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
Especially on Thursday nights. We came to the restaurant on that evening without having called for reservations, my assumption being the place was too new to be fully occupied. It appeared I was correct when we entered at 9:00 and the 90-seat room contained just four diners. Tonight is "Drag Queen Night," we were then told at the door; the place will be packed in about half an hour. It was. I have to admit I've never fully appreciated the entertainment value of men who can't sing pretending to be women who can, but after the first performer finished lip-synching his song, the mostly gay male crowd was clearly delighted. On other evenings, which draw a somewhat more diversified cast of diners, a female dancer in a seductive outfit will occasionally enter the dining room, jump on an unoccupied table, and perform a KISS-like gyration to the music.
While these sideshows are rather garish, the high-ceilinged room, designed by lesser-known Ciccone sibling Christopher, radiates an elegant simplicity. Hardwood floors; crisp white linen tabletops; thick wooden blinds; mirrored portholes; and, elevated from the dining area, a long, polished bar of mirrors, mahogany, bottles, and brass create a suave supper-club ambiance. The entire space is bathed in a relaxing, ruby-red glow -- nice effect, but you'll need to borrow the waiter's flashlight to read the menu. And be forewarned: A mix of club music BOOMS over the speakers, even early at night, so much so that they probably don't have to hike the volume much when 6 Degrees seamlessly slides into loungeland at about 11:00 each evening. You might also note there's no designated section for nonsmokers.
Service is excellent. The waitstaff achieves just the right balance of amiability and professionalism and have been obviously well trained in fundamentals -- like when to approach a table, how to remove plates, replace silverware, deliver a check promptly, and pour wine. The wine selection could use some bolstering, but the short selection does offer popular labels ranging from Kendall-Jackson to Opus One.
Chef Jason Strom's Mediterranean-influenced American comfort food is by no means cutting edge (Atlantic salmon in puff pastry with shiitake mushrooms and caviar beurre blanc was last deemed exciting when Ronald Reagan was president) but does manage to satisfy in a consistent manner. We tried two of the five nonsalad beginnings, each priced at $10 or $11, starting with a roasted red-pepper crêpe. It was too plump to be a proper crêpe and didn't appear to have gone through any roasting process, but the cushiony red pancake was filled with full flavors coaxed from morsels of chicken breast, mushrooms, and slightly crunchy sautéed fennel and onions moistened with citrus butter sauce.
A trio of lightly seared scallops, fresh and succulent atop a truffle-infused purée of celery root (or celeriac, a knobby root vegetable with celery-parsley taste), was colorfully encircled by a stream of tomato oil and cold green peas, whose cooking process evidently went no further than defrosting. The shellfish and purée were a tasty tandem but needed more assertive contrasts, as in something spicy or salty to counteract the sweetness of ingredients and something crunchy (other than a few peas) to offset the softness.
Thirteen main courses comprise four fish, four meat, one penne pasta, a pan-seared chicken, a hamburger, and two vegetarian entrées, both of which venture beyond the clumsy combos commonly found in vapid vegetable plates: grilled portobello mushroom with sweet-pea risotto, tomato syrup, and parsnip crisps; and lasagna layered with oven-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and a rich tomato-basil Béchamel sauce that was so delectable it bore witness to the wisdom of the longstanding southern Italian preference for serving this dish meatless.
Chef Strom achieves a homespun feel to his food partly by using comforting, oft-overlooked root vegetables like celery root and parsnips. The latter gets whipped with potatoes and placed beneath meltingly soft slices of cider-marinated pork tenderloin, the entrée further enhanced by tangy brown sauce, sweetly caramelized apples, and a frizzle of fried onions. A solid deal at $18 -- some starters cost a couple of dollars more than they should, but main courses, $15 to $25, are very reasonably priced.
A lightly grilled square of ahi tuna came sliced diagonally in the middle to show off a smooth, burgundy-tinted center that paired well with a soothing pool of reduced merlot. The idea here was to offer a rustic variation on the yellowfin, but a slight scattering of roasted red-pepper strips and caramelized shallots, along with small scoop of pedestrian potato purée, yielded an unexpectedly incohesive result. The overall effect of the plate was like that of a stage filled with talented actors not connecting in an uninteresting play.
The hamburger, on the other hand, was strongly supported by a delicious thicket of crisp, truffle-oiled homemade French fries. The burger was topnotch, too, a hefty, hand-formed, honest patty of grilled ground sirloin, nicely charred on the exterior, juicy medium-rare within, and plopped in a soft bun with a thick disk of sweet white onion, tomato slice, and romaine lettuce leaf.
I imagined that the chocolate tower for two would arrive as some soaring architectural construct of cocoa components, but it was really more a mound of fudgelike brownie and disks of bitter and semisweet chocolate cakes bound with stiff chocolate mousse. Perhaps some at the table were disappointed with the less-than-spectacular presentation, but they surely weren't let down by the intense (but not intensely sweet) chocolate flavors, vanilla ice cream, and Baileys-boosted chocolate sauce. We also enjoyed the berry cobbler, a hot, baked casserole of sweetened strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries beneath a sugary battered crust -- they should consider removing some sugar from the filling, though, since the fruit and crust are sweet enough.
In some cities a handsome new restaurant offering good food and service at a fair price might be considered superfluous. In Miami Beach it's a novelty, and one to be relished by locals for all the right reasons.