Alexandra "Alex" Guarnaschelli's already busy schedule has become busier. The Food Network star who is best recognized as a judge on the wildly successful culinary competition Chopped is also an instructor at New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education, executive chef of Butter in New York City, and a mom. If simply reading that makes you tired, Guarnaschelli recently added two more lines to her resumé.
Just days before the opening of Driftwood Room at the Nautilus South Beach Hotel (1825 Collins Ave.), Page Six announced Guarnaschelli would perform a one-woman comedy show, Busting My Chops, at Caroline's on Broadway as part of the New York Comedy Festival. On the festival's website, the show is described as "about my life as a chef and how the pursuit of good food shaped who I am. From watching soufflés rise and rump roasts cook in my mother’s kitchen to fighting my way through a 3-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, I have never been short of life experiences that we all have in common. I’ve slept with the wrong people, made some less-than-perfect dishes, watched movie stars entertain onlookers, witnessed countless heavily intoxicated customers dance on tabletops and spent a number of years sitting behind a desk eating gummy candies and chicken feet. These stories shaped me. They created my attitude problem. And they embarrassed the hell out of me. They sometimes made me proud. My battle scars. My mistakes. My fun."
Even as the announcement went viral, the chef was preparing for Driftwood Room's official first night of service. The restaurant is one of several concepts Guarnaschelli is overseeing for the SoBe hotel, along with Nautilus Cabana Club, a poolside eatery, and the lobby bar.
Walking into Driftwood Room, the hostess recommended a seat on the patio. If the weather permits, you should take the suggestion. Although the dining room is a lovely mid-century modern space, the patio is breathtaking. Guarnaschelli points out the way the wicker light fixtures diffuse light onto the ceiling, which resembles ocean waves.
The kitchen, helmed by Guarnaschelli and executive sous chef Lucas Marino, is inspired by both the Mediterranean and Miami Beach. Meals start with a small loaf of good, crusty bread and a plate of olives. The menu is a straightforward, fresh seafood-centric menu, although carnivores will be sated with lamb skewers, an oven-roasted chicken, a seared prime filet, and an indulgent côte de boeuf for two. At $120, this is by far the most expensive item on the menu, with most other entrees in the affordable $20 to $30 range.
Whatever you do, start with the lionfish crudo ($13). Offered with pequillo peppers, Roma tomatoes, and basil, it almost looks like a Christmas wreath. This invasive species is given a light touch with citrus and olive oil and that's all it needs to be a stellar dish.
Indian paint eggplant dip ($10) is served with grilled pita and makes a good option for sharing.
Carnivores will opt for the herb-crusted lamb kebobs ($13 each) with a chermoula spice rub.
Golden and red beet carpaccio ($12) with toasted pumpkin seeds and lemon is the perfect way to get all the flavors of autumn on your plate while still eating light for Miami Beach weather.
Whenever possible, I order fish "en papillote," probably because it's such an old-style presentation dish. This time, Florida snapper goes into the bag with fresh fennel and Aleppo pepper ($29). The fennel's fragrance hits when the bag is opened, and the fish, poached in the lemon and oil, is rich and buttery.
Florida shrimp a la plancha is grilled with Cuban oregano and paprika ($23). Though a generous portion, my dining companion was found sucking every last bit from heads and legs to savor a bit longer.
Driftwood Room has a good selection of wines by the glass, including a very lovely rosé.
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For dessert, get the doughnuts, filled with passionfruit custard and served with vanilla creme. The tart fruit plays so well with the sweet vanilla, it's a safe bet that all three pastries will be disappear in no time.
Driftwood Room, by the way, has the least celebrity vibe of any of the celebrity chef-driven restaurants to open in Miami Beach. It could be because Guarnaschelli is so very down to earth. As the chef made the rounds to every table, she took the time to not only glad-hand guests, but to ask their opinions about the dishes and encourage any ways to improve the experience. My note was that the candles were inadequate for a windy beachfront restaurant.
The chef and I also spoke briefly about her comedy show. She said that she had worked on a 60-page script, but never really thought of actually performing it. Her publicist talked her into showcasing an abbreviated 20-minute version. Guarnaschelli said that, although she frequently does cooking demos and is a television regular, this is the first time she's ever been alone on a stage doing comedy. If the chef can deliver a joke like she can cook a meal, she has nothing to worry about.
Driftwood Room serves breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily, and lunch from noon to 4 p.m. daily. Dinner at Driftwood Room is served from 6 to 11 p.m. daily.