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
Since its extensive renovation in 1997, the Tides South Beach hotel has anchored the north end of Ocean Drive with a graceful and stately presence. A number of respectable chefs have ably steered the property's signature restaurant, 1220 at the Tides, but they've come and gone like the ebb and flow of waves. Meanwhile more celebrated culinarians splashed with great fanfare into the dining establishments of neighboring SoBe hotels: Nobu at the Shore Club; Emeril at the Loews; David Bouley at the Ritz-Carlton; Govind Armstrong at the Regent; Doug Rodriguez at the Sanctuary; Mark Zeitouni at the Standard. The Tides pretty much washed off of most peoples' radar.
Enter the Kor Hotel Group, which purchased the property two years ago and is in the process of a $12 million renovation; the lobby and restaurant have already been refurbished. The latter, a formerly staid, monochromatic white dining room, has been magically transformed into a staid, monochromatic taupe dining room. The focal point is a wall display of some 100 faux tortoise shells, all in varying shades of white, brown, and taupe — not unattractive, but I couldn't help thinking it looked like a somber museum exhibit of prehistoric toilet seat lids. The restaurant's outdoor terrace, with tabletop candles, lush sea grape trees, and an enviable vista of Ocean Drive, remains one of the most romantic alfresco milieus in town.
The new, improved Tides has really revived with the arrival of 35-year-old executive chef Pietro Rota, who learned his trade at the Professional Institute of State in San Pellegrino, Italy (where he presumably also drank lots of bottled water). Over the next 15 years, Rota worked at restaurants in his hometown of Bergamo, Italy, and in Brazil; as executive chef at Ristorante Osteria Del Pianoin in Livorno; and in the same capacity at the star-studded Il Sole Italian Restaurant on Beverly Hills' Sunset Strip. That was his last stop before being tapped as top toque for the newly minted La Marea at the Tides South Beach (marea means "ebb and flow" or "tide" in Italian).
It doesn't take long to discover that Rota possesses the clean, uncomplicated style of cooking that defines Mediterranean gastronomy. In fact the very first bite of his open ravioli appetizer is enough to convince any diner that he or she is about to embark on a very special culinary journey. The foundation of the dish is an ethereal sheet of pasta draped over creamed potato mousseline so smooth that, from here on out, regular mashed potatoes will seem like something only primates should eat. The runny yolk of an impeccably poached organic egg spreads its voluptuous splendor over the ravioli, and tableside shavings of Taleggio cheese and black truffle contribute the final exquisite flavors. At $28, it should be no less exhilarating.
There is no getting around it: La Marea is expensive. (I was going to list the price range here, but the restaurant manager told me to call the sales department the next day. I said that if he was busy, I could call back later, but surely somebody could just look at the menu and give me an answer. He put me on hold and returned a few minutes later to say someone would get back to me. Didn't happen.) Yet even after grating so many fungi shavings upon the ravioli as to make it look like a plate of soil, our generous server inquired whether we would like some more. "Sure," we replied. Would any sane person say otherwise? In this case, $28 represented something of a bargain. Also consider that from now until September 30 you can, and should, take advantage of the Miami Spice promotion and get a three-course meal here for $35 ($22 for lunch).
Though we were grateful for the prodigal and affable nature of our waiter, service didn't add up — as in there were two managers, four waiters, and maybe 20 diners in the room, yet it took a considerable time for us to get more water, more bread, and plates removed from the table. Lemons, which we requested for our water, never came. The kitchen was noticeably slow in putting out the food; a long lull preceded appetizers and entrées. No amuse-bouchée was served to keep us occupied, which is surprising for a place that charges such lofty prices. We did get to munch on some so-so bread, though, and after the meal, diners are treated to a round of limoncello.
Seafood is the main catch, and fish dishes are well worth any wait you might have to endure. A smart selection including loup de mer, dorade, and Florida yellowtail snapper is cooked whole and filleted in the kitchen; tuna, wild salmon, and mahi-mahi are filleted prior to cooking. Each is available either grilled, roasted, or steamed, and accompanied by "a variety of unique and rare salts, olive oils." Well, not quite. Only a single Spanish olive oil was poured on the snapper by our waiter, and no salt whatsoever was brought until we asked, at which point white sea, red Hawaiian sea, and black sea salts arrived. The one fruity olive oil, coarse speckles of salt, and a squeeze of grilled lemon or lime halves were all the sweet, pristine white flakes of fish required. It was simply perfect.
A trio of "land" selections comprises roast chicken, a 10-ounce filet mignon, and a $45 Harris Ranch porterhouse steak. It would make more sense to diversify the three by substituting pork, lamb, or duck for the second beef, but be that as it may, the 22-ounce porterhouse was hefty, hearty, and supremely tender. On the other hoof, it lacked sizzle, seasoning, and the smoky essence of burning wood characteristic of a "Florentine" steak. At least the olive oil poured upon the meat came from Tuscany.
Pastas are priced more affordably than other entrées, and are plated in full or half orders — the latter generously portioned. They are also incredibly delicious. Thick tubes of paccheri, originated long ago so they could be stuffed with Italian garlic in order to smuggle the banned cloves into Austria, came flecked with diced pork cheeks in a porcini cream sauce speckled with the mushrooms. Wow. A half plate of fettuccine boasted a whole lobster tail, as well as small morsels of the crustacean, tossed with rich lobster sauce ingeniously mingled with mint. Hoo-boy. A salad and half-pasta will cost $20 to $25, which isn't bad for so gratifying a meal.
An exemplary salad to choose would be the one composed of red and golden beets, long rectangles of which are stacked log-cabin-style and capped with warm, pungent Humboldt Fog goat cheese and a scattering of sweetened walnuts. Circling the plate is a frilly border of frisée, whose well-balanced flavors and textures are finished with olive oil and softly aged balsamic vinegar. Arugula leaves dressed with lemon-garlic vinaigrette and topped with parmesan shavings were tasty too, though wedges of "vine-ripened" tomatoes were so pale and tasteless that if word of these got back to Mr. Rota's hometown, I imagine the chef would be in danger of having his Italian citizenship revoked.
The dessert menu is brilliant, a diverse array of light treats unburdened by cloying sweetness. As with the savory foods, only a few components are combined in each offering, a style that permits small gestures to loom large. The subtle anise infusion of fresh tarragon into a light meringue topping lifted what would have been merely a flawlessly prepared sour lemon custard tart into a distinct and memorable pastry. Another inspired idea is to substitute tart red plums for apples in the traditional French tarte tatin. A scoop of fresh cream gelato chaperoned the pie in high style, as did raspberries and blackberries the size of strawberries. Flourless chocolate espresso cake, with obligatory molten center, gets accessorized with matching cappuccino ice cream, and was superior to other renditions around town.
Bhozan, our Macedonian summer guest, at meal's end volunteered, "This is the best food I have had since coming here." Jeez, we've taken him to a lot of fancy-schmancy restaurants, and my wife and I have cooked for him too.... Come to think of it, what an insensitive, ungrateful thing for him to have said! But he is correct. This was, indeed, the purest, tastiest cuisine I've eaten not only since Bo arrived, but also for some time prior. Let's hope Pietro Rota keeps the fine fare flowing — and, unlike his predecessors, doesn't ebb too soon.