By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
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It's a restaurant, a lounge, a nightclub, and a cigar bar! It's a tony retreat for power-lunching suits, a semi-Med eatery for condo-canyon urbanites, and a late-night hot spot for causeway-averse trendoids!
It's Badrutt's Place!
If this slickly packaged newbie at South Miami Avenue and Coral Way had any more personalities, it would be on the couch with Dr. Phil.
The place has a pedigree to match its ambition. Proprietor Johannes Badrutt is a scion of the family that founded and still owns Badrutt's Palace Hotel, a faux-Gothic monument to fur-lined indulgence in Saint Moritz. And if young Johannes spared any expense tricking out his temple to conspicuous excess, it's tough to see where. Weathered French oak floors, Venetian crystal chandeliers, a small forest of burnished wood panels, marble countertops, and enough butter-soft leather to swaddle every Hell's Angel east of the Mississippi are all testament to the kind of wealth that separates the merely rich from the obscenely loaded.
Despite all of this, despite all of the cawing over the "world-class design" by the apparently famous Alison Antrobus, the overall effect is rather, well ... pedestrian. The restaurant's most notable design features are its wickedly comfortable high-backed leather chairs and a raised VIP lounge in the center of the dining room. The lounge — a long, tubelike space beneath wooden ribs — resembles nothing so much as a subtly disguised, poshly appointed cannon, ready to be raised and fired.
Speaking of cannons, during a pair of visits at lunch and dinner, you could have shot one straight through the dining room without even nicking a customer. And though one charming if often confused waiter assured us that, come the wee hours, the place is packed tighter than Britney Spears's bikini, it was a bit disconcerting to dine in a room as empty as the aforementioned Ms. Spears's brainpan.
With that in mind, it would be no surprise if the food were an afterthought. Thankfully it was much better than that; chef Davide Piana made his culinary bones at Escopazzo, a rarity in Miami because it serves Italian cuisine that might actually be recognized by Italians.
The wine list wasn't particularly adventurous and was rather pricey — though the suave, spicy, medium-bodied 2001 Antica Torre Barolo ($65) was a relative bargain at less than 2.5 times retail. And there were few bargains on the menu. The cheapest appetizer cost $14, and many entrées nudged $40. But that's really not bad if you consider the almost $1,000 for one night in a standard room at the Palace during peak season. If you could pay that, you'd probably burn up a fistful of twenties keeping your Cohibas lit here.
In such a setting, luxury must be served, which means foie gras. Piana offers his ode to opulence as a terrine ($20), which not only eliminates tricky, made-to-order sautéing, but also turns this king of all livers into pub grub for the Maserati set. It was, in fact, delightful, as silken as a pashmina shawl, richer than the House of Saud, gilded with croutons and a lovely mixed berry compote.
Tiraditos are not exactly Mediterranean, but this is Miami, where they're as obligatory as café Cubano at Versailles. Again, this was a fine effort: Thin dominoes of impeccably fresh mahi-mahi were bedded down on gossamer rounds of cucumber in a pool of citrusy, modestly piquant "Peruvian spicy sauce," with an eensy dice of celery and slivers of red onion for crunch ($14). A lunchtime take on the venerable salad Lyonnaise ($10) was generously portioned and anointed with perfectly runny poached eggs. Too bad the whiskery tufts of frisée underneath somehow escaped the kitchen without a drop of dressing.
Gnocchi and risotto are two dishes that try any cook's talents; Badrutt's nailed one and never mind the other. Skip the heavy, tasteless potato dumplings ($14, lunch), served with a creamy tomato sauce and, inexplicably, spears of fresh mozzarella — the bland leading the bland. Risotto, however, was as deftly prepared as most restaurant versions are dreadful. (The typical restaurant method, cooking the rice most of the way through, spreading it out on a hotel pan and refrigerating, and then finishing to order with more stock, butter, and — if they're cheating — a hit of cream, rarely produces better than gummy or chalky rice.) Even better, our saffron-spiked risotto came with slices of house-cured duck breast and caramel sauce. This likely resulted from a mixup somewhere between table and kitchen, but it was so uncommonly good it would have been boorish to complain.
I liked the idea of plating the meaty, spice-crusted swordfish ($30) with an unctuous sweet corn sauce and chunks of roasted red onion. Unfortunately it was undercooked and shot through with rubber-bandlike threads of sinew.
And a shiver of guilty pleasure, something akin to discovering your dad's old Playboys, coursed through me at the sight of a gastronomic antique such as veal Pojarsky ($24, lunch) on the menu. Supposedly named for a favored cook of Tsar Nicholas I, it's basically meat loaf in a tuxedo — twin patties of ground veal and chicken pimped out with a diamond stickpin of truffled demi-glace and sliced black truffles.