By Zachary Fagenson
By Bill Citara
By Laine Doss
By Laine Doss
By Carina Ost
By Valeria Nekhim
By Hannah Sentenac
By Carina Ost
With its red walls, checkerboard terrazzo floor, fabric-wrapped columns, fiber-optic lighting, and caped, oversize chairs, the two-level KISS Steakhouse and Lounge looks like the Mad Hatter's tea party on location in Vegas. Which is an appropriate design for the late-night club that evolves at about 11:00 each night, when the music gets cranked and the much-written-about dancing girls gyrate from Lucite stages suspended around the dining room. "Much written about" is an understatement, but I suppose you could expect plans for a topless steak house in South Beach to garner attention. (You no doubt know by now that proposal was scrapped in favor of clothing the dancers in skimpy outfits.) I've never been a believer in extraneous activities in restaurants, whether it be mariachi bands or television screens, but if I have to be subjected to dining distractions, I'll take a fire-eating go-go girl over Monday-night football every time.
To be honest, dancing and dining commingle only from 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. on. Before then, when the music is softer and lighting effects kept to a minimum (it's so dark that to read the menu you first have to move it perilously close to the tabletop candle), KISS is committed to being a restaurant serving some seriously good cuts of meat. Problem is, while one could be kind and say the ambiance is a whimsical alternative to customarily clubby steak houses, it seems totally out of whack with the excellent cuisine -- in fact I dare say this is the best food you'll ever eat in a room this tacky.
A basket of KISS's lip-smacking breads was an omen of good things to come: dark brown, salted pretzel rolls; soft, almost cakelike wedges of brioche; and mini corn muffins. More cornbread, this time presented as thin, waferlike slices, accompanied a starter of eight succulently smoked pork back ribs glazed with a sweet, tangy, and spicy cardamom barbecue sauce. An all-American red-and-white coleslaw rounded out the plate, which you may want to share -- this is a lot of food for one person to start with, especially in light of the prodigious meals that follow. A lighter starter choice would be "fire-roasted" West Coast oysters, five bivalves slightly warmed and tastily topped in their shells with snippets of fresh baby artichokes, olives, and lemon butter.
The salad selection is stacked with vertical constructions, like a "deck" of heirloom tomatoes, red onions, and blue cheese; and a "tower" of lobster, avocado, roasted peppers, yellow tomatoes, and olives. We dug into a more down-to-earth spinach salad, the leaves warmed, wilted, and mouthwateringly permeated with the crunch and sizzle of a full-flavored apple-bacon dressing. Sweet, teeny croutons of chewy gingerbread were flecked throughout the greens, the same gingerbread layered in a terrine with blue cheese, two slices of which are served on the side. The tastes were so well-balanced and so delicious, this should serve as the prototype to which all future spinach salads are compared.
No writeup of KISS has neglected to mention its "$40 steaks," but it isn't fair to compare these heftily portioned, dry-aged prime meats with the punier, less flavorful, less tender, wet-aged meats (meaning sealed with their bloody juices and packed tightly in plastic) that are served at all but the top steak houses and a few of our finer restaurants. These inferior steaks usually run about $28 to $36 -- now that's overpriced. One bite into KISS's garlic-and-chili-marinated fourteen-ounce New York strip and you'll recognize its value, the spiced crust intensely seared by charbroiling, the texture within practically melting onto the plate. This steak would have been delicious naked, but smoky chipotle demi-glace makes for an inarguably alluring dressing.
A center cut of breaded, pan-roasted veal chop was similarly thick and delectable, and like many of the dishes here follows the code of the acronymic KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid, as in a mustard-imbued jus, crisply sautéed haricots verts, and a roasted tomato. Slow-roasted prime rib for two, the signature slab of beef, comes sliced and served with loads of roasted vegetables and three dipping sauces; this can easily serve as a meal for three. A full-bodied red wine from KISS's short, smart, and pricey list would match this magnum of meat nicely -- bottles start at $45. Most everything is pricey here, though there are exceptions, one being half of an intensely smoke-roasted Bell & Evans chicken with cubes of root vegetables, a fresh artichoke heart, and a deep brown thyme-flecked jus for just $22.95.
One difference between KISS and an average steak house is that main courses come with vegetables -- and we're not talking creamed spinach. A plate of ancho-crusted tuna steak looked like a veritable garden patch with braised endive, roasted tomato, baby zucchini, baby carrots, patty pan squash, and cremini mushroom caps, each carefully seasoned and prepared to perfection. The moderate portion of tuna was likewise cooked just right, the sweet and sourness of a fig-and-grapefruit marmalade enhancing the fish to such a remarkable degree that the omnipresent sesame-soy treatments suddenly seemed wrong-headed.
Starches do cost extra. At $8.95 lobster-corn fritters were the most expensive -- and the worst. The three dry fritters were the size of golf balls, and of only slightly less weight and density. An undersize portion of "spicy house-made" fries wasn't great either -- stick with steak-house-style hash browns or lyonnaiselike potato and onions.
The days when Miami restaurants would charge $7 for a lousy dessert are apparently behind us, replaced by the more contemporary and just-as-crummy $9 dessert. This is the third restaurant in a row where I've concluded a satisfying meal with just that. A chocolate-and-coconut-coated banana fried to a distastefully greasy state, two miniscoops of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and a moistureless, dull-tasting "blondie" constituted this particular disaster.
Speaking of disasters, a word of caution to men who may need to use the restroom during weekends: A man will follow you into the small, single-urinal space and stand behind you, paper towel in hand. After washing your hands in the sink, which has so many products piled on top it looks like the personal-care section at Walgreens, you will note that the only paper towel is the one he is holding. He is not doing this because he likes you. (Advice to worldwide terrorists: If you wish to propagandize against capitalism more effectively, get the word out that there are places in America where you have to tip to use the bathroom.)
KISS's cuisine is overseen by chef Robert Nava but bears the unmistakably bold, Southwestern flair of its sister restaurant, Touch -- especially the touch of Sean Basel, corporate executive chef. It is to Basel's credit that with all the extraneous, circuslike hoopla surrounding his cuisine at both places, he's nonetheless recognized, rightly so, as being one of our area's most talented chefs. First a Touch, then a KISS -- one needn't be Nostradamus to predict what's coming next, though for aficionados of fine dining, the sexiest scenario would involve an environment where Basel's no-nonsense cuisine, not some long-legged, leather-clad tease, takes center stage.