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Artful Digs, Artless Food

JOE ROCCO

It might seem like we first began hearing about Karu Restaurant & Y sometime during the Clinton administration, but in actuality it has been only two-plus years since Cesar Sotomayor began work on his mega-ambitious project to create "a sanctuary of art, cuisine, and entertainment." Sanctuary is an apt word, for it describes just what one seeks most in this grim neighborhood, three desolate blocks west of the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts. No need to fret about safety, though, because there is always an active valet parking scene outside the giant steel doors of the fortresslike exterior. If you're dining on the special $85 preperformance prix fixe, the folks at Karu & Y will even drive you to and from the Carnival Center in a chauffeured Mercedes sedan. Besides, the stark location is part of the point, because Sotomayor and partner Elliot Monter clearly see themselves as oh-so Soho pioneers in Miami's nascent "downtown arts district." If nothing else, they've certainly drummed up work for a number of artists by creating the dramatic Karu & Y environment (the design of which was overseen by Pepe Calderin).

Backlit glass walls of cascading water greet diners as they enter the $20-million, 42,000-square-foot lollapalooza of a restaurant (which includes the plush indoor and outdoor spaces of the gorgeous Y Ultralounge). Prominent floor-to-ceiling bronze wall panels created by Montreal artist Richard Boprae richly bookend Karu's lofty 126-seat dining room, the visual centerpiece of which is Blue Icicle, an illuminated Dale Chihuly "chandelier" of spiked glass. Other visual highlights include two bars ensconced in blue marble, a hallway with flat-screen monitors displaying moving images, and a "wall of wine" exhibiting some 400 selections from major grape-growing regions around the world. Shiny tabletops are each striped with two strips of elegant custom linens by London-based Gayle Warwick, but these proved more pretty than practical — they kept slipping all over the place. The delicate flatware is stunning.

According to a press release, Karu & Y is meant to appeal to "a chic, international audience of foodies, style mavens, and trendsetters." This means patrons who can afford to fly into town this week to pick up some product during Art Basel, or, in general, those well-off enough not to flinch at an $18 cocktail, $24 starter, or $75 Australian Wagyu steak (although, truth be told, you can also get a filet for $46). Then again, bottled water is on the house, as is a "welcome cocktail" — champagne with a shot of pomegranate juice. So is bread, parceled out piecemeal by an attentive, well-meaning, well-dressed (cool couture uniforms created by local Dulce de Leche), but not especially well-trained waitstaff. Whole-grain rolls were fresh and tasty enough, but flimsy slices of pumpernickel and white were less than noteworthy ($20 million to open and they serve white bread?). On a return visit, we were given the choice of three types of rolls, but none was all that great.

Karu's cuisine is billed as "alta cocina." This is a nicer name for molecular gastronomy, whereby chefs and scientists tinker with the chemical makeup of foods to create new and startling combinations of texture, temperature, and taste — dishes such as snail porridge, or codfish foam with sea-urchin mousse, or smoked bacon-and-egg ice cream with tomato jam. Many readers will probably breathe a sigh of relief to know that Karu's chef, Alberto Cabrera, does not delve deeply into these radical gastronomic waters, but rather skims a few stones across the surface. In fact, comparing the cuisine here to alta cocina because of some foams and gels is like equating Ringling Bros. with Cirque du Soleil because they both feature clowns.

The most alta cocina-ish notion of the night was a hot and highly aromatic cinnamon water bath our waiter poured into a large bowl around a smaller bowl containing "Spanish clambake." While effectively stimulating the olfactory senses, the heat of the water only hastened the melting of a smidgen of piquillo-pepper granita that was on the side of the seafood. Into the bottom of the bowl the ice slid, joining a cluster of popcorn kernels that floated like buoys in the "potato water" below. In essence, the diner ends up with two razor clams (our amuse-bouchée featured the same shellfish in a delicious saffron sauce), two horridly puny mussels, and two regular old shrimp billed as "langoustines" — a substitution that all but sealed the perception of this being a shockingly shabby starter for $24.

Things got better. Pristine, paper-thin shavings of octopus carpaccio were paired with Meyer lemon sorbet in a delicately delectable manner, but the dish would have packed a bigger wow if the promised caper salt and duck cracklings had materialized to contribute their respective contrasts. The best starter brought nutty nuggets of roasted veal sweetbreads scattered with a tiny dice of golden beets and accompanied by preciously soft slices of wild porcini carpaccio capped with salty Serrano ham bits. If only the rest of the cuisine here were so divinely and precisely prepared.

Alta cocina is, after all, about precision. For instance, if a shot glass of celery juice is presented alongside a fish dish and the waiter recommends you drink it first to cleanse and excite the palate, it is because celery juice is deemed exactly the right flavor to kick off the other components. Meaning, in other words, substituting a shot of pineapple juice just doesn't cut it. Be that as it may, the opah entrée was otherwise anchored by a pan-seared loin of the Hawaiian fish — rich, pink slices whose soft texture is reminiscent of tuna. Aside the fish lay a luscious diced sashimi of buttery opah belly. Centering the composition were a few fiery cayenne-capped pineapple squares (redundant after the shot of juice) and a few droplets of fluffy coconut meringue. Almost everything on the plate was cold, and the overall impact of the dish was not so hot either.

Another meticulously composed entrée (they all are) featured a trilogy of treatments of Bellwether Farms lamb — two full-flavored but undercooked baby chops, three boneless cuts of bellylike loin, and chilly stubs of lamb sausage over fried onion rings. Misleadingly labeled accompaniments included "smoked grapes," which were simply regular red grapes halved and slightly warmed, and "cauliflower couscous," a dry, coarse purée of the vegetable. The menu's bargain entrée ($36) featured cylindrical discs of über-moist organic chicken breast topped with moderately piquant cachucha pepper relish and framed by petite rounds of cornbread and two teeny, terrifically sweet lobster and corn ravioli.

Desserts were fresh and as preciously plated as the rest of the food. Almond banana millefeuille (read: rectangle of banana cake) came accessorized with honey ice cream and yogurt foam atop a banana cookie and a shot glass of hot white chocolate on the side. It wasn't bad, nor was a dome of dark chocolate cake with volcanic center, presented alongside a wispy sheet of dark chocolate, a spoon of gianduja ice cream, fizz-in-your-mouth Pop Rocks, and chocolate-filled raspberries. How much chocolate can be stuffed inside such a tiny berry? Not enough to have mattered. In fact the cake was to have come with chocolate-filled strawberries, which would have been better but would have still missed the point — which is that beautifully plump strawberries pulsating with nothing but pure, ripe strawberry flavor would have provided a perfect foil for the abundant chocolate flowing from the lava cake. There is such a thing as being too cute.

Karu is more than a mouthful to digest, so we'll discuss Y's trendy cocktails and tantalizing tapas another time. Maybe one day we'll even get to dine on the nightly tasting menu in the private dining room, Mas Allá, which is embellished with a dazzling glass installation created by top Venetian artisans. There is surely no shortage of beauty to behold at Karu. Too bad you can't eat art.


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