Aria's High Notes
Dining establishments are composed of innumerable components: service, ambiance, soups, entrées, wines, and so on. Certain restaurants end up being exactly the sum of their parts -- some more so, others less. Generally speaking, though, if you are pleased with the individual aspects, you'll most likely enjoy the whole experience. It's like tiramisu -- if you savor ladyfingers, mascarpone, coffee, and chocolate, you're probably going to appreciate it. Now if the chef decides to add, say, a sour grapefruit-Amaretto marmalade to his confection, that could change your perception of the entire dessert -- perhaps positively, perhaps not. Unless of course the components were served disassembled, in which case you could eat around whatever ingredients were less appealing. But whoever heard of serving a deconstructed tiramisu?
Aria, the Mediterranean restaurant in Key Biscayne's new Ritz-Carlton Hotel, happens to serve a deconstructed tiramisu, but we'll get to that later. Let's start with the décor of this sprawling indoor-outdoor 186-seat dining room, which includes arched portals, honeyed-wood accents, nautical artifacts, elegant appointments, an exhibition kitchen, and views of the Atlantic Ocean. The look they're trying for is that of a Mediterranean villa. It's a formal dining room, though less opulent and more accessible than other Ritz-Carltons. Service is formal as well, and quite strong but never stiff; the front-of-house staff was as friendly and accommodating as any I've come across lately. The tunes playing over the dining-room speakers were strictly informal and sappy at that. I prefer the music in fine restaurants, especially those named after a musical term, to be distinguishable from that in my dentist's office. Things improve a little on weekends, when a live guitarist strums away. Other ambient details fare better: The acoustics are soft, the lighting at a pleasant level, and the fabric-lined chairs more than comfortable.
Chef de cuisine is Jordi Valles, a native of Catalonia who has worked in Michelin star restaurants, including Spain's renowned El Bulli. The food is tabbed "Mediterranean," but the entrées in particular seem geared more toward the provincial side of French cooking: ratatouilles, ragouts, and stews.
And while it's true that no single dish had anyone invoking Henri Soulé or Alain Ducasse, neither was anyone dissatisfied with the big, bold, basic meals. Matter of fact, the waiter seemed to be removing a good number of cleaned plates from our table.
Nine items are listed as appetizers, but the only one that could be considered seriously in the traditional sense would be escargots, served in brioche with parsley, shallots, garlic, and roasted potatoes. Five other starters are salads, mostly Mediterranean selections like caesar, tomato and feta with pesto vinaigrette, and black-olive-dusted swordfish carpaccio over greens. The three remaining selections are soups: mussels with tomatoes and red peppers, mushroom cream with chanterelles and basil oil, and a steamy asparagus cappuccino with cubed crab fritters that had enough egg to waterproof them against the richly flavored broth in which they floated. A nutmeg-dusted froth of milk floated on top, an hors d'oeuvre-size puff-pastry cup filled with mushroom duxelle on the side.
The second menu category is limited to a quartet of pastas and risottos. If you're in the mood for the former, you'd better be a fan of either squid-ink fettuccine with seafood, or pappardelle with braised veal and sage. The pair of risottos comprises a vegetarian version made with carnarolli rice (a type of arborio) and baby summer vegetables (an unusual choice for a winter menu); and a wild-rice risotto (mixed with carnarolli rice) containing numerous nuggets of juicy rock shrimp, quarters of fresh artichoke bottoms, flakes of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a few teeny English peas that would make a suitable eye test -- if you can see them, you don't need glasses. The dish teetered on the cusp of oversaltiness but was undeniably full-flavored.
The braising method of cooking is generally used to break down large, indelicate cuts of meat into tender bitefuls, but Valles's signature entrée of braised veal cheeks offers four small, clean, fat-free medallions that taste somewhat like osso bucco without the bone. Under the delicious disks is a lentil ragout infused with a reduced veal stock so intensely meaty and gelatinous it can cause your lips to stick together.
