calls John Wayne's cowboy steak: twenty ounces of USDA prime beef with an oh-so-retro baked potato. There's also a milk-fed veal chop with potato risotto for the Prada set and a heavily breaded and herbed rack of lamb with rosemary jus. The lamb comes as twin double-cut chops, cooked a precise medium-rare as requested and bulked up with vegetables and rather gummy, leaden lemon spaetzle. It's a lot of food, though it ought to be for 29 bucks.
Desserts aren't cheap either, unless $8.50 a pop isn't enough to make your MasterCard go limp. Also unless you're willing to overlook details such as a rubbery, almost inedible espresso-spiked crme brélée and the vanilla-bean ice cream with a chocolate truffle center that wasn't there. The ice cream screwup actually was pretty funny. A tennis-ball-size mound of it was served atop an enormous portion of quite creditable bread pudding. After a few spoonfuls of pudding, I was all set to enjoy my chocolate surprise. But when I cut into the ice cream ball, I found it hollow. Hmmm.... Bland, white, empty. Could be George W.'s favorite dessert.
One more detail, as the sweets might have suggested: You're going to drop a wad here. Harry's look may be retro, but there's nothing retro about the prices. Starters begin at $7 for onion soup and soar to $12.50, while entrées range from about $17 to $32, and most are clustered around $25.
That's a lot of money to channel tail fins and the King. And unless harry's gets religion and starts paying attention to those details, it hasn't got a prayer.