Eating an oyster is like taking a spiritual log flume ride. The thrill of the plunge takes place within, not outside, the body. An über-plump Island Creek oyster at Area 31, misted with a light sheen of golden balsamic vinegar and olive oil and dotted with specks of alligator peppercorns, slides down the throat with euphoric ease; its pungent, briny flavor flabbergasted me with a post-splashdown awe. Then, with wicked exhilaration — the way a child might feel while climbing back to the top of the chute for the next descent — I peered at the remaining two oysters on the rectangular white plate.
If such description seems hyperbolic, consider it a fish tale, where boastful exaggeration is inevitably hooked into the narrative. But there is nothing fishy about Area 31's executive chef John Critchley's background — other than his having grown up in Scituate, Massachusetts, a small suburban fishing town southwest of Boston. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1997, Critchley hitched his star to a number of reputable chefs, most notably in the Boston kitchens of the acclaimed Ken Oringer (Clio Restaurant). Critchley's resumé likewise includes extensive culinary travels through Southeast Asia and the sous chef position at Oringer's Uni Sashimi Bar — worth mentioning if only because his nimble, minimalist approach to Area 31's seafood seems in sync with Eastern aesthetics.
There are also environmental sensibilities at work. Critchley relies on fish such as Spanish mackerel, mangrove snapper, and wahoo rather than grouper, sea bass, and those other seafoods with ubiquitous postings on menus and endangered lists. In fact, the restaurant takes its name and sources much of its product from Fishing Area 31, an ecologically sustainable swath of Western Central Atlantic Ocean encompassing the coastal waters of Florida, Central America, and northern South America (so designated by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization).
Epic Hotel, 270 Biscayne Boulevard Way, 16th floor, Miami; 305-424-5234. Breakfast daily 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.
As with any good fishing spot, Area 31 is far removed from the hustle of civilization — and so is the namesake restaurant, tucked away on the 16th floor of downtown Miami's new Epic Hotel (on the former DuPont Plaza site). The elegant, earth-toned 65-seat restaurant is resplendent in a natural palette of wood, glass, and stone; an outdoor terrace with an equal number of seats is situated amid a scintillating urban vista of skyscrapers and waterways. Chef Critchley stops by each table for a quick hello, but he seems much more comfortable orchestrating the kinetic action of a wide, open kitchen that centers the dining room; this is how it should be.
Like another J.C., Critchley offers loaves with his fishes — a basket of rosemary focaccia, French rolls, and, best of the lot, a light, cakey black olive soda bread. An accompanying sofrito of tomatoes, roast peppers, garlic, and capers makes a tasty spread or dip for almost anything else that makes its way to the table.
The crudo section of the menu proffers pristine preparations such as yellowfin tuna (with green apple and yellow pepper juice), Key West pink shrimp (with olive oil, key lime juice, and chili), and the aforementioned oysters. Other appetizing appetizers include white bean soup with rock shrimp escabeche; a fried fish sampler of calamari, rock shrimp, and white fish; and thin slices of octopus tossed with fried cubes of pork belly. The last comes moistened with marsala vinaigrette and tossed atop crunchy disks of fresh hearts of palm, teardrop tomatoes, red onions, and a chiffonade of radicchio (the natural bitterness of which seems too assertive for the surf and turf elements). One of a handful of homemade pastas would likewise provide a satisfying starting point. We went hook, line, and sinker for linguine-like strands of chitarra, tangled in a slightly spicy, fried garlic-redolent ragout riddled with lumps of sweet crab meat.
Main course offerings are divided into two sections; one consists of a half-dozen daily catches that are simply wood-grilled and served with choice of four sauces. We matched cuttlefish with salmoriglio (olive oil, lemon, fresh thyme) — in hindsight not the savviest seafood to select. The sliced half-inch-thick steak was tender enough, but the mollusks' naturally dense texture stops it from absorbing the alluring aromatics of the grill. Firm white flakes of corvina were more fully imbued with smoky flavor. We accented them with a salsa of roasted red piquillo peppers, basil, and olive oil. Most of these straight-grilled selections come in five-ounce portions, priced $14 to $21.
The second set of entrées showcases other cooking techniques besides grilling (sautéed red snapper, salt-crusted dorade), along with four meat dishes as varied as a quartet can be: roast chicken, veal milanese, spice-rubbed flatiron steak, and grilled leg of lamb with cippolini onions, gypsy peppers, pine nuts, and rosemary oil. The lamb was flavorful, but the cubed presentation and chewy texture of the meat made it too reminiscent of a Greek kebab. My hunch is to stick with the fish.
Of the roughly 200 species of dorade (sea bream), one of the finest tasting is the gray dorade from Florida. Area 31's salt-crusted rendition is presented tableside after cooking, the exterior looking more like a golden brown salt bread than the usual hard white paste. Once approved, the fish is ferried back to the kitchen for removal of bones and crust, then returned as two sweet, slender fillets so exquisitely delicious as to require only a squeeze of lemon. A pale yellow, pineapply sweet "preserved Meyer lemon marmalade," more like an emulsion sauce, was fortunately served on the side — and thus easy to avoid.
Most entrées are in the upper $20 range, with only dorade, lobster, and veal milanese topping $30. Courses don't come with much in the way of vegetable or starch, so an à la carte side or two is recommended. Crisp cubes of roast potatoes were pooled in light, concassé-like tomato purée, but bright green rapini lacked advertised garlic and needed some salt.
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Service is surprisingly polished for such a new venue. Waiters are well trained, well mannered, well informed, and, well, just very impressive. So is the wine list assembled by master sommelier Emily Wines (from San Francisco's Michelin-rated Fifth Floor restaurant), whose esoteric inventory is invested in vintages and small production wines from around the globe. Some two dozen half-bottles are thoughtfully offered, as is a wide array of wines by the glass — ranging from $8 to $17. Specialty beers include Lindeman's Pêche from Belgium and Ayinger Bräu-Weisse from Germany. And Area 31 has netted "master mixologist" Jacques Bezuidenhout to orchestrate the provision of professionally prepared, cutting-edge cocktails — the hottest of Miami restaurant trends. Try the Hot Crush, a mesmerizing mix of Square One Cucumber vodka, vanilla liqueur, jalapeño, and the juice of cucumbers and lime (even more mesmerizing after the second round).
Desserts are no less creative. A key lime tart delivered dabs of tart citrus mousse between two thin, crisp rounds of bright white meringue, the sandwich itself sandwiched with a sweet swirl of carrot purée below and a capping quenelle of cardamom ice cream. If your post-dinner tastes trend more toward traditional, the nightly trio of cheeses might bring Boucheron de chèvre, Gorgonzola Valdeón, and Romao, a chewy Spanish sheep's milk with a rosemary rind.
The next time you seek a great seafood dinner, there's no need to go fishing about for options. Cast your line with Area 31 and you're sure to catch something to brag about.