A True Eating Vacation
At New Times we restaurant reviewers basically get to pick our own review victims. Oops, I meant subjects. Anyway, this is a good thing, because when editors get to think up the story ideas, one sometimes ends up writing stuff that is so weird it leaves one's head reeling.
Last year, for instance, I found myself doing a piece about high-powered American executives who were so severely workaholic that they not only worked during vacations but -- and this is true -- they were so job-obsessed that one-third of those surveyed did not even take all the vacation time they had owed to them. Do you believe this? These are employed businesspeople with benefits, who would get paid for taking a vacation, and they can't bring themselves to do it!
Okay, so we're talking about some very ill folks here, and best not to dwell on others' unfortunate afflictions. But in the course of my research, several of the shrinks I consulted suggested that since not taking vacations is actually, psychologically, very bad for business, it was a good idea for workaholics' mental health to practice what I'd call vacation alternatives. For instance, Dr. Alan Sussman from NYU Medical Center suggested a mentally restorative vacation alternative that sounded like great fun: Spend a weekend, or even just a day, acting like a visitor in your own city. Like, on some Sunday in Miami Beach, actually go to the beach! And take walks all the way up and down the boardwalk; go shopping at resort-type shops; get a spa treatment; maybe even indulge in a fabulous hotel room. But mainly eat all three meals out in a fabulous hotel, just as though you were an out-of-town person staying there.
The problem with doing this is that much hotel food kinda sucks. On the basis of one dinner a couple of years ago at the National Hotel, though, its smallish but stylish back-of-the-lobby indoor/outdoor restaurant Tamara seemed a good bet. I'd actually done the dinner reluctantly, having had several meals at the National's previous restaurant that were so mediocre yet overpriced that they raised my blood pressure to near-lethal levels. But new chef Greg McDaniel turned out to have a particularly deft way of applying French techniques to creative New American inspirations that was wonderfully indulgent -- just right for vacation eating.
My partner was with me on my mini-vacation -- luckily, since it would have been impossibly stressful at breakfast to have to choose between the bananas Foster-style French toast or Eggs National. Often French toast ordered out is disappointing because it's dry, but Tamara's was made from brioche, thus moist and eggy from the get-go, and had been left bathing in its batter long enough so that, while not falling-apart soft, it seemed as satisfyingly saturated as good bread pudding. It came pressed with caramelized bananas, sort of like an ultimately elegant medianoche with sautéed ripe plantains substituted for the meat and cheese: sweet multicultural heaven (with maple syrup).
The eggs were equally savory. Almost every brunch joint aiming at elegance does a smoked salmon version of eggs Benedict, but Tamara's came on tender toasted brioche, a nice touch; who wants to exert all that effort to saw through an English muffin on vacation? And substituting for standard smoked salmon, marinated gravlax's light vinegar/dill taste was a refreshing contrast to the dish's rich hollandaise.
After breakfast, my partner felt restored enough and went back home to compulsively work, leaving me on my own for lunch and dinner. That seemed problematic, since breakfast had been so late and had so fully restored my stomach that I wasn't sure I'd have room to eat enough alone to review lunch. Fortunately my server suggested having the grilled free-range chicken breast with its sauce on the side, lightening the dish up greatly. Frankly deconstructing dishes is not something I normally do; I realize some diners see nothing rude about ordering dishes with the cream or chorizo or whatever left out, but I feel it's ignorant of the cooking process and disrespectful of the chef. Since it wasn't my idea, though, I tried it and the chicken was quite good sauceless: full of flavor and moist, cooked till just done instead of overdone -- which, with chicken breasts, can be just 45 seconds too much. This chef is precise. The chicken was accompanied by just-wilted baby spinach, wild mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes, plus a wild/cultivated rice blend. Also, it turned out there was room for every dreamy drop of the cream sauce on the side. It was vacation.
Between lunch and dinner I swam (hey, we have a pretty nice ocean here!); wandered up the beach through the Shore Club, before the hotel's recent Ian Schragerization; and then walked up the whole boardwalk to the Eden Roc's spa. My masseuse assured me that only three deep tissue massages a week, for three months or so, might restore my computer-clumped neck muscles to normalcy.
Yow! Dinner time, for sure.
A complimentary amuse-bouchée consisting of a huge but perfectly tender-firm caramelized sea scallop in cream sauce was orgasmically good. Bread -- crusty sourdough and raisin/grain rolls -- was great, too, served with a wonderful chunky olive oil tapenade instead of butter. Feeling indulged, I ordered a starter of seared Hudson Valley foie gras with Georgia peaches, which I specified I wanted cooked rare. It came petrified, so overcooked it could have been chicken liver from the nearest $7.99 steam table buffet. A fairly rare replacement foie gras, provided about ten minutes later with no argument from the very pleasant staff, was fine, as were the glazed peaches, and the intense port wine sauce was terrific.
An entrée of lobster à l'américaine with fresh asparagus and lovely, strongly truffle-infused mashed potatoes and sauce would have provided ideal stress-reducing self-indulgence (though remarkably small, the lobster was perfectly cooked, and shelled -- no work) had the entire dish not tasted like the kitchen accidentally overturned the salt shaker into it. Both potatoes and sauce were so salty the dish was largely inedible.
A salade verte with cucumbers and red and green teardrop tomatoes would have been good had the sherry vinaigrette not contained enough vinegar to provoke a coughing fit.
I returned from "vacation" to realize that, since I'd shopped for souvenir body lotion instead of making my usual supermarket run, there was no milk for coffee in the morning. Damn.
Post Vacation Note: Since the difference between amuse and the rest of the meal had been so dramatic, my partner and I returned the next week for a no-problem dinner. A Napoleon of yellowfin tuna starter came between warm, crisp, cheesy Parmesan pastry thins, with tuna rare and accompanying micro-greens not overdressed. Salmon gravlax was the same nice medium-thick dill-cured stuff as at breakfast, but with crostinis topped with tomato concassé and dill vinaigrette-dressed mesclun.
Vol-au-vent was a buttery, flaky pastry shell filled with a ragout of earthy morel mushrooms, topped with three jumbo shrimps that really were, for a change, huge, and flanked by three huge sea scallops plus firm fresh asparagus. The accompanying saffron-infused Key lime sauce had little of the latter but plenty enough of the former very expensive spice to justify the dish's $32 tag.
Mediterranean sea bass with cucumber ragout was especially rewarding, the fish pan-seared (and ecologically guilt-free, unlike Chilean sea bass), and the bed of mustard seed, cucumber, onion, and tomato concassé actually a much more indulgently creamy-rich sauce substance than it would seem from the description.
Key lime tart had a delicate enough crust, a tangy enough filling, and a unique enough topping of raspberry coulis to qualify as our town's best key lime pie.
And yes, inquiry afterward indicated that the head honcho chef had indeed split between the amuse and the foie gras on the previous visit. Hey, everyone's entitled to a little vacation.
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