There are some nice surprises about the Sonesta Beach Resort's top-end Purple Dolphin restaurant, but getting there isn't one of them. On a first visit, following directions I'd received from a hotel employee, I arrived half an hour late. On a second visit, a dining companion (who, being from out of town, foolishly assumed her cab driver knew where he was going) was even later.
Here's the trick: When told to "turn left at the third traffic light after you get to Key Biscayne," know that means the village of Key Biscayne. The correct left turn is actually at the fifth or sixth light after you cross the bridge from Virginia Key to the island of Key Biscayne. Just don't panic and turn off Crandon Boulevard until you see an overhead sign that says Sonesta Drive -- unless you're up for a scenic tour of more back roads than one would imagine the cayo could possibly contain.
At any rate, the road turns into Ocean Drive and, shortly afterward, ends amid the Sonesta's lushly landscaped ten acres. At that point you loop around in front of the building that looks like a sort of modern pyramid, where you'll discover the first nice surprise (especially for those accustomed to South Beach resort dining): Valet parking is free. Do remember to get your ticket validated when you pay your tab, though. The restaurant is located at the very back of the hotel -- which is so expansive you'll be ready for another round of desserts by the time you hike back to the front door.
The Purple Dolphin
350 Ocean Dr, Key Biscayne
Open daily, 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Call 305-365-2356.
Wondrous surprise number two: At the Purple Dolphin it's possible to experience our warm-weather, waterfront town's rarest commodity -- outdoor dining with an ocean view. But beware the weather; if it's raining you're in trouble. My recent review meals took place during a wet spell, and the restaurant's patio is sheltered only by parasols. Indoor seating options were limited to two areas that supposedly had ocean views. One, a very beige space that projected a "suitable for large conventions" ambiance, was clearly the favorite among older diners. The other, a sort of glassed-in conservatory with towering metal palm trees in the center, was definitely more Miami. But at night, even inching way up in one's chair and squinting over the dunes, any glimpse of water was mostly wishful thinking.
The nicest surprise was discovering that, since late last year, the Purple Dolphin's kitchen has been supervised by the very talented Elizabeth Barlow, former chef at South Beach's Blue Door. But those looking forward to a reprise of the Delano restaurant's French/South American fusion dishes (as created by Claude Troisgros) are in for a less pleasant surprise. The menu is predominantly standard Miami MediterAsian, with some old resort-hotel classics thrown in (lobster bisque), along with middle-American musts (the ubiquitous grilled chicken breast caesar salad).
This approach may well be necessary to satisfy a certain sort of resort clientele, but my dining companions and I found the Purple Dolphin's more unusual and/or French-influenced fare far more agreeable. Case in point: an entrée of vegetarian shepherd's pie. A typo on the menu (sheppard) was the only thing wrong with this layered dish of grilled vegetables and Yukon gold mashed potatoes, which came drizzled with an innovative carrot-thyme sauce substituting for the usual binder of flour-thickened gravy. The more subtle sauce provided all the richness necessary to make the pie soothing comfort food, with a fraction of the customary heaviness. An abundance of flavorful roasted wild mushrooms made the absence of meat unnoticeable.
Florida lobster bisque was also tasty owing to a skillfully made stock, silky smooth and just thick enough to please without any of the gluey gloppiness that so often mars shellfish bisques. The soup would have been superior, though, had the lobster chunks in it been larger than peas, more abundant, and not cooked till bone dry.
A smoked-salmon club sandwich sounded less like an appetizer than a light lunch, and indeed could have served as a whole meal for a dieter. It was accompanied by an irresistible pasta salad, a delicious mélange of Asian-flavored cucumbers and spaghetti. The sandwich itself, stacked on thin slices of egg-enriched French brioche, was less successful because the salmon was simply too intense; even dollops of dill mascarpone couldn't balance its heavily smoked fishiness.
The listed ingredients for a wild-mushroom tart (mushrooms, caramelized onions, fromage blanc) suggested something intriguing, maybe a rustic yet airily crusted Alsatian tarte flambé. But we were dismayed to encounter pastry that was so shoe-leather tough it was difficult to cut even with a knife. Still the tart was otherwise sufficiently savory that it's probably a good bet on days when the dough hasn't been overworked.
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Radicchio added to the traditional romaine lettuce made the Dolphin's caesar salad seem more interesting than most, but we went for baby organic greens instead, and landed a winner. The greens themselves were merely fine, but add-ins of mango and caramelized pecans were wonderful, and fresh hearts of palm were a revelation -- enough to make one vow to never again waste money on flaccid, vinegary canned hearts. A sweet-sour orange/cumin dressing contributed a perfect exotic accent.
An entrée of pan-roasted, citrus-marinated, free-range chicken, accompanied by braised Belgian endive and polenta, was not visually appealing. In fact its unappetizing and uniformly grayish-white color caused one of my friends to rename it "dishrag chicken." But despite the common problem of overdone white meat, a beautifully crackling-crisp skin made the chicken taste much better than it looked. The endive was also good, braised to tender crunchiness without the watery limpness this vegetable suffers when cooked improperly. The polenta, though, was boring despite the presence of fresh sweet-corn kernels in the cornmeal mush.
Of tamarind-rum glazed local dolphin, the less said the better. The item consisted of an overcooked fillet with a nasty glaze tasting of raw alcohol. It was topped by rubbery conch and escorted by some cloying coconut/squash mixture that was too sweet to make a decent dessert, much less pass as a vegetable. It was dreadful, so bad that one suspected a kitchen accident, something on the level of an entire bottle of vanilla extract knocked onto the plate; nothing that tasted so dramatically off could've been done on purpose.
Desserts ranged from selections obviously intended for the terminally unadventuresome (assorted Häagen-Dazs ice creams) to a few truly unique items. To end your meal on a high note, try one of the latter: beignets. Though I love the basic fried-dough beignets served at New Orleans's Café du Monde, the Purple Dolphin's take was a definite upgrade -- more like pineapple-filled fritters with a dulce de leche, piña colada dipping sauce and a fresh pineapple ragout for refreshing contrast.