It shouldn't come as a surprise that you're not familiar with Preston's, even if it has been situated in the high-profile Loews Miami Beach Hotel since 1998. It's the fate one might expect to befall a property's number two dining option, especially when the signature restaurant is named Emeril's. Preston's simply doesn't have the same cachet. For quite some time it didn't have much of a menu either, and produced the sort of cuisine visitors didn't necessarily write home about. Maybe that's why we never wrote about it.
But things changed four months ago when veteran local chef Rob Boone took the reins (Marc Erhler remains executive chef at the hotel). Chef Boone tutored with Norman, beguiled at Bambú, and in this writer's opinion, never got on track at Metro Kitchen & Bar. At Preston's he presides over a short, compelling menu of contemporary, globalized American cuisine.
Preston's is the last stop in the long Loews lobby; when you reach the Hemisphere lounge, which slings slushy drinks and sushi, that means you're getting close. The colorfully carpeted dining room contains 150 comfortably cushioned, high-backed wicker chairs encircling tables topped in taupe linen. Most prominent visual features are thick cylindrical columns, lofty picture windows, and an open kitchen framed in forest green tile. Not a bad-looking space, yet it evoked a vaguely familiar brand of insipid cheeriness I couldn't put my finger on. During a second visit, my dinner companion said it reminded him of banquet rooms at conference centers. Bingo!
Homemade bread sticks, light, buttery, and warm from the oven, stood tall over standard dinner rolls and slices of ordinary olive bread; the prosaic quality of olive oil and balsamic vinegar poured onto our bread plates didn't exactly exalt our spirits either. In other words, we weren't prepared for the ecstasy about to be elicited by our chow fun starter. In fact as the wide white ribbons of supple noodles first melted on our tongues, we were seized with regret for having parked any bread in our stomachs' limited spaces.
The noodles were pan-crisped with onions, garlic chives, teeny yellow squares of tamago (Japanese egg omelet), and many moist morsels of applewood bacon that contributed a delectable smoky flavor. In the same bowl, on the side, were almost twiglike green strands of pickled sea beans, crunchy and aromatic of the ocean. This was such a "warm, earthy, intense" dish (the menu categorization of starters under which it falls) that my wife and I were clashing chopsticks in our competitive haste to taste more; the chow fun was gone in 60 seconds.
Unknown to us at the time, the chow fun was also the last such hearty starter to be served; everything else, for better or worse, was presented as precious food art on white porcelain canvases. Actually, for better and worse. For better: a darkly grilled hunk of hamachi on a lengthy rectangular plate, the rest of the white space splashed with delicious components -- a skewer of hamachi carpaccio; a square bowl of white soy dip; pieces of pickled Japanese eggplant; sensuous, soft-as-pudding coconut "noodles" prepared from that fruit's milk, lemon grass, and kefir lime, tossed with peanuts in a thin, lightly piquant sauce.
For worse: under the "bright/fresh/vibrant" heading of cold starters, a curious pairing of mellow, mayonnaise-laced Maine lobster salad and three petite, pristine squares of tuna sashimi dotted with green juice from the sour yuzu fruit. The two seafoods lacked compatibility; the pair of promised accompaniments, "fresh wasabi and öburnt' grapefruit," might have added just the sharp and puckery notes needed, but seared sections of orange were substituted for the grapefruit, and fresh wasabi -- a costly, rarely encountered root -- never materialized. (I couldn't help but notice that the $19 price was not adjusted accordingly.) A savvier strategy would be to choose from a side panel of fresh sushi selections, and suspend any yen for lobster-roll filler until your next trip to Maine.
There didn't seem to be a manager overseeing the dining room, resulting in a series of waiters bobbing by like boats without anchors. One paused to pour wine, another to pick up menus. One carried appetizers, another main courses, neither having any idea who ordered what. They hadn't yet floated our way before, and apparently the gentleman who had taken our orders left no paper trail. We had to ask for a wine menu too.
Incidentally, if Blackwell were to draw up a list of worst-dressed waiters in a high-end restaurant, Preston's crew would surely receive recognition for their short-sleeve, snap-button shirts of thin white cotton -- known in the industry as "dishwasher shirts" for obvious reasons.
On the other hand, entrées, like starters, were dressed to the nines, and for the most part tasted as good as they looked. Grilled medium-rare slices of lamb loin with "cocoa-sugared salt" (an ingredient that proves more prominent in the reading than the eating) were plated with a layered line of candy-stripe beets and wedges of roasted red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, a surprisingly cohesive combination, their sweet and mildly acidic flavors gently undercutting gleams of gaminess from the lamb. An "espresso-orange reduction," like the cocoa-sugared salt, is more pronounced on the page than the palate, the brown, lamb-based sauce deriving most of its taste from the addition of sautéed cherries, with only teasing undertones of coffee and citrus.
Another main course plucked from "rich/hearty/robust" selections was an intensely marinated and darkly caramelized Muscovy duck "cooked under a brick," or more accurately "overcooked under a brick." Still the flavor was sweetly enticing, the accompaniments dandily ducky: rice pearl plum sections (just think sweet plum) crunchily battered and fried, cooked kumquats with a tart kick, and sautéed bittersweet sesame-and-honey Chinese broccoli leaves.
A grilled New York strip steak was likewise overcooked, but that was merely a misdemeanor compared to the felony of being one dull slab of beef. The meat's plate mates of red bliss mashed potatoes and creamed spinach were lusciously rich, but you can order these separately as sides.
"Elegant/refined/graceful" is the heading for a half-dozen seafood entrées, and a thick, pearly square of halibut was just that, aromatically braised with lavender and rosemary and presented atop a hash of cooked radishes and grated fresh hearts of palm, with black-truffle "sabayon" (really more a mayonnaise) pleasing as a potently perfumed dip on the side.
One of my pet peeves, as I've stated often in this space, is the lack of imagination and effort when it comes to postdinner pastries. Guess I'll have to file Preston's dessert menu, with items such as a martini glass filled with strawberry shortcake, cotton candy, and bubblegum ice cream, under "watch what you ask for." Or will I? We bypassed the dessert menu during our first visit, and upon my return, the invitingly gauche pink dessert was history. So were the dessert menus. "We're in between printings -- should have a new one in a couple of days," said our waiter before launching into a recital of chocolate soufflé cake, "giant" crème brûlée, ice creams, sorbets, and key lime pie. I inquired whether they still had the key lime trio from days past --literally. "Yes, that too," he replied. A square of key lime ice cream and square of key lime pie were bottomed with chocolate graham crust and were aptly key-limey and creamy; a square of key lime crème brûlée was -- well, let's just say bouncy, and add that as you read this, new dessert menus are in place.
Every Friday evening brings an impressively extensive $38 all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, but at other times dinner at Preston's proves an expensive proposition. No quibbles with quality or integrity of the innovative cuisine, but service and other nonculinary aspects need to be retooled in order to provide a fine-dining environment appropriate for the price. When this occurs, perhaps Preston's will have cachet too.
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