If there were any doubt basketball is a sport for the poor-born to play and the wealthy to watch, the AmericanAirlines Arena (AAA) will put it to rest.
And if you didn't know, the AAA is so new that if you wander by during daylight hours, you'll see ongoing construction, and security is suspicious of anyone not wearing a hardhat. I was thoroughly questioned by just about everybody when I attended a media tour of the culinary facilities the other day. An example:
"Why are you here?" a construction foreman asked me.
"For a media tour," I replied, trying to locate the elevators in the vast underground cavern also known as a parking garage.
"What channel you from?"
"I'm not TV. I'm from Miami New Times."
Now he was really skeptical. "I thought all you people were black."
Maybe my grandparents were. You never know. But I stray. The point is, I found the elevators and rose like Persephone starving from a diet of six pomegranate seeds from the bowels of AAA to see how the other half, the upper echelon, the beautiful people live when they attend a basketball game. First stop, Club Chivas Regal.
Open to Club Seat ticketholders, suiteholders (more on that later), and their guests, the 350-seat Club Chivas Regal, an open-ended restaurant overlooking nosebleed territory, charges an additional $28 per head for an exceptionally fine buffet. Levy Restaurants, a Chicago-based restaurant company founded by deli proprietors Larry and Mark Levy in 1978, oversees the club and other luxury facilities in AAA. The company's pedigree includes acclaimed eateries Spiaggia, a James Beard Award winner, Bistro 110, and Blackhawk Lodge, all in Chicago, in addition to fifteen other national restaurants. In 1982 the brothers founded the Sports and Entertainment Group, a foodservice provider of quality cuisine to sports and entertainment venues. Today the group operates in 27 locations.
If you've got enough pull to get into this private club, expect to be impressed. As executive chef Gil Logan stresses, Levy Restaurants "stay true to the food." In other words he and executive chef Vasken Jibilian use only fresh ingredients and tailor the fare in each venue to the region. Among other items we were treated to Mediterranean antipasto-style grilled vegetables and marinated olives, salads like banana-lentil and lobster-watercress, and a number of different homemade breads and crackers with gourmet cheeses like Maytag blue and Port Salut. Further down the buffet line, we chose from a number of interactive "action stations," where jumbo shrimp promptly were sautéed in a margarita sauce; beautifully rare tuna loin was carved by hand and served over field greens with a wasabi-cilantro vinaigrette; and succulent mojo-marinated lamb chops were presented with a jalapeño jam and toasted coconut rice with spicy pigeon peas.
The co-chefs even claim they don't have can openers or microwaves in the kitchen, and took us on a tour of this particular florescent dungeon to prove their point. I didn't see a single member of the nongame-day 40-person staff (game days require a 90-person staff) who were prepping sauces, marinades, and condiments, handle a church key. They do admit to using a special cracker to break the shells of the jumbo stone crabs, though -- a necessity since they serve about 300 pounds per basketball game.
If Club Chivas Regal is too public for your tastes, you can option one of the 26 Luxury Suites, which have balconies overlooking either the bay or Biscayne Boulevard. In the suites you can order a sumptuous spread for your guests that includes smoked salmon draped over a giant champagne glass, with condiments in the center. The suites also come with your very own sous chef, who cooks pasta to order at the "action table," along with chafing dishes, minikitchens, and of course, the requisite TV. For dessert a cart loaded with signature Jumbo Taffy Apples and seven-layer carrot cake is wheeled from room to room.
Private suites are fine for the business folk cutting deals over a Heat game and some pan-roasted turkey filet mignon or rosemary-garlic-stuffed prime rib. But true sports fans probably would prefer one of the 56 loges, which are located within the seats themselves. Sort of like open-air boxes, these semiprivate seats are backed with lowboy bars and chafing dishes. Ah, being a fan is so taxing.
Especially if you're a floor seat ticketholder, which entitles you entry to the Flagship Lounge, a handsome restaurant located on the arena floor that offers an à la carte menu, full bar, and "the most comfortable [leather] chairs in the entire stadium," says chef Logan. And then there are the six Star Boxes, which VIPs can rent for the low, low price of half a mil per season. Folks like Marlins owner John Henry hang out here, entering via a private entrance and ordering carte blanche; chef Jibilian notes that Henry favors healthy pastas, salads, and "turkey dogs. He's gotta have his turkey dogs."
Before the tour ended with a glimpse of a storeroom that puts Costco to shame, Miami Herald food writer Deborah S. Hartz asked the question on all our minds, though she posed it without a trace of irony: "Will we tour where the plebeians eat?"
No, for the simple reason that Levy Restaurants doesn't run these concession stands. So I headed back the next day for a Heat game and a taste of what the commoners can bite on.
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The lower classes are more likely to munch a mojo-grilled chicken sandwich ($5.25) than a citrus-marinated chicken breast with mango-papaya chutney and yellow and red peppers (another Chivas Regal Club specialty). Still, claim some Heat fans in Zagat-speak, the food is "not bad," "healthier," and "pretty good," even if it is "pricy" and "exactly the same" as it was at the Miami Arena. Others, like brother-and-sister fans Tania and Robert Marrero, say the concessions are better at the new arena than at the old. And Y-100's Jade Alexander, who was doing stand-up outside the game, told me that the soft pretzels "were the best I ever had. They're actually soft."
Frankly I was miffed by the AAA's 777 jumbo hot dog ($4.75), not very impressive whatever scale you use. The Pizzarena Sicilian-style slice ($4.00) was lukewarm and lame, with flabby cheese and next to no sauce. More original and interesting, People's Bar-B-Que had a good setup going, offering beef, chicken, or pork sandwiches ($5.25); unfortunately the pork was dry, and the restaurant ran out of sandwiches well before halftime.
On the plus side of things, the Caliente Cab Mexpress makes horribly gloppy-looking nachos grande ($5.75) with premelted cheese and ladles full of shredded chicken or beef, but the chips are homemade. If you can shut your eyes to the Alpolike consistency of the poultry, then you've got a decent snack here.
Even the beer was a bit of a bummer. Domestic brews like Bud and Bud Lite ($5 for 21 ounces) just didn't cut it for a lot of the fans, who instead waited in line at the full bars. At least they offer frozen strawberry daiquiris and wine by the glass ($4.75), poured from an actual bottle with a cork in it. So we might as well face it. Top-shelf alcohol is the closest most of us will come to the Star Boxes and the subsequent star treatment. Unless, that is, we choose to take advantage of the $35 valet parking -- yet another oh-so-affordable luxury courtesy of AmericanAirlines Arena.