By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
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By Dana De Greff
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I returned home hounded by two nagging questions: What is Zür New World Cuisine restaurant really all about? And what, exactly, is a zür? The latter query was answered easily enough by asking over the phone. Turns out zür means "nothing in particular." As for the first, more relevant question ... well, I'm still stumped. What I can say with certainty is that Zür is located in the recently renovated Claridge Hotel at Collins Avenue and 35th Street; that there is an outdoor patio that seats 24 and a small indoor room that can fit about 50 more; and that the décor features dark woods, terra-cotta floors, tassled Moroccanlike drapes over etched-glass windows, and numerous frosted, colored lamps hanging from the ceiling. I'm also reliably informed that owner William Del Nogal and chef Edgar Leal Trujillo are from Venezuela, the waitress is Hungarian, a guitar player entertains on Wednesday nights, and belly dancing is on Fridays. The food is described as "New World cuisine that features an eclectic mix of Mediterranean flavors with a bit of Latin “sabor.'" Not to mention the Asian influences and French desserts.
The mixed bag of menu options is limited: Appetizers comprise two soups (one a "mozzarella fondue"); two salads (mixed and caesar with duck); tuna sashimi; salmon ceviche; and scallops with foie gras and vanilla bean beurre blanc. This last starter was smartly designed, a trio of big, fleshy, butter-browned scallops with a smattering of garlic-sautéed kale below, a smidgen of foie gras on top, a small pool of sauce on the side, and a decorative flourish of balsamic glaze and pale green parsley juice running up the right side of the square white plate. Vanilla butter sauce isn't the most appropriate partner for buttery foie gras, but there was so little of the latter that it didn't much matter; vanilla worked well with the scallops.
The latest haute habit of topping food with foam is showcased here via the clam chowder "cappuccino," which not only contained a flimsy milk froth on top but also had another trick up its clammy sleeve: minced shrimp enveloped in two tender and tasty won tons. Nice addition, but unfortunately the "chowder" lacked body, possessing instead a coffee-thin consistency.
The pasta section of the menu offers a quartet of selections, two of which are rice dishes: mushroom risotto with truffle oil and "black risotto" improbably described as "shrimp in saffron sauce." The pastas are linguine with tomatoes and ravioli filled with baby Swiss cheese. We shared the last as a starter, the sharpness of the cheese contrasting surprisingly well with crisp shreds of prosciutto ham and a creamy onion-and-prosciutto-bolstered red wine sauce. The eight ravioli looked lost in the large white bowl in which they were served, though -- I doubt they would have been sufficient as a main course.
Give chef Trujillo his due: Every piece of meat, poultry, and fish served was cooked exactly right. Pink flakes of salmon were moist, the skin crisp; roast chicken breast with wing bone attached was thick and absolutely succulent; and a pair of grilled double lamb chops were bursting with medium-rare juices. If only the accompaniments were as impeccable. Below the chicken sat a "lo mein" of linguine, mushrooms, kale, and carrot slivers, all saturated in too soy-heavy sauce. Also salty, this time from veal stock, bacon, and soy, was what otherwise would have been a satisfying red-and-white-bean stew, which, along with sautéed kale, sided the chops. Salmon was supposed to be chaperoned with "mushroom ragout and parsley coulis," but the former were just white mushrooms sautéed in garlic, the coulis the same green-juice garnish that flowed beside the scallops. The fish wasn't alone -- a small mound of mashed potatoes and more garlic-sautéed kale plumped it up on the plate. Only a main course of duck breast sweetened with orange-ginger glaze was able to impress in its entirety. The perfectly pink meat was served with soft squares of sesame-infused polenta, two disks of savory duck sausage, and a gingery balsamic-dressed salad of molded chopped field greens -- various tastes, textures, and temperatures that uniquely complemented the bird.
It's a mystery to me why chefs and restaurateurs who wish to bypass the costly pastry-chef route don't at least shell out a few dollars for a food magazine now and then, or jump on to some free Internet recipe sites and jot down ideas that would serve their establishments well. While there's nothing wrong with crème brélée and chocolate soufflé, I imagine that even nonreviewers must tire of them after a while. Actually authentic soufflés aren't all that prevalent, but the soufflélike chocolate cake with warm oozy center that Zür serves sure is -- with good reason I suppose, as the disk of near-black chocolate is dense with a deliciously bittersweet taste. It's dished up here with a stingy scoop of vanilla ice cream. Crème brélée was merely okay, the sugary crust lacking the dark, slightly bitter caramelization necessary to successfully play against the sweet custard below.
I wondered whether the one inventive-sounding dessert, "white chocolate cappuccino with espresso," might be a mistakenly listed beverage. Our waitress assured me it definitely was a dessert, describing it as whipped foam with a bit of espresso at the bottom; I now envisioned it as some sort of white chocolate mousse into which one folds the coffee. In fact what was placed on the table was a glass of steamy cappuccino flavored with drizzles of chocolate syrup and topped with a white chocolate froth only slightly firmer than that atop my chowder. Obviously not a dessert, even if, as I did, you start out by eating it with a spoon and sort of pretend that it is. I don't deny it was a tasty cappuccino, but $6 is, I'd say, a bit pricey for the drink. I'm fairly certain they didn't get this idea from a food magazine.
Maybe Zür can succeed as a belly-dancing, Aladdin-lamped Middle Eastern spot. Or a hoity-haute hotel restaurant with an uncompromising desire to use only the finest ingredients. Perhaps it could offer a real Mediterranean menu with a Doug Rodriguez-esque cutting-edge Latin sabor that could rekindle the fuse in the sputtering fusion scene. The owner might even be outrageous in his reach and offer Miami Beach what it actually wants -- indeed what every city in the world needs at least a few of: a friendly casual restaurant featuring flavorful, affordable fare. What we keep getting instead are places like Zür -- friendly casual restaurants featuring flavorful food hyped into some forced "New World" or "fusion" context, at prices that are affordable only to the type of people who would rather spend a little more and get the real deal. I mean can you imagine one partner saying to the other, "Let's eat at Norman's tonight," and having their companion respond, "Why not save a few bucks and have New World cuisine at Zür"? Neither can I, but I'd support Zür's attempt in that direction, or any direction, if they'd make an honest commitment to it. As it stands now, Zür's allure is adeptly prepared food, but as a restaurant it makes no more sense than its name.