On top of the cheeks were two "langoustines" (really just regular, slightly overcooked shrimp) that were unnecessary to the dish -- which by itself makes for a wonderfully robust bistro meal. I wouldn't have objected, though, had they included more than a (bare) "hint of Summer Truffles."
A trio of grilled lamb chops came leaning on a cylindrical mashed-potato pie ("polpetes"), with brightly colored, crunchy vegetables (baby squash, carrots, asparagus); a wedge of adeptly braised fennel; and a glossy, reduced brown sauce bursting with the flavor of fresh mint. The classic presentation looked, and tasted, like a dish one of my students at the French Culinary Institute in New York might have prepared -- a very good student, I might add. I would have taken points off only for the polpete, which tasted as though it had been made the prior day and reheated. Roasted bone-in veal loin, New York strip in Barolo wine jus, and filet mignon in another, unnamed red-wine sauce are the other options for carnivores. The meat dishes here are very wine-friendly, and Aria offers 280 vintages, including 29 by the glass.
If you shy away from red meats, there are five main courses from which to choose: free-range chicken with an olive-and-caper ragout, "zarzuela" of saffron seafood stew, yellowfin tuna, Chilean sea bass, and a scallop-salmon combo (they might consider adding a local fish). Didn't try the sea bass, but the tuna and salmon were ultrafresh and cooked to perfection. The seared, peppery yellowfin tuna was cut into a long rectangular shape and came atop a slightly wider rectangle of potato "confit," which tasted pretty much like a roasted potato. Ratatouille on the side was cooked the slow, old-fashioned way, meaning it was not brightly colored but densely flavored and extremely appetizing. The salmon was anchored by tarragon mashed potatoes and enhanced by four moist, meaty scallops. Goat cheese, in a somewhat melted state, contributed an effectively stimulating texture and taste to the fish and shellfish, as did a balsamic vinaigrette with crisped bacon and shallots.
Gourmands, foodies, and restaurant reviewers will have no trouble finding alluring items to choose from on the dessert menu, but the rest of the clientele here (mostly hotel guests and a few Key Biscayners) might have to go over the listing a few times before they come across anything that whets their appetite. Not everyone, in other words, is going to make the leap toward anise crème brélée with pineapple carpaccio and white-pepper ice cream. Matter of fact, of the diners seated around us, only one couple ordered dessert at all, and they shared it (I couldn't tell which they chose, but I did note that they didn't have the foggiest notion of how to eat it, needed to ask for a knife to cut it with, and seemed generally displeased with the whole ordeal).
The selection reads: "Delight in Mediterranean Cravings of ...," followed by the subheadings "quince," "citrus," "cocoa," "pineapple," and a "mare nostrum" (horse's nostril?) taster of five miniature treats. "Citrus" is the aforementioned deconstructed lemon tiramisu, which really does include a sour grapefruit-Amaretto marmalade. Actually ALL the desserts here, excepting the daily traditional tart, are decorative deconstructions, a series of separate pastry parts precisely placed on plates like stage props for teeny ballerinas. Quince Tatin, for instance, featured softened, caramelized wedges of the apple-pear-flavored fruit plopped atop a separately baked (perhaps a few days earlier) circle of puff pastry. On the side were a splash of Frangelico-vanilla sauce and chunks of praline, sticking up like icebergs from a pool of melted praline ice cream. The "cocoa" selection was organized like a coffee table, the top a thin square of shiny dark chocolate, the base a bittersweet disk of chocolate cake. Other pieces: white chocolate-Sambuca ice cream (again melted), a syrupy coffee emulsion, and a little chocolate doodad. I'd advise sticking to the daily tart -- on one occasion a raspberry custard pie, another time a thin apple tart.
So there you have it -- most of the components that make up Aria, strewn on the page like pieces of engine in a driveway. You, the reader, can assemble them in your head and then decide if the perceived sum of these parts might capture your fancy enough to make a drive over the Rickenbacker worthwhile. (If it has any bearing, the drive is quite pleasant.) Good luck.
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