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Glamo-R-ous

JOE ROCCO

Diners ascending into o-R-o during presunset hours — with its lofty white ceilings, luminous white walls, white linen tablecloths, white ostrich-skin upholstery, and island of white U-shape booths — might be forgiven for temporarily thinking they had entered in Heaven's dining room.

Adding to the celestial airiness of the 175-seat, second-story space are 24 unadorned windows offering a bird's-eye view of the marina below and the Miami skyline beyond. As the room dims after dusk, it takes on a classic old-Hollywood look. The visual focus shifts to the sleek black granite "O" Bar, twinkling candles on each table, and a Forties hand-cut crystal chandelier. Another decorative influence, in darkness or in light, is the Delano swank achromaticity; operating partner George Slover directed operations for eight years at that hotel. In terms of achieving a stylish and sophisticatedinterior design, you can't do much better than to channel God, Garbo, and Ian Schrager.

The food here likewise hovers between Paradise and Tinseltown. Many of chef Christopher Sepe's contemporary American dishes are sumptuous enough to garner Saint Peter's approval, but a few deliver more glitz than gustatory glory. In the former category were a trio of plump, marshmallow-size crabcakes crammed with luscious lump meat and diversely complemented by garlic aioli, avocado butter, and a terrific kim chee mayonnaise. Oysters Rockefeller also pleased — a half-dozen on the half-shell baked with lightly creamed spinach, a thin layer of hollandaise sauce, and a gratin of Parmesan cheese — but they could have used a punctuating pinch of Pernod, as the menu promised.

An heirloom tomato salad needed only a preservice sprinkling of salt, which would have more fully released the naturally sweet, acidic notes of the yellow, red, and striped varieties dazzlingly displayed on the plate. A smoothly balanced buttermilk blue cheese dressing provided an apt counterpoint to the tomatoes; thin strips of fried "crispy fennel" on the side weren't very crisp.

Sepe's culinary resumé boasts stints at La Vielle Maison in Boca Raton, Mark's Las Olas, and Bal Harbour's short-lived Petrossian. In 2000 he joined forces with the owners of that last venture to open the popular Giorgio's in Fort Lauderdale, followed by two more locations. At o-R-o, Sepe's short selection of entrées comprises a few traditional steak and lobster preparations in addition to a handful of fish dishes afforded more modern treatments. Prices are fair considering the setting — most seafoods range from $24 to $29, steaks $31 to $38, and fried chicken or vegan fettuccine at $16 each. One of my elderly dining companions, speaking in the ominous tone of a veteran soldier discussing land mines, bode us fair warning: "They get you with the drinks and appetizers." Specialty cocktails are $12. Starters range from $14 to $18.

The tab takes a precipitous upturn for a two-and-a-half-pound Maine lobster: served either steamed or Thermidor-style for $75. Your money does buy precious presentation, though; the ample crustacean is decked out on a wooden platter with mallet, cracker, roe picker, and checkered towels. In fact all table settings are creatively tasteful, from streamlined flatware custom-made by Mikasa, to elegant stemware bySchott Zwiesel, to plates of sundry shapes and colors — although a delicious honey butter, served with warm, crusty, predinner bread, curiously came contained in a little plastic ramekin.

More upscale indulgences are spooned out at the aforementioned 24-seat "O" Bar, including individual servings of Petrossian caviar (30 grams for $120 to $250) and various fish egg compositions, such as soft scrambled eggs infused with white truffle essence and served with the roe of salmon, trout, and pike. The first o in o-R-o, incidentally, stands for the "O" Bar. The r is for restaurant. And the second o, as far as I can tell, represents "Oy, what kind of crazy name is this for a dining establishment?"

Steaks include a grilled sixteen-ounce New York strip and eight- or ten-ounce portions of filet mignon capped with foie gras butter. The smaller tenderloin provided more than enough meat, an adeptly grilled exterior darkly encasing a soft, warm, marginally marbled red center. The foie gras-infused butter melted on top added a splat of luxurious fat to this lean cut, as well as a rich flavor boost to the limited area of meat it infiltrated, although I suspect it ultimately contributed more to price and prestige than to palate. To really give your steak a lift, try pairing it with one of o-R-o's fetching à la carte items, namely infused mashed potatoes that at first burst with the taste of truffle oil, followed by a subtle implosion of Vermont cheddar cheese.

Wine, of course, is another suitable chaperon for your meal. The markup on bottles has been kept in check so as to encourage more people to partake — or the same number of people to partake, but more. A glass of wine will also work to cut the grease of four moist, hefty pieces of fried chicken whose whipped egg-white crusts possessed neither a crunch nor sassy seasoning and were mildly redolent of old oil. Delectable creamy mushroom gravy on the side drew no complaints, nor did the velvety lemon butter sauce pooled underneath a thin fillet of mahi-mahi. But the latter wasn't enough to rehydrate the overcooked fish or its dry lump crabmeat topping. Better was wild salmon, dusted in coriander, cooked to a translucent coral pinkness, and puddled in a potent wild mushroom "broth" (more like sauce) earthily flecked with baby leeks, beech mushrooms (like fat enokis), and a paltry few bright green fava beans.

o-R-o offers two types of key lime pie. One is a specialty drink made with Finlandia lime vodka and KeKe Beach key lime liqueur. The other is battered, fried, and proffered as one of half a dozeninnovative desserts. Other outlandish sweets include a pair for four people to share: "make-your-own s'mores," wherein you roast the marshmallows at the table and sandwich them with the requisite fixings; and a daily-changing "cake by Edda," who is famous for her wedding creations.

Although desserts and other aspects of o-R-o will likely land you on cloud nine, service can leave you down in the dumps. Some waiters possess a polished professionalism; others do not. And the bus staff is among the slowest I've seen. But the real problem lies in overbooking, understaffing, or both. On a Wednesday visit, we were attended to in fine fashion until the room began to fill. By meal's end, we were parched for water and forced to stare at our empty plates for far too long. During a Saturday-night return trip, we waited an hour to be seated. These things happen in very busy restaurants during peak hours. The situation would have proved less irritating if we hadn't noticed a pair of vacant tables left unset for 30 minutes. Other potential seats were occupied by diners trying to summon their checks. Managers, meanwhile, were busy looking busy and doing everything but lending a hand. Our main courses that evening were at best lukewarm, obviously marooned under a heat lamp until an overburdened waiter had the time to deliver them. And we were even colder than the food. The air conditioning was set to such a chilly degree that a diner at the next table requested a tablecloth in which to wrap herself.

The restaurant is only a couple of months old, so it's reasonable to expect service glitches will be ironed out. Still, for the time being, I'd go for the heavenly Hollywood aura of weeknight o-R-o and avoid the hellish weekends.


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