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
The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans take home 24 percent of all national income, own 40 percent of the country's total wealth, and are most likely to be seen dining in any restaurant where Jeff O'Neill is the chef.
O'Neill, who cut his chops in the masterful New York City kitchens of Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert, has in recent years plumped the wealthy at L'Escalier at the Breakers Hotel, at Mar-a-Lago by Donald T., and now at the Villa by Barton G. (in Casa Casuarina by Gianni V.). A stint in between at the more pedestrian Gibraltar at Grove Isle has been all but excised from O'Neill's resumé, yet that's where he first gained notice among Miami diners for his bold style of cooking. He replaced Justin Albertson at the Villa in August 2010, shortly after we last reviewed the restaurant.
Casuarina was of course closed to the public after Gianni Versace purchased it as his home in 1992. But since Barton G. Weiss took over the property in early 2010, the Bastille-like entry gates have been opened to the 99 percent — if mainly for those special-occasion meals that comprise about 1 percent of our dining experiences.
1116 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Region: South Beach
Yes, the Villa is quite expensive; it would be inappropriate if it were not. Can you imagine walking into a palatial setting, through an opulent lobby, past a seductive lounge of nostalgic splendor called the Moroccan Room, into an intimate dining area with walls of pebble mosaics imported from Spain and a frescoed ceiling and Versace-designed Rosenthal china — and then being handed a laminated menu of affordable burgers, pastas, and salads? Well, thankfully, Weiss has pictured things a little differently.
Yes, it's true that a mojito is $20, a flute of champagne will set you back $46 (for Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rose Brut, not often served by the glass), and valet parking is $25. But main courses and starters actually aren't out of line with our other high-end restaurants. (Remember that Miami, according to the Zagat 2012 survey, is the second-most expensive dining city in America.) Of the three salads and five starters offered, only a terrine of foie gras "ambrosia" ($32) and truffled asparagus salad ($29) top $25. There are entrées over $50, but also a trio for under $40.
Still, expensive is expensive. Is dinner at the Villa worth this type of dough? The answer lies in the eyes (and mouth) of the beholder. You can certainly see the money on the plate, so to speak. That truffled asparagus salad, for instance, includes a thatch of crimson petite lettuce. But those pert leaves, along with peeled stalks of asparagus, really serve as chill garnishes to the main attraction: a warm, smooth ricotta flan generously gilded in white truffle shavings and sumptuous morel mushrooms, with a truffle vinaigrette flowing through it all.
As for the starters, we skipped a teeny terrine of foie gras daintily plated with carbonated grapes and other miniature components; a more traditional-looking vodka-cured salmon carpaccio with mustard caviar and pearls of dill; and maple-glazed barramundi with lobster, papaya, and jasmine rice in white-ginger broth. A couple dining nearby raved over the barramundi, which was part of a multicourse tasting menu they'd ordered (tables here are placed surprisingly close together, so we couldn't help but listen in). There is no prix fixe option on the menu, but those in-the-know can call in advance and request the Villa's nine-to-15-course tasting meal.
Snapper ceviche arrives looking like a little psychedelic garden. Delicate herbs and microgreens sprout vertically from a ring of raw snapper (marinated in lemon oil), which creates a moat around a multicolored patch of pickled key shrimp with minced mango, jalapeño, red onion, candied citrus zest, and crisp coins of taro. On the outlying perimeter of the round plate are bright-green dots of Thai basil oil interspersed with red dots of spicy shrimp oil afloat on the leche de tigre (in this case tangelo and key lime juice). The effect on the palate is fresh, bright, scintillating, tart, spicy, and a bit fruity-sweet.
Another appealing appetizer brings cylinders of crêpe tightly filled with moist and savory duck confit — each duck stack capped with a red sour-ginger candy. Pistachio streusel crumbs spill upon the plate, which is likewise populated by candied kumquat circles leaning on mini cubes of vanilla-compressed pineapple and sweet dots of chocolate-A1 steak sauce.
This sort of tweezer cuisine can be more elating than sating, but more substantially portioned entrées and incidentals such as an ahi amuse-bouche and delectable breads ensure that nobody leaves hungry. The latter, served individually by the waiter, include a choice of a plain minibaguette brushed with truffle oil and sea salt or topped with melted Gouda.
The wine list, only slightly bulkier than a hardcover edition of War and Peace, encompasses 100-plus labels from sundry distinguished vintners. Most diners in this setting order wine by the bottle, but sommelier Hakan Balkuvvar was happy to recommend a glass of crisp '07 Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve from Oregon ($25).
The staff here is experienced and formally trained. Plateware is handled with precision, dish descriptions are enunciated with an almost British clarity, and water gets poured like clockwork. Yet one of us was brought an entrée of Maine lobster in curried coconut milk instead of what was ordered: a bread-crusted diver scallop paired with an anise-glazed veal cheek.