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
Everything clicks: The crowd is a festive mix of locals, tourists, models, movers, shakers, Quakers, whatever. The front-of-the-house staff is strong and executes well as a team, runners and busboys providing skillful back-up work to professional, unpretentious waiters. A savvy selection of wines, culled mostly from premium boutique vintners on the West Coast, are available by the glass and matched with specific items on the menu. Foods are orchestrated by Schwartz, and desserts are made by pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith -- two of the finest. A couple of the least acknowledged sous chefs, Joann Schultz and Joe Isidori, must be pretty good too, as the meals they kick out of that kitchen exhibit consistency and confidence.
It's not just what Nemo has but what it doesn't have that makes it successful. For instance it doesn't have any distracting dance tracks thumping through speakers; mostly jazz music plays, prevalent enough to add to the atmosphere but not intrusive to conversation. Nemo also doesn't have television sets, not even over the bar; an open kitchen provides an eyeful in the main dining room, and a cool blue swimming pool visually entrances those in the backroom. Grabbing attention on the cobblestone patio are an enormous oak tree, twinkling white lights, passing pedestrians, and Shoji Sushi, Nemo's new next-door venture. And when sequestered in the intimate 33-seat dining room in between the rest, you can gaze into the eyes of the person across the table. With regard to one more thing that Nemo doesn't have, I've sent their menu to Ripley's Believe It or Not! with the suggestion it be categorized thus: "SOUTH BEACH RESTAURANT THAT DOESN'T SERVE PASTA!"
The cuisine also prospers in part by what it doesn't have. Amateurs in any profession tend toward overdoing things: The first-time film director devises gimmicky angle shots, novice novelists fling in florid flourishes that fail to forward the narrative, and the unseasoned chef sweats out squirts and frills and garish garnishes until the primary and pristine flavors of the foods are capsized by a cacophony of accompaniments. When Schwartz reaches the point at which he feels the tastes and textures of a dish create a harmonizing effect on the palate, he does something only experienced chefs dare endeavor: He stops.
The only time he stopped too soon was with bright green English pea soup centered by a radicchio cup topped with lump crab and grilled onion salad; for $13 it should have contained more soup and at any price packed more punch. I also could say there was a problem with the grilled oyster mushroom and roasted Brussels sprout salad with Maytag blue cheese and roasted red pepper vinaigrette -- on one visit they were out, on the next it was replaced on the menu altogether -- but in fact I'm just grasping at flaws. Starters were excellent, and none contained more innovatively provocative flavors than savory duck confit set in soft cauliflower mash, with sweet pear-raisin chutney, pungent wilted greens, and a spicy swirl of curry oil.
A raw bar offers the usual chilled shellfish along with nightly specials, some presented on three-tiered pedestals that elicit audible "oohs" and "aahs." We went with a more modest lobster cocktail: half a Maine crustacean on crushed ice, seaweed, and herbs. The tail section lifted right out of the shell, and a nutcracker facilitated the removal of claw meat; but because the lobster lay on ice, there was no place to cut those two sections into bite-size pieces -- the plate was just too wet. The meat was sweet and tender, though, so lobster lovers will just have to make do.
Diners also have to make do with a do-it-yourself tuna tartare, a molded disk of big eye with chili oil and quail egg on top, spokes of other fixings emanating outward: minced shallots, ground pepper and coriander, and tobiko and wasabi caviars. Mash the egg into the tuna, add the rest all at once or in increments, and scoop with buttery sweet "Maida's corn melbas." (Melba toasts are thin, crisp wafers that famed chef Escoffier created for opera singer Nellie Melba; he also named peach Melba after her. Maida's corn melbas presumably are lifted from -- I mean made in honor of -- famed pâtissier Maida Heatter.)