I was strolling down the transformed Lincoln Road on a recent weekday evening, winding my way among the outdoor cafe tables and marveling at how much the artsy ol' mall now looks like Boca Raton, when I got caught up in the crowd near South Beach Brasserie. Locals and tourists alike often pause to gape at this redone restaurant, converted from a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall into a beamed and domed, vaguely Oriental-looking tiled mosaic of a 200-seat dining room with some of the highest ceilings in town. Or maybe they're hoping for a glimpse of actor Michael Caine, who owns the restaurant and likes to hang out there, checking on his staff and greeting his customers.
Eager to take part in the convivial ambiance and see what was behind the Continental aromas cooked up by executive chef Mitchell Maxwell (formerly hot stuff at Bang and Follia, then owner of Maxwell's American Bar & Grill), I moseyed up to the host station, out-of-town guests in tow, to secure a table for the upcoming weekend. My NYC friends are stargazers, constantly scanning the faces of strangers to see if they recognize any, and I knew they'd appreciate the opportunity to rub shoulders with Caine at the bar, not to mention John F. Kennedy, Jr., Gloria Estefan, and Sylvester Stallone, all of whom have wined and dined at the Brasserie recently.
"Can I help you?" the hostess asked, smiling sweetly.
"Yes, I'd like to make a reservation for this weekend," I returned with an equal amount of saccharin.
"Here." She handed me a South Beach Brasserie matchbook. "You can call us tomorrow."
I was astonished. "But I'm here now."
Her look said it all: For you, we'll be here tomorrow.
I argued halfheartedly for a few more minutes, but it was clear I wasn't going to get a reservation, and we both damn well knew it.
What I'm not sure of is why the superior attitude. My attire (denim and T-shirt)? Not likely: Half the patrons were clad in jeans. And it wasn't as if the restaurant was overwhelmed when I troubled the hostess to, well, host. Busy, yes. There's frequently a line for a sidewalk table, and walk-ins might wait at the bar for a seat inside. But when I did get around to calling a few weeks later, I had no trouble getting a table that very weekend, during peak dining hours.
By the time we arrived I had resolved to wipe the slate clean and start fresh with South Beach Brasserie. In fact, I wouldn't have even mentioned the hostess's rudeness had my party of five not been treated to a repeat performance almost from the get-go. Despite our reservation and the fact that several tables were quite visibly empty, we were directed to the bar while our table was "being readied." We headed willingly enough toward top-shelf alcohol; it was only after a second party of five walked in after us and was shown immediately to a table that we ventured a question.
"Oh, they had a reservation," another hostess, apparently hardened in the same mold as the first, said smugly.
"So did we."
"Well, you'll just have to be patient."
Having been scolded and sent away like schoolchildren, we didn't know what to think when she approached moments later. "We'll seat you, but you must be considerate of your waiter," she lectured us. "He has several tables sitting down at once." She then showed the five of us to a table for four, at which three of us had to squeeze in on one side. (Maxwell cites the difficulty of getting good help on the Beach: "We're aware there's an attitude that we don't want," he told me later on the phone. "But we pay them five dollars an hour and put our three-million-dollar business into their hands.")
The Brasserie's menu is upscale with a homestyle British edge. Entrees range from the relative familiarity of tempura-battered fish and chips to the sophistication of grilled ahi tuna with saffron couscous and arugula pesto. Prices, however, are anything but homestyle, with only four out of thirteen main courses checking in under twenty bucks, and appetizers ranging up to fourteen smackers. (Another indication, I suppose -- like the pink-painted sidewalks and imported palms -- that Lincoln Road is on the rise.)
We started with a couple of those pricey items -- and with a server as welcoming and competent as the hostess was off-putting. Escargots were worth their nine-dollar price tag. Dark and meaty snails were coiled in winy garlic butter, along with chopped fresh spinach and sauteed sliced mushrooms. Foie gras, too, was money well spent: a slice of pale, buttery goose liver terrine marinated in cognac, a delicacy if only because genuine foie gras is hard to find in the States; duck liver is typically substituted. Virtually unadorned aside from a sweet and vinegary chutneylike garnish, this dish veritably shone.
Two other appetizers weren't as successful. A Mediterranean fish soup was more like a puree, rendering unidentifiable whatever seafood it contained. A briny broth, based on tomato and highlighted by saffron, tasted like a bisque gone bad, a flavor that worsened as the soup cooled. While it sounded promising, a cold artichoke with focaccia crumbs and Parmesan cheese proved lacking in incorporation. A large and tender artichoke was spread invitingly on a plate, a few crumbs as big as croutons scattered here and there. The leaves were properly cooked and cooled, but they needed a tangy dip or some sort of sauce to complement them. Though a shaving or two of Parmesan gave the vegetable a spot-check of pungency, overall the ingredients never melded.
Slow-cooked baby carrots and pearl onions lent a braised lamb shank main course the perfect mesh of flavors, with red wine and apple-smoked bacon enhancing the gardeny perfume. Unfortunately the shank itself had been cooked for so long it was dried up and even burnt in some places, so much so that what should have been falling-away flesh stuck stubbornly to the bone.
A whole grilled Maine lobster was also disappointing. I always hesitate to order one of these northern gems in any fashion other than steamed, simply because most restaurants fail to keep the delicate meat from hardening to rubber. Sadly, South Beach Brasserie was no exception. Split open and grilled with a mango barbecue sauce, the lobster was mightily overcooked, cemented into its charred shell. A tasty nest of cold sesame noodles, lightly spiced, was an imaginatively Eastern accompaniment, though.
Two pastas, the only ones on the menu, are entries in the appetizer section of the menu but are certainly hefty enough for dinner. Orecchiette with chicken, mushrooms, spinach, goat cheese, garlic, and oil was savory, accented rather than overwhelmed by the multitude of add-ins. Shreds of chicken and spinach and slices of mushrooms alternated with the al dente, ear-shape noodles. Goat cheese was a subtle presence, melting into the garlic-and-oil gravy.
Red onion gravy dressed a heap of mashed potatoes, lumps and all. Basic fare, these spuds composed one-half of the English fave bangers and mash (called grilled bangers here). The bangers were awesome, three crackling pork and veal sausages that oozed juice as we cut into them. Not too smoky, these were easy to finish off despite their stockiness.
For a somewhat less fattening meal, the pan-seared fresh catch Provençal -- whole pompano the night we went -- was prime. Flaky white chunks lifted easily off the spine, taut grilled skin coming with it. A bed of roasted potatoes was soggy and ancient, but the garlic-spiked tomatoes that decorated the pompano gave them a boost.
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I'm a sucker for sweets, and when I feel divided about a meal, as I did at South Beach Brasserie, I frequently console myself with several desserts. And the three we ordered, though not particularly original, provided a positive deciding factor. An individual lemon tart alight with fresh blueberries and raspberries featured a custard-smooth lemon curd, a rare treat. A lovely spiced apple purse with caramel sauce and Tahitian vanilla ice cream looked like an empanada, crisp crust filled with scented apple chunks. And finally, a chocolate mousse cake with raspberry sauce proved voluptuous, a rich, berry-laden culmination.
Lincoln Road has entered a new era, the former fixer-upper now an upscale promenade. Going on its looks, South Beach Brasserie fits right in, even lifts the place up a bit. Less front-door snottiness and more consistent fare would be a boon to both restaurant and Road.
South Beach Brasserie
910 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 534-5511. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight (until 1:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday).