For party people, an evening of both dinner and dancing is practically de rigueur. Though the conservative approach is to feast in one place, frolic in another, Miamians are not known for either their reserve or their patience. If the music in the restaurant has enough of a beat, we're likely to shuffle in our seats and even jump onto the tables to express ourselves.
Smart restaurateurs are capitalizing on this behavior, hiring live bands or DJs and installing dance floors. To compete for those dining and drinking dollars, nightclub owners are opening upscale restaurants in the clubs. The result is the re-emergence of the Forties cabaret "supper clubs," where patrons can enjoy an entire evening's activities at a single place.
Trendy supper clubs such as Union Bar & Grill and Van Dome are quite popular this season on South Beach, the area where you're most likely to hear cabaret music and encounter tabletop dancing (by people wearing clothes, that is). But these establishments are also materializing in other locales, reflecting those neighborhoods' cultural environs. In the Brickell business district, for example, Scala Grill serves Brazilian rodizio to the accompaniment of a ritzy, Rio-style show. And Connections in the Grove gives diners the opportunity to dance off both their derrieres and their dinners on the crowded, neon-lighted dance floor.
The idea that Connections might not serve those dinners until 2:00 a.m. hardly fazes the waitstaff. Indeed, our waiter informed us that though the restaurant begins serving at 6:00 p.m., the postmidnight hours bring the rush. It's a long night for the kitchen, but a tasty convenience for the patrons. Actually, it's even more than that. A restaurant in a private nightclub, Connections is a viable dining option for the public as well, a public that just might stay on and dance afterward. (Although club memberships are offered, a dinner reservation entitles one to a table for the entire evening, dancing included.)
The menu is quintessentially Continental, an Old World list that's a bit of a shock amid the realm of tropical New World cuisine. Also surprising was the fact that so many preparations are done tableside. Rack of lamb or Dover sole are carved and boned (respectively) in front of you. Caesar or hot spinach salad, or the pasta appetizer of the day are tossed at your table, too. Desserts I haven't eaten in years -- cherries jubilee, baked Alaska -- are flambeed by your waiter. It's a bizarre concept of service, elaborate and somehow misplaced. Order a three-course meal and you'll discover that your waiter has more moves than the dancers.
We skipped the flourishes of waiters and dancers alike and enjoyed a sedate meal at a reasonable dining hour. Though the disco beat boomed, the floor was in recession, so to speak, featuring only a lone dancer or two. A few other tables were occupied, reassuring us that if this experience were to degenerate into a Travolta-esque culinary nightmare, at least we wouldn't be the only ones trapped in it.
Once the food arrived, however, we needed no further reassurances. Escargot, sauteed traditionally with garlic and herbs, were large and plump, overflowing their miniature pastry shells and shining as brightly as the lights with a fair share of butter. This was a rich dish, but no less so than most of the other appetizers, which included a pate of the day, asparagus gratin, coquille St. Jacques, and lobster bisque. Even the soup of the day, a cream of asparagus, was modeled along these lines.
To counteract the cholesterol, we also ordered two of the four salads offered on the menu. Both featured generous amounts of crisp iceberg, shredded carrots, sliced sweet red onions, and ripe tomatoes. One version, called the Connections salad, added artichokes to the mix; the other included four silky lengths of hearts of palm. A nicely balanced balsamic vinaigrette was served alongside.
For dinner I chose a mixed seafood grill comprising two jumbo shrimp, two mussels, a fillet of salmon, a host of bay scallops, and an entire shelled tail of Florida lobster. Simply grilled, the seafood was fresh and filling, hardly needing the vat of too-salty melted butter. The salmon, in particular, was a treat A moist, meaty, and minus the fishy odor to which salmon is prone. The lobster tail, too, was sweet, not tough the way the Florida crustacean can be. A pleasant rice pilaf accented one side of the plate; smooth mashed potatoes garnished the other. For color and a welcome acidic flair, half a grilled tomato perched between the two starches.
Broiled tomato and rice pilaf also complemented the delicious Chicken Connection, a juicy breast enhanced by a particularly mild curry-and-coconut-milk sauce and a tropical fruit relish. This combination of flavors was available as a special of the day as well, featuring shrimp instead of poultry.
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Veal scallopini Marsala consisted of large medallions of pounded, floured veal perched on top of a mound of egg noodles. Although the noodles had been billed as spinach, the veal itself was no mistake. It was incredibly tender, and the combination of scallopini and Marsala sauces produced a lighter version of a typical Marsala, the butter and lemon lessening the strength of the dark wine.
The waiter talked us out of the Florida lobster tail stuffed with cognac-flavored mushrooms and into the grilled churrasco. The chef did it exceptionally well, he said, and he was correct. One of my guests, an Argentine woman, was delighted to see this flank steak so expertly prepared, especially as it was served with a notable chimichurri (parsley sauce). The condiment, however, sharpened with vinegar, was barely necessary; this succulent steak was grilled churrasco at its finest, making bearable even the (by now) extremely annoying neon.
The sheer size of the main courses prevented us from ordering dessert. But because the music went on, so did we, almost against our will. Just as there are some who are horrified by the tabletop antics on South Beach, dinner in a disco may not be to everyone's taste. It certainly wasn't to mine -- or so I thought. You can, of course, choose your own favorite supper-club locale. And after you make your decision, order the steak.