Eden doesn't tempt
Christopher Lee has enjoyed great success as a chef in New York City. He headed the kitchen at Gilt when it nabbed two Michelin stars, then helmed Charlie Palmer's Aureole and maintained that restaurant's one Michelin star (he recently left the latter establishment). His "new American classics" style of cooking is highly praised. So when word circulated that Lee would become consulting chef for Eden South Beach, Miami locals were naturally enthused. Unfortunately, it appears the heralded toque left his gastronomic muse somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Eden is located in the former Talula space on subdued 23rd Street (but just 'round the corner from the two Chows). The previously staid décor has been minimally enlivened with a green-patterned panel covering the main wall (including modern artwork that clashes terribly), and a Garden of Eden mural above an open kitchen. The layout hasn't changed: There's a similar seating capacity of 60, and the same bar setup runs along the left side as before. The room wasn't much to look at as Talula, and it still isn't.
On clement evenings, most folks opt for outdoor seating in a lush green patio behind the restaurant. Tables there are not set until used, so the array of empty white plastic tabletops lends a cheap air. On one evening, the outside bar was barren as well; on a weekend return, it featured a few bottles of booze on the shelves. Music, whether piped in or spun by a DJ, is too loud and exactly the opposite of what one would expect to hear in a paradisiacal setting. If the original Garden of Eden had looked and sounded like this one, Adam and Eve would've bolted long before banishment.
Appetizers are divided into eight each of "temptations" and "first courses." The former grouping includes hummus, fried calamari, beef sliders, crab rolls, jerked fries, and blackened chicken quesadillas. Granted, one can find the same starter selection at any T.G.I. Fridays, but the sliders at Eden are prepared with Wagyu beef and the crab rolls culled from Dungeness. Plus prices are much higher: $16 for the crab roll, which brought four cucumber-wrapped packets of sweet, shredded crab meat garnished with candied macadamia nuts, passion fruit sauce, and Kahlua sauce. It proved too sweet a medley — and since Eden touts a strong "farm-to-table" ethos (an unoriginal spin), why ship Dungeness from California when we've got stone crabs right offshore?
We began our meals with a complimentary and quite delectable crab dip accompanied by crisp wafers of herbed flatbread. A quartet of greaseless quesadilla triangles contained small nuggets of blackened chicken padded with avocado, onion, and cilantro. It came with a dollop of sour cream, teeny dice of pico de gallo, and similarly small cut of caramelized pineapple. It was tasty, as was a cone of skinny, jerk-seasoned fries with a dish of smoked tomato dip. The hummus, which we sampled as a garnish on a lamb loin entrée plate, was fresh, loose, and lemony. These three items cost $6 to $9; the other temptations run $11 to $19. There wasn't a sour note among the trio, but are hummus, quesadillas, and fries any way to begin a meal at a chef-driven restaurant in 2011?
The second set of starters is comprised of another international mash: a Caprese-like salad with heirloom tomatoes, burrata cheese, and pesto; "market" sushi; beef carpaccio with Parmesan cheese, pickled onions, and black truffle dressing; tuna tartare with kim chee and scallion pancakes... Please wake me when an appetizer is mentioned that you haven't heard of a hundred times before (such as, for instance, Florida frogs' legs with asparagus cauliflower, Iberico pancetta, and poached quail egg, which is on the Aureole menu in New York). To be fair, there are two very creative dishes in this category: a "Reuben" of pastrami pork belly, raclette cheese, coleslaw, and "Russian dressing"; and apple-chestnut ravioli flecked with pecorino cheese in sage brown butter sauce. The last featured five small, square pockets plumped with a smooth, delicate, delicious purée of more apple than chestnut; sage effectively chaperoned the sweet flavors.
The Reuben was more problematic. It is true the waiter warned us it contained no bread or bread substitute — one can only assume that pronouncement was spurred by persistent customer complaints over the lack. The belly boasted a rye note or two, but because the trio of small slab was cooked in a deep-fryer, the pork inherited a chicharron-chintziness of texture and taste. Melted, fondue-friendly raclette cheese paired perfectly with the meat, as did the vinegary coleslaw. The use of chicken jus with traditional Russian dressing ingredients (minus ketchup and mayonnaise) wasn't as convincing. But more to the point: A pastrami Reuben on rye bread is more satisfying, and it offers better bang-for-the-buck than this $14 mimicry.
Some 70 global wines are offered in a very sample-friendly format, served in two-ounce sips, six-ounce tastes, a bottomless glass, or by the bottle. Waiters were friendly too and, for the most part, efficient. But management of the room felt more corporate than neighborly — and the clientele seemed tilted toward tourist rather than local. It seemed sort of like a hotel restaurant without a hotel.
Eight entrées are split equally between seafood and meat/poultry. We passed on macadamia-crusted salmon — too Allen Susser circa 1989 — and settled instead on catch of the day, tilefish. Because it was lean, mild, and white-fleshed, it was probably grey tilefish, which is found in South Florida waters (our waiter, and subsequently a manager, didn't know for sure). Eden serves it as a steak-cut in Spanish-style — on a bed of stewed peppers and crisp-bottomed sections of saffron rice swelled with mussel sauce (and an intoxicating infusion of smoked paprika). The same gratifying garnishes accompany whatever the market fish happens to be.
I put off trying miso sea scallops with edamame beans and shiitake mushrooms for a second visit, but by then the scallops had been switched with black cod. The miso-lacquered fish was as rewardingly moist and sweet as it must have been when Nobu Matsuhisa introduced it in 1994. The edamame was coarsely mashed and mixed with sections of shiitake; a citrus butter seeped into the crevices of the cod.
A lengthy loin of lamb came diagonally cut into rare, juicy slices. The meat was so mild it almost tasted like beef, but a rich lamb "jus" (more like a demi-glace) boosted the flavor. Haricot vert and carrots, both cut into a small dice, and a smear of hummus comprised a tasty if unexceptional side to the $39 plate.
Hopefully you're the sort who enjoys an injection of fruit in your dessert; if not, you may want to bring along a few cookies to munch on after dinner. The five dessert options are passion fruit cheesecake, hot chocolate cake with mango sorbet, milk chocolate/orange pot de crème, apple tart, and Key lime pie sundae. The last is, in essence, three very generous scoops of creamy, mellow Key lime ice cream capped with whipped cream and studded with graham crackers — some sticking from the side, others broken and placed at the bottom of the sundae glass. The apple tart, dubbed "Eve's first bite," is a flat round of puff pastry topped with warm, softly baked slices of the fruit and crème fraîche.
Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, Aureole customers are offered an apple "Brown Betty" made with cinnamon cider and curry cream. Another choice is Greek yogurt mousse with concord grapes, pumpernickel, and thyme. Could it be that chef Lee dumbed things down for what he perceived to be an unsophisticated Miami clientele? We can't say, but judging from lackluster crowds at Eden thus far, South Florida locals are proving savvier than expected.
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