Norman, Allen, or Mark? Fifteen years ago, this was the main — the only? — restaurant-oriented debate likely to take place in Miami. The comparison would generally start with who among Van Aken, Susser, or Militello was the best chef, and would end on the question of whose eponymous establishment was the superior place to dine. These guys were the talk of the town.
Last May, Militello shuttered the signature Mark's Las Olas venue; it was the final of his small cluster of restaurants to fold. Six months later, he hopped aboard 1 Bleu at The Regent Bal Harbour, which had launched in March with more fanfare than success. Following our first dinner here, one of my guests remarked that Militello must be going through his Mickey Rourke phase. Pre-Wrestler Rourke, that is.
One has to take into account 1 Bleu's status as a hotel restaurant, which necessitates a certain conservatism — at least to the extent of providing some familiar foods for weary travelers (as opposed to concentrating solely on cutting-edge cuisine for culinary adventurers). The customarily cautious clientele of Bal Harbour likewise looks more for sense than sensation on their plates (this ain't the Design District). Still... it seems a waste to bring in a chef of Militello's magnitude to prepare roast chicken with arugula, cherry tomatoes, and shoestring potatoes. If that's all The Regent brass wanted, they could have hired a Johnson & Wales graduate at a fraction of the cost.
1 Bleu at The Regent Bal Harbour
1 Bleu at The Regent Bal Harbour: 10295 Collins Ave., Bal Harbour; 305-455-5400. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.
Bleu's 106-seat interior has been designed in the same risk-free manner, which means strict adherence to generic corporate-hotel restaurant code: earth tones, white linen table settings, plush chocolate brown seats, floor-to-ceiling windows with water views (that at night turn black and charmless), and more earth tones — the overall decorative effect being a vague sense of beige. Soft jazz droning in the background only accents the blandness, which you can escape by dining on a 74-seat outdoor patio that overlooks Haulover Inlet.
Fresh, thick-hewn slices of sourdough and raisin pumpernickel breads preceded a steamy bowl of French onion soup. The offering du jour boasted aptly beefy broth and sweetly caramelized onions, but the pale, shriveled raft of provolone cheese provided a poor substitute for a robustly bronzed cap of Gruyère. The house salad proved a livelier choice, the mound of perky field greens tastily tossed with Marcona almonds and cherry tomatoes in raisin-sweetened cumin vinaigrette, a thin triangle of Manchego cheese resting on top. Shrimp saganaki brought two plump jumbo shrimp atop a hard, dark crouton, accouterments being tomatoes, olives, capers, and feta cheese — not bad, but nothing that couldn't be whipped up at a regular Greek joint. Better off leading off with a dozen mildly saline Blue Point oysters, classically paired with a mignonette of vinegar, shallots, and cracked black pepper. Petrossian caviar and stone crabs are also proffered from the seafood bar.
A cylindrical potato, pine nut, and goat cheese tartlet lacked the very attribute that the menu description starts out with: "crisp"; it tasted as though the thin crust of spuds had been prepared before service and reheated in an oven. It also pretty much lacked pine nuts, though a guest claimed to have spotted one. Then again, the combo of warm potato and goat cheese, suffused with fresh basil, possesses an inherently comforting taste. "Grilled stuffed portobello mushroom" on the side translated to thin strips of overcooked fungi flimsily topped with a tart, finely chopped salsa of sorts.
That appetizers are expensive is predictable; less expected is the way they are priced relative to one another. How can a homemade mozzarella-based Caprese salad, even with heirloom tomatoes and "selection of sea salts" ($22), cost a dollar more than roulade of rabbit loin with goat cheese, applewood bacon, tomatoes, olives, and white polenta ($21)? Even if ingredients were similarly priced, which they're not, the rabbit's far more intricate labor would seem to dictate it being pricier. Heck, for just two dollars more than the Caprese, you can snare a pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras with wilted spinach and poached baby pear ($24).
Main courses were more successful than starters. Thick, pearly flakes of a fat flank of crab-capped grouper, for instance, were as wet and succulent as oysters. Wedges of mushily baked red bliss potatoes encircled the fish along with petitely diced cubes of zucchini, yellow squash, and tomato. Maine lobster atop homemade fettuccini was moist enough, but saffron-tomato sauce and fresh peas don't exactly set the pulse racing.
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A juicy "rack of lamb" entrée turned out to be one enormous chop, and a delectable one at that. A chestnut crust on the meat was tasty in tandem with sour cherry sauce, and we enjoyed accompaniments of braised endive and a superb gratin of thinly sliced potatoes bound by a subtle infusion of bleu and cheddar cheeses.
While 1 Bleu's seafood selections are garnished in a light, Mediterranean style, meat main courses, like the lamb, exhibit more of a hearty, rustic bent. Pork tenderloin teams with apple-raisin compote, twice-baked potato, baby vegetables, and jus spiked with Southern Comfort; grilled beef tenderloin is given a homespun spin with root vegetables, roasted garlic, and polenta cake (although for $36, one might expect a better pedigree of beef than the Sterling Silver brand produced by Cargill Meat Solutions). A chopped mushroom-and-sage-flecked puddle of polenta also pairs with two juicy wedges of a prosciutto-wrapped medallion of veal pooled in porcini-accented demi-glace. Roasted shallots and a bundle of haricot verts came on the side — a solid, well-executed meal.
Non-pasta entrées start at $30 and run up to the high $40s (for the lamb and for Dover sole). Rib-eye chop is in a league all its own at $68; I don't doubt the generosity of portion size involved, but heirloom tomatoes, herb cannelloni, and salsa verde do not exactly comprise a dream team of haute plate mates. An á la carte side of asparagus with fried egg sounds more intriguing, but an á la carte side of roasted baby vegetables epitomizes the prosaic nature of 1 Bleu's menu: Zucchini, yellow squash, and carrots, baby versions or not, are B-O-R-I-N-G.
The wait staff is professionally trained in proper table etiquette, which includes knowing which side to serve from and how to be quietly efficient. Our server, in other words, proved capable of providing a serving of three ice creams and concisely describing each flavor without waxing ecstatic about what wonderful choices we had made. Besides, upon tasting the scoop of rich, aromatic Armagnac plum ice cream, and of brown butter ice cream bravely laced with boiled peanuts, our savvy was obvious. The third flavor, apple pie, was perhaps not so precious a pick, the texture marred by graininess, the taste dominated by cinnamon. Like much at 1 Bleu, the ice creams were expensive ($15) and mostly satisfying — but certainly nothing to talk about.