A crowd swelled in front of Al Roker's barbecue stand at BubbleQ during this year's South Beach Wine & Food Festival. People were taking his photo and asking for autographs; news cameras were filming him. Nearby, at the Blue Door Fish booth, Claude Troisgros quietly surveyed the scene. The unorthodox gastronomy of his father Pierre and uncle Jean (along with that of Paul Bocuse) inspired the nouvelle cuisine movement in France. Claude himself owns a restaurant (Olympe) and a bistro (66 Bistrô) in Rio de Janeiro and has been executive chef of Blue Door at the Delano Hotel since 1997. Granted, Roker is a beloved television personality, but the contrast in reception is a sad commentary on... attendees at the SBWFF? The food world? America?
Whatever. It's just as well the spotlight left him alone: The downtime might have given Troisgros the peace he needed to create the menu for Blue Door's reincarnation as Blue Door Fish. The new, seafood-centric selections are significant in that Troisgros worked on them with his son Thomas. The family tradition steps forward another generation.
Blue Door Fish, situated at the back of the iconic Delano's lengthy lobby, has been minimally altered; it is still notable for flowing white floor-to-ceiling drapes and general loftiness. The stately yet graceful main room is set off privately from two lobby dining areas defined by a long, Venetian-mirror-covered table and divided by a walkway leading to the hotel's garden-and-pool area. Lobby seating is less formal and more fun, because the walkway serves basically the same purpose as a runway does in a fashion show: Beautiful people in sometimes outlandishly sexy outfits strut by to the delight of onlookers — in this case, diners. If this isn't your idea of an ideal setting for a meal, or if DJ-spun music seeping in from the adjacent bar/lounge on weekends seems intrusive, you can opt for seats on the lovely patio overlooking a whimsical setting.
While Blue Door Fish offers about the highest caliber of people-watching one can possibly attain in an indoor setting, the cuisine is no afterthought. A basket containing a wide Parmesan crisp, bread sticks, and pumpernickel and sesame rolls precedes dinner, along with a wine list that focuses on New World Napa Cabernets and Chardonnays as well as Old World favorites from Bourdeaux, Burgundy, Rioja, and Tuscany. Diners can grab a bottle of Hogue Chardonnay 2008 for $43 or Aquinas Napa Merlot 2007 for $45; they may also choose a Screaming Eagle 2006 from Napa for $2,500.
The menu, formerly a fusion of French/Brazilian and Mediterranean food, now swims almost exclusively in the latter region. And as the modified moniker indicates, the focus is on fish (although there is a "meat & fowl" entrée category). Chef Bruno Egeas starts diners off with a choice of the usual raw bar fruit de mer: Kumamoto and Blue Point oysters and clams ($3 apiece), shrimp ($4 each), lobster ($18), stone crabs (market price), and osetra and sevruga caviar ($180/$285 per ounce). "Le Petit" and "Le Grand" platters showcase these same shellfish (substituting mussels for the caviar) for $39 and $79 (the large includes twice as much).
Troisgros still offers two classics: the "crabavocat" and the "big ravioli." The latter is sensational — a single, sizable, sumptuous ravioli plumped with taro root mousseline, perfumed with a drizzle of truffle oil, and bathed in a foam of wild mushroom "cappuccino." The crabavocat is really just a juiced-up version of crab-stuffed avocado, elevated by a spicy tomato coulis and a few crisp shrimp. We preferred the crab cake, whose large, pearly chunks of jumbo lump crab were barely bound by anything but a light bread coating.
Caramelized octopus was a disappointment — the trio of charred and curled tentacles overcooked to a semitough consistency and blandly flavored. Not so a warm potato salad on the side, bursting with the tastes of garlic, shallots, and olives. And certainly not so a grouper ceviche that stood out for its pristine fish, cut into bite-size pieces; delicate balance of lime, cilantro, and a teeny bit of jalapeño; distinctive and delicious jolt of smoked salmon mousse; clean presentation, as in no pooling of marinade juices in the bowl; and hefty portion — as a starter, this $15 dish could easily feed a few people.
Eight types of fish or shellfish are available either a la plancha (simply grilled, with choice of sauce) or as part of composed plates with set sides. Some of the most alluring offerings are also the priciest. Dover sole, for instance, filleted tableside and served "Claude's way" (almond and caper brown butter, truffled potato foam), is $66 (it's the same price a la plancha). Roasted Maine lobster, another Claude mainstay, comes with caramelized banana, brown butter, and cilantro-lime sauce for $46. But a fat, square wedge of lightly seared local grouper packs plenty of pleasure for $35. The flakes of sweet white flesh are unencumbered by anything but a sprinkling on top of preserved lemon vinaigrette flecked with diced red pepper and parsley. "Crushed potatoes with chorizo" on the plate were warm and wonderful, but only one tiny snippet of sausage was included — a small omission, but a big letdown.
A fillet of red snapper, the other local fish proffered, is a relative steal at $28. The fish didn't look like much presentation-wise — browned and dull skin side up — but it tasted great with an antiboise sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovy, and a sprinkling of coriander seeds. Bulbs of bok choy buoyed the fish from below, but two fried basil leaves and a teeny frizzle of fried garlic chips didn't contribute much flavor.
Wild salmon, a "specialty of Pierre and Jean Troisgros," is classic French bistro fare. The full-flavored Alaskan fish — its lean, shrimp-fed interior the color of smoked salmon — comes crusted with lightly browned diced white bread. Below the wild thing were three thick, perfectly cooked asparagus spears and a rich, creamy white wine sauce with sorrel.
The sorrel sauce and just about all of the sauces that come on composed seafood plates constitute many of the options for the fish served a la plancha. Aforementioned sides also form many of the à la carte accompaniments ($8 or $9). We plucked from that list a plate of wild mushrooms — cèpes, hon shimeji, enoki, chanterelles, oysters, hen of the woods — sautéed in olive oil.
A ten-ounce Australian Wagyu strip steak ($66) is the priciest of five nonseafood entrées; chicken roasted with herbs ($28) roosts at the low end. Beef tenderloin with Gorgonzola cream, panko-pistachio-crusted leg of lamb, and a bone-in Creekstone prime rib eye round out the meats.
"Crêpe passion" is another Troisgros signature, and it's always been one of my favorite desserts. The "soufflé crêpe," as it is described, is a compact half-moon of thick, vanilla-imbued crêpe (similar in taste and custard-like texture to a baked German pancake) filled with thick pastry cream that sort of blends in with the shell. The "passion" comes from passion fruit glaze that completes this French journey into the tropics. Also terrific was the key lime meringue pie: an individual round tartlet with a very thin graham crust, tart and creamy custard, and fluffy, lime-zested dabs of bronzed meringue adorning the top like a crown.
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Any SoBe snootiness that might have existed at this establishment seems long gone. Everyone on the staff was friendly and courteous. Service was smooth, waiters were knowledgeable about each fish's origin, and courses arrived in the timely fashion of a German train schedule (more so on one occasion than another, when there was a lengthy lapse between appetizer and entrée). Even when we sat indoors, with the music and parade, the meal was calm and relaxing (maybe less so at later hours, when those two elements increase in volume).
It might not be so calming to receive the check: either expensive or — depending on how you order — very, very expensive. But the renaming and refocusing of Blue Door has been something of a fresh breeze for what was becoming a tired restaurant. The food and service are the best they've been in years. And more to the point, they are much closer to the caliber one expects for the money.