As far as fatuous falsehoods go, F. Scott Fitzgerald's contention that "there are no second acts in American lives" ranks right up there with "Mission Accomplished." Just wait and see: Britney Spears will be staging her comeback tour faster than you can say "Al Gore." People reinvent themselves all the time. So do restaurants. Inspired by this national spirit of second chances, I returned to Acqua and Atrio, a pair of dining establishments ensconced in glassy, classy hotels just one block apart on Brickell Avenue. Neither received much praise from New Times when they opened three years ago. Both have since replaced their chefs. We visited each restaurant just once this time around, ordering two appetizers, two entrées, and two desserts from each.
Acqua, located off the stately seventh-floor lobby of the Four Seasons Miami, has retained its understated, upper-echelon elegance. It is an exceedingly comfortable room in which to sit, softly lit with plush upholstered chairs set around polished burl-wood table tops. Yet while the decor remains unchanged, the menu has been completely renovated since we were last here in November 2004. At that time, some of chef Marco Bax's Italian-Med cuisine proved pleasing, but we were mostly disappointed as evidenced by our description of a "deadly dull vegetable terrine" surrounded by "dabs of raspberry vinaigrette that rested like flowers around a tombstone." We did, however, appreciate the "surprisingly moderate prices" (main courses from $21 to $32). Now most entrées start above $32, but since Patrick Duff took over as executive chef some seven months ago, the quality of cuisine has soared to new heights as well.
Duff came to town by way of Bangkok's Sukhothai Hotel, and the Asian influence is clear in a pristine, mirin-marinated, main course tenderloin of tuna that from the outside mimics a steakhouse filet mignon. With only the gentlest prodding, moist, burgundy flakes of the fish fell off into a thin, lightly curried cauliflower purée, both components seductively sweetened with melted leeks and lumps of crabmeat as big and juicy as grapes. A sizable shank of "White Marble Farms" pork likewise impressed, the meat braised into tender submission and glazed with a spunky Szechuan-citrus sauce. Under the pork were mashed plantains faintly freckled with chorizo.
White Marble Farms sounds so pastoral and idyllic, but there is no such place it's a brand name cooked up by Sysco marketers for industrial pork from Cargill Meat Solutions. These pigs never see a pasture; they are raised indoors in confinement pens just like most commercial pork, which makes the $33 tab for this low-end cut of meat seem less justified. Diners (and chefs!) beware: Assigning fake pedigree names to foods is a trick being used with more frequency these days. Readers (and food writers!) take note, too: A Tampa Tribune restaurant review (not of Acqua) from last September authoritatively claimed, "This kitchen doesn't skimp on quality the pork comes from the venerable White Marble Farms."
All but three nonsoup starters get plated as salads. Even pasilla chile-rubbed shreds of short ribs came embedded in watercress and frisée, and also tantalizingly teased with walnuts and wasabi goat cheese crumbles in a walnut oil and Cuban coffee-infused balsamic vinaigrette. This makes for one lively mouthful, and is not nearly as weird as it sounds due to the subdued nature of the coffee and wasabi elements. Still, a crabcake appetizer proved pretty standard by comparison, and was comprised of far fewer lumps than were found around the tuna. Crisped carrot threads atop the cake didn't add much, but alongside was a terrific open tamale of fresh corn and scallion in spicy jalapeño cream.
Service seemingly operates on a tag-team system, one waiter approaching the table for this, another coming over for that. Each was pleasant, polite, and professional, but gaps between the two left us waiting for someone to take our orders, for someone to take the check, and so forth.
Pastry chef Charles Froke comes to Miami from the Four Seasons Washington D.C., and my god, his bittersweet chocolate tart is sensational. It's actually a warm chocolate pudding in a round of buttery short crust tart shell, garnished with crisps of bittersweet chocolate and banana slices wrapped in crackly crusts of caramel (with a bit of edible gold leaf gilded on top). Ice cream on the side is flavored with tonka bean, a fragrant vanillalike seed that likewise evokes almonds, cinnamon, and cloves. Our pineapple fritter dessert could not compete, with chunks of the golden fruit tempura-battered, fried, dusted with sugar, accompanied by a thin and piquant caramel sauce, a small scoop of roasted banana and passion fruit sorbet, and a little taste of coconut custard. The latter two ingredients seemed like frivolous afterthoughts meant to plump up the presentation (what writers refer to as "filler").
