Charming by Nature
My most memorable dining experiences often have occurred outdoors, which doesn't mean on the patio. There was that chardonnay and chilled oysters experience out in the Everglades one sunset; or the simple yet perfect taste of a sliced mango in a Puerto Rican rain forest following a light rain; or that backpacker breakfast of Brie cheese with a hunk of fresh bread in a Burgundy vineyard. The spectacular settings clearly made the flavors that much more lively.
Dining at a hotel, even if it overlooks the bay, just can't be as exotic. But dining near the outdoor waterfall at the Pirates Bar & Grill kind of makes up for that and provides a staged yet still captivating South Florida tropical backdrop for a meal. In fact the refreshing silence and ample view of Miami's broad sky make it hard to imagine the place exists a block from throbbing CocoWalk. The intimate Grill, the feel of which has little to do with its seafaring name, is in the recently renovated Mutiny Hotel on South Bayshore Drive and, for better or worse, caters to many guests and tourists, perhaps because few Miamians know it exists.
Indoors the restaurant features a quiet bar with candlelit dining tables, but it's that gushing two-tier rock waterfall outside, surrounded by ficus trees, orchids, and bromeliads, that's the real draw. Only seven small, bleached teak tables are nestled among the blooming flora, keeping the probability of a cacophonous evening to a minimum. That wasn't always the case.
In an earlier incarnation two decades ago, the Mutiny was viewed as a swinging place during the Grove's days as a hip hangout. Serious partygoers romped in exotic rooms furnished with lush couches and animal rugs. Despite the bacchanal aura of the festivities, however, the Mutiny's quieter Sunday brunches, served in a layered, sprawling tree-house restaurant near its outdoor pool, drew lines every weekend before the hotel slid into financial ruin. Today the Mutiny has been reborn as a modern hotel, the tree house is gone, and an elegant décor with tiles and pillars obscures its rowdy past.
On a recent Saturday night when I dined with a companion, the staff was attentive, warning us that a drizzle and perhaps mosquitoes stirred up by recent showers might await us on the two-level terrace near the waterfall. We choose to test the elements anyway and were seated under a twelve-foot umbrella where the calming sound of pouring water did not overshadow our conversation and the evening cool-down made the high-summer temperature bearable.
But our nature experience was cut short as the drizzle returned and the waiter solicited us to move indoors to a small table overlooking the pool and waterfall. There we tried a chicken soup appetizer: a treasure in a bowl. The light broth arrived with sprigs of dill and perfectly prepared linguini noodles instead of the usual tired lot, elevating chicken broth to a new level. A basic mozzarella, basil, and tomato plate was fine, but as for the caesar salad, the dressing lacked flavor and its promised anchovies were absent.
I ordered the Linguini Mutiny, a mix of sautéed chicken, shrimp, and peppers in a red sauce. The linguini was delicately prepared and the tomato base light and flavorful. My companion ordered salmon beurreblanc, reasonably priced at $13.95 (in fact everything was affordable, an increasingly rare dining experience, especially in hotels), which should be listed as a specialty. It was superb -- perfectly pan-seared with the slightest outside crunch that complemented its smooth lemon-caper cream sauce. Steamed vegetables also were done well.
The cheesecake does actually seem to be a specialty of the restaurant, and is artistically presented on large plates with spaghetti swirls of chocolate or caramel sauces. We chose a marble version from the four cheesecake selections. It arrived royally on a large plate with chocolate sauce designs. A chilled carrot cake, served with a caramel design, was tasty but a bit dry.
As mentioned, the attentiveness of our waiter that night was impressive, though perhaps not surprising since we were the only patrons there for an early dinner. Like many Miami restaurants, this one suffers the local doldrums of our city's late-summer tourist slump. When I dined there alone on the waterfall terrace another night, the staff was not as attentive. I often wonder whether this might be because I'm female or because I'm alone. Perhaps neither category of diner is considered a big tipper, but since I occasionally dine alone, I remain curious.
This evening the waiter vanished for long chunks of time, leaving not only me but a Jamaican businessman at a nearby table wishing we could send out a message for help from what was beginning to feel less like a jungle paradise and more like a deserted island. The beauty of sitting by a waterfall, of course, is that its soothing properties prevents adopting a New York attitude, and after fifteen minutes we were able to flag down the waiter without becoming frustrated. Such is life in the tropics.
I tried an impressive house salad with several varieties of lettuce. A light, tangy vinaigrette illustrated the chef's ability to achieve flavor without relying on heavy oil -- a rarity in Miami. But the lightness of the salad made the penne pomodoro seem all the more overwrought. The penne was cooked past its chewy phase, and the sauce, though tasty, was a bit overwhelmed by the Parmesan cheese.
It should be noted that the Pirates Grill caters to a diverse group of diners. There are families in shorts who come in for the mahi-mahi sandwich with fries (not recommended owing to the downright tiny portion of fish), who sit indoors or near the pool; and there are dressed-up couples seeking an intimate, elegant meal. With this broad base to please, the Grill does an admirable job. Main courses run from the penne pomodoro and fettuccini Alfredo (both $8.95) to the Burgundy New York steak ($22.95), though pastas and salads really are the Grill's strengths. And while its menu boasts only nine entrées, it also offers a variety of snacks, three types of gourmet pizza, and breakfast and lunch. Couple that with the customer-friendly prices and that wonderful waterfall, and you come up with a hidden treasure.
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