You'll find all the usual suspects at the all-glass, four-story restaurant on Collins Avenue. There's the purr of Lamborghinis out front, the parade of Real Housewives in tight bandage dresses, and a short red carpet unrolled. But, like a beacon, the glowing fuchsia lights outside indicate something different at this standout standalone restaurant: The level of style matches the sophistication of cuisine.
Once inside 1826 Restaurant & Lounge, there's nowhere to go but up. You can enter the elevator and head to the third floor, where you'll find a contemporary setting with a light display, elongated windows, metal barstools, and lounge chairs made from recycled airplane skins. If you're a VIP or a member of a private party, or you order bottle service, go straight to the fourth floor.
Or you might head directly to dinner, for which you will be leisurely led up the stairs to the second floor. There, you'll find a throwback, mod style with pod chairs in a sleek and refined space. The restaurant's four numbers are engraved in the brushed concrete. Take a peek through the window into the garde manger station, and you might see chef Danny Grant meticulously placing herbs, edible flowers, and final touches on plates.
Grant has garnered two Michelin stars and was named a best new chef in 2012 by Food & Wine for his work at RIA in Chicago. He now works every part of this expansive three-story kitchen. "It has to be precise," he says. "This work is unforgiving."
The place opened during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival this past February. The pressure was on when Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, and a slew of celebrity chefs dined there the first night. Grant, like the restaurant itself, rose to the occasion, prompting Cowin to Instagram her tuna tartare and a congrats to the chef. Was that opening date intentional? "That is just how the stars aligned," Grant says. "I would've liked to have opened earlier."
Bread service is a touchstone of fine dining that can often feel stale, but at 1826 it is both casual and family-style. The selections are stellar and change regularly. Some recent choices include rolls made with roasted shallot, smoked bacon, and Parmesan; squash blossom and mushroom; and olive tapenade. They are baked to order and look something like a Cinnabon roll. Savory and flaky, they set the tone for the meal. "I wanna show love," Grant says. There's something about warm leavened bread that does just that.
The menu is separated into three sections: the Harvest, the Hook, and the Hunt. It's difficult to gauge portion size. Our server offered some pointers: The dishes listed first in each section are usually smaller. She recommended six to nine ($8 to $52 apiece) for two people. If that seems like a lot, it is. Five plates plus dessert were more than enough for my two-top.
According to Grant, the menu was designed so the kitchen gets hit in waves. Food comes out as it is ready. Our first arrival was Florida avocado salad with grapefruit, palm hearts, and citrus emulsion. It was more elegant than similar salads at other restaurants around town.
Much of the rest of the food arrived at once -- so quickly that the server had to deliver two spoons for removing final tiny cubes of cucumber from the shared salad plate.
Four croquettes from the Harvest section brought big flavor. The crunchy exterior remained intact while the center oozed with potato, a mild sheep's milk cheese, and a hint of black truffle. The recipe was born in Grant's apartment when he first moved to Miami from Chicago.
Sweet corn and garganelli pasta included summer squash and zucchini ribbons. The plate celebrated the season with spring onions and black truffle.
A heartier dish was the artichokes barigoule and gnocchi. Artichokes are nearly impossible to pair with wine, difficult to prepare, but ultimately satisfying because of their hearts. Grant has mastered how to highlight the most romantic of thistles. He braises them in an aromatic liquid comprising smoked bacon, oranges, onion, carrot, white wine, and chicken stock. Then he strains the liquid, braises the cleaned chokes, and cools them in the same liquid. He then reiterates the flavors in the delicate gnocchi, and with the addition of the black truffle butter it becomes a rich stew of bold flavors. Crisp, salty hunks of guanciale -- cured pork cheek -- don't overpower the meaty, triangular-cut artichokes.
Less than perfect were the Florida shrimp. They were rather tasteless prior to being wrapped in phyllo dough for a fun nest effect. A dip in the mint-coriander sabayon, though, perked the prawns right up. The roasted cod garden cassoulet with arugula and heirloom tomatoes was light and delicate, with strong kicks of dill.
Meat dishes were stronger. The finely chopped, dry-aged beef in a tartare mixed with red onion and celery root was scooped into mini-cornets with horseradish cream on the bottom. These four tiny cones were carnival-like. It was hard to resist biting the pointy bottom to suck out the cream, as you might do with the fudge at the bottom of an ice-cream Drumstick.
The short rib was exceptionally tender, cooked at a very low temperature for two full days before a trio of lemon zest, preserved lemon, and lemon oil was added. Fried Brussels sprouts topped the dish, and sunchokes sat below.
Even those heavier dishes are lightened, Grant says, because "people here eat lighter food, come in later, and don't want to walk away feeling heavy."
Passionfruit semifreddo with coconut, Greek yogurt, and basil also plays to the taste buds of the Magic City. It is a star sweet, created by pastry chef Soraya Caraccioli-Kilgore, that matches the precision and artistry of the restaurant.
Drinks, on the other hand, are lacking. Placing the drink menu on an iPad mini adds nothing to the experience. Cocktails are unimaginative and unimpressive, and only justifiable when a handful are half-priced during happy hour in the lounge. The wine selection is far stronger, although there were still hiccups. One evening, I ordered a $14 glass of rosé but received a $28 sparkling version instead. It was a stellar glass -- until the bill came.
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The pacing of the meal and the bar program may be off, but the food, presentation, and decor are spot on. Grant proves that style over substance no longer reigns in South Beach. When cuisine matches the showy scene, new heights in fine dining can be reached.
Follow Carina on Twitter @CarinaOst