Eat the Menu

Periodically, a friend reminds me that we belong to a disenfranchised generation. The baby boomers' economic balloon -- the one we also expected to rise on -- busted along with the Eighties; the funds, cars, and technological goodies we looked to garner instantly after college never materialized. Rather than the plums our older siblings and mentors seemed to gather without effort into their undergraduate baskets, we sorted instead through the dried-up prunes of a meager job market.

So we went to law school, business school, even creative writing school, but that only delayed the inevitable unemployment. Now we work in small, nonsmoking offices -- "veal-fattening pens" -- for a static salary, always half a rung away from slipping up on our rent, our credit card bills, our car payments.

My friend argues that we've been betrayed by the workforce disciples of Reaganomics, who gobbled eagerly all the pleasures of the age, setting an unattainable example. She considers herself cheated of the delicious excess of the Eighties and unfairly burdened by its backlash: a budget. Our virtuous penury, we've discovered, is not nearly as satisfying as reaching the summit without acknowledging the wind, and then buying the whole world a drink.

She needn't be envious. It's possible to regain that Eighties prince-of-the-peak sensation at Michael Krieger's The Restaurant at Van Dome party club cum supper club. There the privilege of excess occurs nightly -- mixed drinks cost more than six dollars, a twelve-dollar door charge to the club rivals prices in New York or Los Angeles (though diners, naturally, are admitted free-of-charge to the restaurant and can remain to enjoy the club) and the price of a single meal could buy gourmet groceries for weeks.

Van Dome's private dances have been a successful force on the South Beach scene, but the enhanced restaurant itself is a months-old addition, recently brought to media attention when Norman Van Aken acted as menu consultant after departing from a Mano in June. Van Aken replaced the original menu of world specialties, cheeses, desserts, and caviar -- Osetra, Sevruga, and Beluga, none for less than $40 an ounce -- with his brand of panache. Now caviar is only available as an ingredient -- American sturgeon -- in the dice of raw and smoked salmon with "woven" potato chips, horseradish oil, and chive creme fraeche. Even so, conspicuous consumption still prevails.

Dinner is served Wednesday through Saturday to a worldly clientele dedicated to the pleasures of the senses. Bodies sink into Scarface-inspired surroundings -- semi-circular booths one doesn't feel the need to ever leave; drapes curtain away the bar like a stage, framing bartenders as if they were mimes. Patrons, too, are often on display, even in one's most private moments: this club's best-known gimmick -- an aquarium wall of tropical fish -- reveals the opposite sex's restroom. And in this instance, women for once have the advantage.

But Van Aken's menu, not voyeurism, is why customers return. As with any of his ventures, the fare is opulent, overwhelming, promiscuous. Mostly it's divine, prepared by chef Randy Zweiban and sous chef Jon Kiewel. What's unusual, however, is that some flaws have crept in, as if the menu had been written in a hurry, and without first using a test kitchen.

For instance, quotation marks are scattered about haphazardly, punctuating nearly half the meal descriptions. Their application is arbitrary, surrounding the non-English "y allioli" but leaving unadorned the paw-paw goi du du; enclosing the playful "Fu-Fu" plantain-foie gras but abandoning the rhyming sushi-kushi platter. More confusing is the "Curacao [spelled without the circumflex] marinated pan seared foie gras Napoleon with papaya chutney and ginger jus." Though Curacao liqueur is frequently described as simply Curacao, the absence of any linguistic connection to the marinade makes the dish sound as if you're going to be dining on island rather than liver.

Punctuation sounds picky, I know. Menu misspellings, typographical errors, and poor translations are so commonplace they usually warrant only a sigh. But inconsistencies that interfere with our preconceptions of a meal are inexcusable, particularly when the consulting chef is lauded as much for his menu-writing skills as his signature cookery, and when the price for a departure from the norm is high. Even my overeducated friends had trouble deciphering some of these dishes.

In fact, I'm not certain this menu wasn't designed to amuse a cynical dining public. An accompanying side dish is described as "a chevre & truffled tater torta" (for some reason, the only ampersand on a menu filled with "ands"). Another is characterized as "some very black beans." But this humor burns inconsistently. Forget the test kitchen. Reading this menu, I felt tested. But that didn't stop me from enjoying my meal.

Apart from the menu, the restaurant boasts some fine Van Aken touches, such as a complimentary appetizer. We enjoyed tiny and delicious crab cakes before our drinks even arrived. Surprisingly, a second appetizer then graced our table, an Eighties-style extravagance -- lobster fritters so light on the lobster they really were just a dollop of fried batter placed on a bitter citrus butter we would later see with the Key West yellowtail we ordered. We began to search the room for a bride and groom, not completely convinced we hadn't stumbled into a celebratory cocktail party by accident.

We also rather hoped that if we sat without ordering long enough, we could make a meal of kitchen snacks alone. The basket of dense jalapeno-flavored cornbread (tasty despite its below- room-temperature chill) even with its odd partner, a banal baguette, seemed another welcome choice. But service was excellent and left us without excuses; we ordered promptly, starting with what were by then unnecessary -- at least in terms of appetite -- appetizers.

A "sharing" plate, Van Dome's term for a serving bigger than an appetizer but smaller than a breadbox, offered special delights. The swordfish "sticks," for instance, wrapped with christophine (chayote squash) and served over a Bahamian chowder reduction with blistered bell peppers, red onions, and new potatoes, presented a beautiful amalgamation of flavors. This sturdy fish held up well under the strength of pepper and onion, yet the gentle flavorings of squash and potato were neither ignored nor overlooked. We enjoyed as a less hearty counterpoint another excellent dish, the "little plate" of sweet, delicate Maine lobster and couscous salad with Moroccan harissa (a chili paste often thinned with lemon juice and oil to make a salad dressing, marinade, or condiment for couscous) and a minted lemon vinaigrette. The fine quality of this seaside refreshment was perfect for summer, the harissa hardly adding its own heat to the weather.

Fish entrees were also superb. The Key West yellowtail, pan-cooked and served over steamed crab and tiny shrimp with a rich and aforementioned slightly acrid citrus butter, was prepared with a tender, careful hand. And tuna glazed with hoisin sauce and served with Asian pears, sesame, coriander, and the delicate somen noodles were moist and had a good texture, just right for the evening. Somen, known as a summer noodle, is the only Japanese noodle used traditionally in shojin (temple) cooking. Though I doubt the hoisin sauce would have been welcome in a temple, I found this pan-Asian dish delicious, served at the shrine of Van AkenDome.

The eclecticism did not always succeed, however. The shredded and chopped duck "bang-bang" won tons with morito chile mole and a tropical fruit salsa reached too far abroad for influence, a risk with which Van Aken is always flirting. Taken separately the won tons were crisp and light, the mole was pure silk, and the tropical salsa a cool treat. Combined, the flavors of northern China, Mexico, and the Caribbean refused to mesh, jarring the palate with discord and the knowledge that a New World, as the pilgrims discovered, isn't always a friendly world, or better than the one left behind. At Van Dome, however, at least you can pretend it's decadence as usual.

Since my visit, I have learned chef Randy Zweiban has left Van Dome. Sous chef Jon Kiewel is now head chef.


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