To Dine or to Dance

Rumi

On May 29, 1913, as a string orchestra performed in the restaurant of the Savoy hotel in London, two diners rose from their chairs and began dancing. As others followed suit, tables were pushed aside to clear space, and social tradition was overturned. Previous to this night, dining and dancing had always been entirely separate affairs. Over the next four decades, the "dinner dance" would become a popular social function at the Savoy and numerous other high-end supper clubs.

Today's burgeoning restaurant/club scene in South Beach, exemplified by one-word wonders like Opium, Pearl, Tantra, and Touch, is a distant and decadent descendant of those dinner dances, albeit with distinct differences: The music is much louder and thumpier, of course; and more important, food and frolic take the floor at different hours -- the former first, then the latter. Regardless of how early you dine at these sorts of places, however, the ambiance generally reeks of a club waiting to happen. Not so with recently opened Rumi on the Collins end of Lincoln Road, which feels like a bona fide restaurant -- until 11:30 p.m. that is, which is when the music is pumped up, the lights dimmed down, tables and chairs replaced with smaller cocktail tables and ottomans, and a giant Murphy bed descends from the wall. The lounge is now open.

The outside of Rumi is pure club at all times, with curtained windows, velvet ropes, and no signage (you might want to make a mental note of the exact address before setting out). The front room is handsome and low-key, the people and bottles of alcohol that line up across a bar to the left providing the only colors to be found among varying shades of beige and brown. Earth tones extend beyond the bar into the restaurant via cream walls and wood flooring, but striped burgundy banquettes and bright, sunburst-patterned polyurethane tables contribute dramatic splashes of color. Although shoebox-shaped and windowless, Rumi is in fact exquisitely designed in an urbanely hip style, and made to feel roomier by way of peach- and blue-tinted mirrored walls and staggered levels of a giant lighting fixture hanging matrixlike from a tall mirrored ceiling.

Scott Fredel and J.D. Harris -- the two young ones at the stove of the delectable Rumi
Steve Satterwhite
Scott Fredel and J.D. Harris -- the two young ones at the stove of the delectable Rumi

Our first visit to Rumi occurred during one of three consecutive Thursday-evening benefits held on behalf of the Red Cross. It was a generous offer by the restaurant, a four-course meal and glass of champagne in exchange for a twenty-dollar donation. Cut-rate pricing (entrées usually run from $15 to $28) was only one deviation from the normal Rumi dining experience. Another was the lack of any menu from which to choose. You ate what they served, each person at the table being given something different. It wasn't uncommon to witness diners exchanging plates, trading soup for salad, pork for salmon, pudding for sorbet, and so on. But unless you had an allergy or aversion to a certain food, I'm not sure it made much difference what dish was placed in front of you; everything looked equally delectable.

Highlights of the two meals served at our table: silky potato chowder with flakes of smoky grilled salmon. Seared tuna tataki atop sprightly cabbage salad. Both main-course plates with juicy slices of meat fanned across them -- pork tenderloin with pearl onions on a baby-food-soft purée of calabaza squash, and center-cut strip loin with a homemade Worcestershire demi-glace over a similarly baby-food puff of mashed potatoes (starches and vegetables tended to be baby by portion as well, and not just on Thursdays). For dessert orange flan was textbook, and "banana chocolate chip brownie" was really more a banana cake with chocolate but nonetheless fetching with vanilla ice cream.

Subsequent dinners would confirm the virtues of simplicity exhibited during the benefit meal. Scott Fredel and J.D. Harris, co-executive chefs, have between them worked under a veritable who's who of culinary stars both local (Mark Militello, Norman Van Aken, Pascal Oudin) and national (Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Emeril Lagasse). Rumi's food is self-defined as "Floridian Nouveau Cuisine," as in contemporary French technique with a slight Caribbean influence. But it's actually just uncomplicated cuisine that resounds with the essence of intense stocks, robust sauces, and fresh, intrinsically tasty ingredients imbued with just enough creative flourish to keep one's interest piqued. For instance: an unfussy yet unique starter of boniato gnocchetti, light dumplings in a cream sauce topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano and freshly cracked allspice. Or Bibb-lettuce salad tossed with an elemental lemon-and-tarragon dressing that seemed almost radical in its ability to refresh. Or a main course of about 30 succulent mussels steamed with sugar cane and rum, the sweet, molasseslike aromas providing an intoxicating kick. We shared the mussels as a starter, leaving us seven entrées to choose from the short, no-nonsense menu.

Concerning the two other seafood offerings: Baked salmon with grilled leeks, sweet potato, red-onion marmalade, and mustard didn't sound as alluring as mangrove snapper with hearts of palm croquette and peppery tomato broth. So we went with the snapper, the skin crisply seared, the croquette like a crackly potato pancake, the thicker-than-broth sauce a caramelized reduction of onions, garlic, and tomatoes with a healthy spike of Scotch bonnet peppers.

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