Hardy Hill is a man of many vests. They hide beneath his tailored suits, both lustrous and gray. He has a strong chin and coiffed George Clooney-colored hair. He favors vintage Porsches, was once listed among Extra's Most Eligible Bachelors, and rose to momentary fame after appearing on the CBS reality-TV show Big Brother. On the series, his nickname was "Hard Body Hardy." But now Hardy Hill is the manager of the restaurant called Catch Miami, which debuted in January at the James Royal Palm hotel.
Hill is, in fact, the most powerful man on South Beach's dining scene right now. At Catch, he bends over the host stand, checks for reservations, and promises patrons that he will do his best to seat them in the dining room upstairs. But that area is exclusive — even more than the rest of the hot, voguish 4,000-square-foot, 175-seat restaurant. There are rarely any tables available.
Catch Miami is the second outpost of the eponymous dining and nightlife spot located in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Hung Huynh, the season-three winner of Bravo's Top Chef, is the executive chef at both locales. The restaurant is owned by the EMM Group, an entity that possesses not only a slew of nightclubs but also other New York restaurants and an invitation-only lifestyle, luxury-management firm named Four Hundred.
Dinner Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday 6:30 to 10 p.m., Monday 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Hamachi crudo $16
Catch Roll $17
Scallop dumplings $16
Crunchy rice cakes $16
Herb-roasted branzino $29
The dining room at Catch is studded with familiar faces. There are those you might recognize from television, such as Martha Stewart, and others you may know from movies, like Leonardo DiCaprio, Zoe Saldana, and Camilla Belle. Mostly, though, the posh SoBe restaurant swarms with people whose names you cannot recall. You know they are somebody — but that's only because everyone else looks up from their sushi and cocktails as these people walk into the room.
Flash photography is prohibited at Catch, which is unfortunate considering the crowd is so well dressed and there are so many women wearing $875 camel-hued Saint Laurent Tribute platform sandals. Yet some photographs of Catch's cliques do find their way to the Internet. On Hill's Facebook page, a photo of himself and a colleague is captioned, "Careful not to cut your finger on the sharply dressed men of [Catch Miami]."
This restaurant offers many things that other South Beach restaurants lack. It has a local area code for its reservations line that connects to a call center in Manhattan. It has an automated phone system that includes a voicemail box exclusively for lost and found. There are also very firm standards for hiring. Currently, Catch has an opening for "a rock-star hostess with great presence and fun, friendly, outgoing personality."
Once this rock-star hostess is hired, if you persuade her to grant you a seat upstairs, you'll probably spot Hill surveying the dining room and supervising the night's biggest tables. On a recent Friday evening, Catch was fully booked. Hill darted up and down the stairs. He perused a corner of the restaurant where a party of more than ten was dining on $89 Cantonese lobsters and sipping champagne. He pushed three tables together in the coveted center of the room. There sat a group of 20-somethings who looked like they had emerged from the set of a New York TV show — one that was more Gossip Girl and less Girls.
While you nibble on Catch's globally influenced fare, you might overhear, as I did, nearby tables murmuring about how "New York" the space feels or how cool a spot it is. But amid all the whispers and gossip, there is one thing you will rarely catch: compliments for the cuisine.
The restaurant's epicurean ethos is resoundingly uncomplicated: Combine miso or soy with a bit of crunch and then add some fish, fat, sugar, and spice. Take for instance the crunchy rice cakes. Fried baton-shaped rice patties are topped with bigeye tuna tartare and wasabi tobiko — flying fish roe infused with the piquant green Japanese plant. There is also a dish called crispy shrimp, whose fried crustaceans come doused in a cloyingly sweet-and-spicy dressing and served alongside spicy aioli.
Another option is sushi. Rolls are available with either white or brown rice for $12 to $17. The signature Catch Roll is filled with crab, Atlantic salmon, and an overly sweet miso honey. Chicken lettuce cups and caesar salad are also on the bill of fare. And, of course, there's macaroni and lobster cream.
Then there's the menu section called "Cold" (referring to salads and raw fish). Slivers of pristine hamachi are stacked horizontally with daikon, pineapple, and jalapeño and then splashed with a refreshing tomato vinaigrette. Salmon belly carpaccio is crowned with bursts of watercress, sweet-and-sour onions, and a vibrant yuzu dressing. An herb-roasted branzino flakes into rich morsels of the fish's flesh. It is coupled with a risotto-like basmati, sprinkled with chopped vegetables, and seeping with the delectable flavors of butter and cream. Those are the highlights of Catch's otherwise platitudinous cuisine.
As I left Catch after a dinner full of razzle-dazzle, crispy shrimp, and crunchy rice, Hardy Hill was standing downstairs, his eyes momentarily focused on his computer screen. In the crowded, dimly lit room, the monitor's glow reflected off his manicured yet scruffy, chiseled face. Hill glanced to his left. He scanned the packed bar and grinned. The space was teeming with patrons. Many of them dallied — sipping drinks and pining for a seat to finally open upstairs.
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Right outside Catch's doors, a Rolls-Royce convertible was parked in the driveway. But no one noticed the handsome car. No one seemed to mind the restaurant's $17 cocktails, long waits, or hackneyed flavors of its sushi rolls and chicken lettuce wraps, either.
Perhaps they were too preoccupied contemplating Top Chef's latest winner or trying to place Hardy Hill's striking visage. Maybe they were cocooned by the myth that South Beach is at its best when it replicates New York-style hype. Or perhaps they didn't care about any of these things at all.