Those who know of Barton Gerald Weiss's reputation as the event impresario with an inclination for multisensory, over-the-top theatrics will probably be surprised by the subtle brown and bronze earth tones that swathe the tasteful, relatively restrained décor of Barton G the Restaurant. I say "relatively" because the 155-seat dining room is, after all, bedecked with cherry and zebra woods; giant bouquets; a $75,000 onyx bar; iridescent, crystallized organza curtains; and a glass wall embellished with 100 tiny glass bud vases with a fresh lily in each one. Orchids are the flower of choice in the equally elegant 125-seat outdoor garden.
Table settings are creatively tailored by (and I admit I'm taking a guess here) a former Dansk designer with a fondness for smoking weed. I'm not just saying this because the place mats are made of thick, beveled glass, nor am I attempting to pass blame for my inability to figure out that the oversized brushed-aluminum chopsticks on the table, one longer than the other and both resting on a gracefully curved arc of wood, were the salt and pepper shakers. (Luckily the room was dimly lit, so however much seasoning I had managed to dust over my lap while inspecting the wands remained invisible.)
Like the setting, cuisine at Barton G is extravagant and whimsical, but still retains a tasteful sophistication. Some of the time, that is -- I'm not sure sophisticates would purr for "popcorn shrimp," a takeoff on the New Orleans dish of batter-fried crayfish that come from the fryer in about the same size and shape as kernels of popped corn. At Barton the fresh crustaceans are presented spilling from a paper popcorn container with real popcorn and a sweet/spicy honey-vinegar dressing that satisfies in a commercial, TGIF kind of way. Yet by serving eight medium-sized shrimp, which are much larger than crayfish-popcorn, you lose the pick-'em-up-and-pop-'em-in-your-mouth element that makes this dish appealing. I read somewhere that Barton welcomes local feedback: G-man, you should cut each shrimp into thirds.
Caesar salad likewise contains an inventive element, the crisp romaine complemented by focaccia croutons, lemon-anchovy dressing, a small chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese -- and a tiny grater.
A more conservatively presented starter of three potato-crusted oysters on a bed of rock salt proved the least satisfactory of our courses. This was somewhat unexpected, as executive chef Arthur Jones comes to Barton by way of Louie's Oysters (his impressive résumé also includes chef stints with Pascal Oudin and Mark Militello). Problem is that the oysters, steamed and shrunk from the frying process, were reduced to bland little pearls imprisoned in thick, shredded-potato jackets. A capping of cucumber-tomato relish, crème fraîche, and caviar tried but could do little to resuscitate the bivalves' vitality.
Desserts look like props from Pee Wee's Playhouse. You won't have to wait till after dinner to be visually wowed, as during your meal you'll see them intermittently marched through the dining room, moving past your table like floats in a parade. Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, as even the dramatically vertical "skyscraper" seven-layer cake, horizontally striped with Valrhona chocolate cake, ganache, and glaze, can't really be mistaken for a float. Nor, except for the name, could the root beer float, though it, too, is big and brassy with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate brownie.
But the "Big Top cotton candy and over-the-top popcorn surprise" not only has the longest name of any dessert I've encountered, it just might be the largest comestible I've ever seen brought to a table: a shrub-size wad of lavender cotton candy on a stick, with chocolate truffles bursting from bon bons inside of popcorn balls beneath the tree. Barton's waiters grin and bear it, and are in general a congenial bunch who are on the ball.
Lamb scaloppine, another way of saying "two thin chops," were actually thick enough to be properly cooked rare-to-medium-rare as requested. The rounds of New Zealand lamb possessed a smoky spunk from the grill, the meat's natural grease nicely cut by a salad of finely diced feta, cucumber, tomato, and mint. This refreshing treatment was cohesively sided by herbed whole wheat couscous, though I still would have liked the menu's promised asparagus. It never came, so I had to snag some from my dining companion, whose plate of blue crab-crusted mahi mahi "Oscar" was adorned with plenty of crisp green spears. This take on the classic veal Oscar garnish of asparagus, crabmeat, and Bernaise sauce paired well with the irreproachably prepared piece of fresh fish, but would have been even better if they'd stuck with tradition and used real tarragon-infused hollandaise instead of a too-thin, too-timid tarragon beurre blanc.
Other entrée options include upscale seafood treatments such as Australian sea bass with tomato confit, and Dover sole baked with shrimp mousse; American standards like chicken pot pie, and Southern fried chicken (served in a wooden basket) with collard greens; and upscale down-home dishes like truffled macaroni and cheese with white and green asparagus, mixed wild mushrooms, and poached "one eyed Susans," another way of saying fried quail eggs.
Seafoods and meats are also offered straightforwardly off the grill, the fish accompanied by lemon-scented rice and vegetables, the meats with the same veggies and a twice-baked potato.
When it came our turn for dessert we went with somewhat more subdued sweets than those aforementioned, starting with "New Orleans' trio of beignets": crunchy, hard-on-the-teeth balls of fudge that were nothing like beignets; powdery, dissolve-in-the-mouth-like-cotton-candy balls of vanilla that were sugary and softly pleasing; and real, doughnut-like balls of "original" beignets. Three sizable mounds, three dips to dunk them into: whipped cream, warm fudge, and raspberry jam. A very sociable dessert to pick at with friends, and if they come up with a better chocolate version, this will be a winner -- but will never match "The Ultimate Barton G Sundae," three pints of homemade "funky flavors of the day" with all the traditional fixin's.
Barton is known for his meticulous attention to detail, and it shows up from the home-baked breads at the beginning of the meal, to the finale of four types of French press coffees and an attractive range of whole-leaf black, green, and silk-bagged tisane herbal/fruit teas. Evidently Mr. Weiss was not in the house the first night we dined here, or his keen eye would have noticed that my wine glass exhibited a preponderance of water spots. The wine list, incidentally, is smartly constructed as well, stocked with numerous selections from unique boutique California vineyards.
The swank, attractive surroundings; swank, attractive crowd; trendy bar scene; thoughtful wine list; alluring fare; wonderfully wacky desserts; and countless titillating details make Barton G the most daringly and delightfully different restaurant to open in Miami Beach since the respective debuts of China Grill and Tantra. Yet though your Barton bill will come in an envelope marked "The Damage," you'll spend far less here than at those other two emporiums of hip South Beach dining. And that's the final Barton twist: Even locals can enjoy this place.
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