Reinventing a Classic

In the early Nineties, before South Beach rents became terminally stratospheric, there was no lack of fun-fueled, reasonably priced neighborhood eateries -- like Lulu's, a Southern truck stop on acid whose entire second floor was designed as a shrine to Elvis Presley. Then there was the Strand (the original one, on Washington Avenue), strongly geared toward locals yet hip enough to draw visiting celebrities.

Even then the Marlin Hotel was legendary among its peers, as owner Tim Spuches is well aware. Not that the NYC nightclub operator was around back when U2 hung out in the spot's recording studio and bar; when locals gave tourists directions based on the landmark mint-condition classic automobiles permanently stationed out front; when hundreds converged to watch free films projected in the parking lot on hot summer nights. But since buying the hotel last year, Spuches has heard endless tales of its glory days from nostalgic Beach residents. Hence he decided to try his hand at reviving that famous neighborhood feel.

One thing about the old Marlin few people praised was the food; the restaurant component seemed, to put it kindly, merely an afterthought. At Rex -- a casual brasserie-style restaurant opened in mid-August -- this isn't the case. The décor, in keeping with the Marlin's rock and roll reputation, is stylishly grungy: walls painted black, white, and whorehouse red; an outrageously kitschy chandelier hanging above the back room's 22-foot-long bar; ceramic antler sconces and recessed amber ceiling fixtures providing flatteringly muted lighting (but not so dark that the menu is illegible); tabletops featuring old music newspapers and band posters. Tip: Go for the corner Rolling Stones table; it's the best seat from which to scope out the whole scene.

Dishes were created by Shaun Doty, hailed as a culinary genius since opening Atlanta's MidCity Cuisine in 2003. But the actual stovemeister is Doty's former MidCity chef de cuisine Jeff Beatrice, who has a real gift for serving up satisfying, simple, and elegant food. It's basically fresh, ingredient-driven New American fare with fun Old World accents, such as a daily special of grilled branzino with chickpea flour fries and salsa verde (a lemony gremolata) -- all Mediterranean-inspired. Unfortunately the fish seemed to have been filleted with a chainsaw; in each mouthful were more bone fragments than meat, making it nearly impossible to eat.

A miraculously juicy roast chicken was much more enjoyable, served with barely wilted spinach and sweetbread morsels so delectably crisp outside and creamily smooth inside that one would easily forget they're thymus glands. Also tasty -- and a great deal for $20 -- were the steak/frites, a chewy but perfectly cooked cut served with a side of smooth albeit bland béarnaise sauce (good news: no tarragon overdose; bad news: not nearly enough of a shallot/vinegar zing) and terrific shoestring French fries.

Although entrées were good, appetizers rule at Rex. Oysters were crisp, clean West Coast Kumamotos served with a subtle rice wine vinaigrette (rather than nasty cocktail sauce) and garnished with avocado. Lightly breaded rings of calamari were enlivened by thin slices of deep-fried jalapeño and okra.

But the winner was the antipasto. So often a disappointing assortment of mediocrities, this plate was packed with top-quality treats: chorizolike slices of hot sopressata, justifiably thicker slices of New York-made salamini alla cacciatore, paper-thin prosciutto di Parma, marinated (not salt-cured) fresh anchovy fillets, milky-rich mozzarella, intense Point Reyes blue cheese, and bracing bits of crunchy asparagus and okra spears, all arranged on savory Sardinian flatbread.

It's not the wild, eccentric Marlin of a dozen years ago. But foodwise, at least, that's a good thing.

 
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