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
As far as fatuous falsehoods go, F. Scott Fitzgerald's contention that "there are no second acts in American lives" ranks right up there with "Mission Accomplished." Just wait and see: Britney Spears will be staging her comeback tour faster than you can say "Al Gore." People reinvent themselves all the time. So do restaurants. Inspired by this national spirit of second chances, I returned to Acqua and Atrio, a pair of dining establishments ensconced in glassy, classy hotels just one block apart on Brickell Avenue. Neither received much praise from New Timeswhen they opened three years ago. Both have since replaced their chefs. We visited each restaurant just once this time around, ordering two appetizers, two entrées, and two desserts from each.
Acqua, located off the stately seventh-floor lobby of the Four Seasons Miami, has retained its understated, upper-echelon elegance. It is an exceedingly comfortable room in which to sit, softly lit with plush upholstered chairs set around polished burl-wood table tops. Yet while the decor remains unchanged, the menu has been completely renovated since we were last here in November 2004. At that time, some of chef Marco Bax's Italian-Med cuisine proved pleasing, but we were mostly disappointed as evidenced by our description of a "deadly dull vegetable terrine" surrounded by "dabs of raspberry vinaigrette that rested like flowers around a tombstone." We did, however, appreciate the "surprisingly moderate prices" (main courses from $21 to $32). Now most entrées start above $32, but since Patrick Duff took over as executive chef some seven months ago, the quality of cuisine has soared to new heights as well.
Duff came to town by way of Bangkok's Sukhothai Hotel, and the Asian influence is clear in a pristine, mirin-marinated, main course tenderloin of tuna that from the outside mimics a steakhouse filet mignon. With only the gentlest prodding, moist, burgundy flakes of the fish fell off into a thin, lightly curried cauliflower purée, both components seductively sweetened with melted leeks and lumps of crabmeat as big and juicy as grapes. A sizable shank of "White Marble Farms" pork likewise impressed, the meat braised into tender submission and glazed with a spunky Szechuan-citrus sauce. Under the pork were mashed plantains faintly freckled with chorizo.
Atrio, Conrad Miami, 1395 Brickell Ave, Miami; 305-503-6529. Open daily for breakfast 6:30 to 11:00 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6:30 to 11:00 p.m.
White Marble Farms sounds so pastoral and idyllic, but there is no such place it's a brand name cooked up by Sysco marketers for industrial pork from Cargill Meat Solutions. These pigs never see a pasture; they are raised indoors in confinement pens just like most commercial pork, which makes the $33 tab for this low-end cut of meat seem less justified. Diners (and chefs!) beware: Assigning fake pedigree names to foods is a trick being used with more frequency these days. Readers (and food writers!) take note, too: A Tampa Tribune restaurant review (not of Acqua) from last September authoritatively claimed, "This kitchen doesn't skimp on quality the pork comes from the venerable White Marble Farms."
All but three nonsoup starters get plated as salads. Even pasilla chile-rubbed shreds of short ribs came embedded in watercress and frisée, and also tantalizingly teased with walnuts and wasabi goat cheese crumbles in a walnut oil and Cuban coffee-infused balsamic vinaigrette. This makes for one lively mouthful, and is not nearly as weird as it sounds due to the subdued nature of the coffee and wasabi elements. Still, a crabcake appetizer proved pretty standard by comparison, and was comprised of far fewer lumps than were found around the tuna. Crisped carrot threads atop the cake didn't add much, but alongside was a terrific open tamale of fresh corn and scallion in spicy jalapeño cream.
Service seemingly operates on a tag-team system, one waiter approaching the table for this, another coming over for that. Each was pleasant, polite, and professional, but gaps between the two left us waiting for someone to take our orders, for someone to take the check, and so forth.
Pastry chef Charles Froke comes to Miami from the Four Seasons Washington D.C., and my god, his bittersweet chocolate tart is sensational. It's actually a warm chocolate pudding in a round of buttery short crust tart shell, garnished with crisps of bittersweet chocolate and banana slices wrapped in crackly crusts of caramel (with a bit of edible gold leaf gilded on top). Ice cream on the side is flavored with tonka bean, a fragrant vanillalike seed that likewise evokes almonds, cinnamon, and cloves. Our pineapple fritter dessert could not compete, with chunks of the golden fruit tempura-battered, fried, dusted with sugar, accompanied by a thin and piquant caramel sauce, a small scoop of roasted banana and passion fruit sorbet, and a little taste of coconut custard. The latter two ingredients seemed like frivolous afterthoughts meant to plump up the presentation (what writers refer to as "filler").
If you've been enticed into giving Acqua a try (or a second try), I'd suggest doing so on a Thursday evening, which beginning next week becomes "Open That Bottle of Wine Night." Corkage fees get waived on any bottle not available on the restaurant's excellent, expensive, but not extensive wine list, and if you call in advance and specify the wines you'll be bringing, chef Duff, at your request, will create a meal to match your selections. If you don't feel like lugging your own labels, Thursdays will likewise bring a fifty-percent discount on any bottle listed on the "Extraordinary Wines" page of the menu. You'll appreciate the discounting: Our two apps, two entrées, and two desserts, plus tax, but not including water, wine, coffee, or tip: $125.