If you've been enticed into giving Acqua a try (or a second try), I'd suggest doing so on a Thursday evening, which beginning next week becomes "Open That Bottle of Wine Night." Corkage fees get waived on any bottle not available on the restaurant's excellent, expensive, but not extensive wine list, and if you call in advance and specify the wines you'll be bringing, chef Duff, at your request, will create a meal to match your selections. If you don't feel like lugging your own labels, Thursdays will likewise bring a fifty-percent discount on any bottle listed on the "Extraordinary Wines" page of the menu. You'll appreciate the discounting: Our two apps, two entrées, and two desserts, plus tax, but not including water, wine, coffee, or tip: $125.
"Misguided conceptions and unfocused preparations yield dizzyingly dissatisfying results." That's what we wrote about chef Roger Ruch's Mediterranean and Asian-influenced cuisine when Atrio was last reviewed in August 2004. Now Michael Gilligan, a native of Birmingham, England, has brought his nearly twenty years of global culinary experience with him to Conrad Miami. And yet ... disappointing first acts don't always lead to improved seconds, and Gilligan taking over for Ruch turns out to have been something like replacing Attorney General John Ashcroft with Alberto Gonzalez.
Atrio's gorgeous 80-seat dining room, located off the hotel's 25th-floor Sky Lobby, hasn't changed a whit. Floor-to-ceiling windows still display a dazzling vista of Miami's city lights twinkling below, and the organic sounds of cascading water continue to emanate from a fountained barrier between restaurant and lobby. Although contemporary in style, the restaurant's rich woods, rusty earth tones, elegant table settings, and soothingly suffused lighting bespeak a classic kind of beauty.
Chef Gilligan dubs his Latin-Asian fusion cooking "La-Sian" (coincidentally, when Duff was working as a chef in the Caribbean, he tabbed his Jamaican-Asian cooking "Ja-Sian"). A tasty amuse-bouchée of steak tartare, accented with eastern spices and sided by a red-dyed corn chip with which to scoop it up, provided us with our first La-Sian taste and likewise offered the first hint of the quirky hybrid of high- and low-end ingredients to come. Some might not blink at red tortilla chips in a Conrad dining room, but I believe these should only be served at parties where young children whack piñatas.
Okonomiyaki is traditionally a Japanese pancake made from a batter of flour, eggs, grated yam, and other vegetables. Here it comes as a matzolike cracker scattered with bright pink slices of tuna and drizzles of hoisin sauce and mayonnaise. In retrospect, it was a dumb thing for us to order, and a dumb thing to have put on the menu in light of the wonderfully wispy pappadum crackers served as predinner bread.
Our other starter, delectably tender pinwheels of churrasco steak, was by far the tastiest dish we sampled. Two fried plantain rounds alongside would also have pleased, had they not been so greasy.
A large, lusty organic veal chop, grill marks neatly crisscrossed upon the surface, came glazed with a hoisin barbecue sauce, stalks of asparagus zigzagged across the plate, and bland mashed potatoes studded with snippets of shrimp with one full shrimp astride the mound as garnish. The veal was ordered medium rare, but arrived raw in the center. Our waiter, an amiable sort, apologized, took it back to the kitchen, and after too long a wait returned with the chop a soft, well-marbled cut of meat, but minus the crustacean. Yet why quibble over a single missing shellfish when the real problem is that slathering a daintily flavored, high-end comestible like veal with a sweet/spicy, Open Pit-like barbecue sauce is like covering Penelope Cruz in burlap.
Neither did a pan-fried Himalayan red rice cake quite match up with the delicacy of a "cone" of yellowtail snapper curled around hunks of lobster (overcooked), spinach, and tomatoes.
Gilligan spent time as pastry chef during his stint at the Ritz-Carlton New York, but evidently not enough time. "Banoffie" pie ("banana" and "toffee"), first served in 1972 at The Hungry Monk restaurant in East Sussex, here gets adulterated into a prefrozen variant, as if the graham cracker crust, bananas, dulce de leche, and coffee cream were placed in a blender, puréed together, and frozen in a mold. A simpler, if similarly textured, dessert contained a few small scoops of green tea ice cream, and one of unpleasant sesame, symmetrically arranged with canned lychees and a bright splash of pomegranate syrup. The nicest thing I can say is that, if lacquered, it would make a nice Christmas tree ornament.
The cost for two starters, two entrées, and two desserts (another was graciously given to us on the house to compensate for the veal messup) ended up the same as at Acqua $125, before water, wine, etc. Atrio's Act II summation: Misguided conceptions and unfocused preparations yield dizzyingly dissatisfying results. After an appropriate intermission, we'll return for the third act.
Acqua, Four Seasons Miami, 1435 Brickell Ave, Miami; 305-381-3190. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6:30 to 11:00 p.m.
Atrio, Conrad Miami, 1395 Brickell Ave, Miami; 305-503-6529. Open daily for breakfast 6:30 to 11:00 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6:30 to 11:00 p.m.
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