High Seas, High Ticket

The media's relentless monitoring of the fire aboard the Carnival cruise ship Ecstasy had smoke coming out of my ears. For one thing, the live press conferences informing the public that the cause of the fire was still unknown -- not exactly breaking news -- kept interrupting my personal daily coverage of The Price Is Right. For another, despite its amusing literary reference, the dubbing of the incident "Agony on the Ecstasy" was a bit over-the-top, especially when you consider that no one, apart from a few firefighters who suffered smoke inhalation, was hurt. (A friend of mine made a good point when she mentioned we should be grateful the QE2 didn't burn, because the press would have had a field day with headlines such as "The Flaming Queen.")

What really ticked me off, though, was the way reporters kept interviewing the same few disgruntled, stranded passengers. "I just wanna go home," one woman sobbed over and over on practically every news-reporting station. Never mind that she was standing in the lobby of her luxury hotel, courtesy of Carnival, holding a refund for the aborted trip and a voucher for a free cruise in the future. Okay, a fire on a cruise ship is undeniably scary business. But this one was contained, the ship's captain and the Coast Guard reacted swiftly, and not even the crew was discommoded -- employees continue to be paid while the ship is repaired in Newport News, Virginia. Witnesses to the shootout at the Capitol building had more call to be distressed but were more composed.

What the TV news reporters and anchors should have focused on is how anyone could stand around carping when they could have been out cavorting in the South Florida sunshine. After all, aside from a perky cruise director, what does Carnival have that Miami-Dade doesn't? There's water, water everywhere, shuffleboard courts in the parks, and plenty of local restaurants serving better fare than the mediocre stuff you regularly find onboard. All that's missing, really, is the ship-theme ambiance. And even that's not a problem if you dine at Hamiltons, the six-week-old restaurant and nightclub located in the downtown Hyatt Regency, where the only agony in the ecstasy is when the bill arrives.

With its plush banquettes, sloping cherry wood-paneled ceiling, and porthole windows etched with scenes of shipboard romances, Hamiltons looks more like the dining room on the Titanic than it does a hotel eatery. Which is precisely the idea. Owned by actor-entrepreneur George Hamilton, the place was designed to bring elegant ocean liners to mind. It obviously banks on Hamilton's high-profile image. Glamour and refinement are the new restaurant's primary selling points; accordingly, you can buy the actor's own line of cigars, coffees, and skin-care products -- including an "auto-bronzer" -- in an adjoining gift shop. (Given Hamilton's external glow, it might have been more appropriate for the Tan Man to have opened a tandoori restaurant.)

Service sets the place apart, and even when a waiter goofs, he makes good on it. Dressed in a captain's uniform, our server brought martini shakers to the table to pour the drinks we'd ordered. He filled the glasses so high we had to lean over and slurp, like those toy birds that peck continuously at water when you give them a little push. After he spilled the cosmopolitan I ordered, splotching the tablecloth, he went back to the bar and brought me a "topper" so I could replenish the missing sip.

The considerate service -- water refills, utensil replacement -- is something of a novelty in South Florida. On the other hand, the restaurant's Mediterranean- and Caribbean-influenced fare is familiar turf. Yet some of the preparations are so well executed and the quality of ingredients so high that the food almost feels reinvented. Crabcakes with avocado salsa, a starter, benefited from an exceptional amount of tender, aromatic crab. Two golden coins were pan-browned and placed over a bed of frisee, which was dabbed with a rich, chunky guacamole. A rack of lamb entree, meanwhile, was one of the best I've had in recent memory. Slathered with herbs, the succulent riblets were beautifully presented over a bed of musky malanga and savory goat cheese.

I was less pleased by a pair of salads. Though the "hand-selected field greens" were frilly and fresh, the shaved prosciutto that dotted the verdant landscape was stringy and thick. Both a garnish of marinated tomatoes and the citrus vinaigrette dressing were too sharp, obliterating the subtle nuttiness of the lettuces. As for a salad of mallard duck, its base of arugula, frisee, and endive consisted of sweet, young leaves, while oven-dried apples and a toasted-sesame dressing added vibrancy. But the main feature, several duck medallions, was as dry as Communion wafers.

Duck was put to better use in a ravioli appetizer. Three al dente pasta pouches were bursting with an enticing mixture of confit -- duck cooked until it falls from the bones -- and melting foie gras. The ravioli were sauced with a smooth demi-glace and garnished with crisp fried potato strings. The kitchen relied a bit too heavily on these potato sticks; they decorated starters and main courses alike, showing up again on several dishes we tried, including a grilled marinated swordfish. Some North American restaurants have begun to ban swordfish from their menus, claiming it's overfished. South Floridians don't seem to be as concerned; the species has made a huge comeback in local restaurants this past year. And Hamiltons may well have a run on its meaty version. The crosshatched steak, fork-tender, was iced with a yuca-avocado puree, which had an unsettling grayish-green color but a great earthy taste.

Potatoes showed up again as an accompaniment to a superb pan-seared snapper fillet, although this time they appeared in an entirely different fashion: A warm Yukon gold potato salad had a tempting smoky perfume, its chunks of mellow potato neither grainy nor starchy. And a slightly sweeter, crisper potato, the boniato, was mashed and served under an inches-thick marinated pork loin, which dripped juice all over the plate.

Though it may seem as if Hamiltons is spud-crazy, potatoes don't accompany everything. A lovely-looking if somewhat bland portobello Napoleon starter comprised layers of grilled mushroom, red and yellow bell peppers, and mild bufala mozzarella. A roasted chicken main course used wild mushroom risotto for its starch. Scented with rosemary, the chicken was just a trifle dry, but the rice dish was perfectly cooked, the grains creamy but not disintegrating.

A mango cheesecake for dessert was wonderfully rich and tangy, though at ten dollars a pop I'm not sure the calories were worth it. Other desserts tend toward the Latin variety -- flan and tres leches -- as does the live music on weekend nights. Choose a Hamilton cigar, light up, and join the crowd on the dance floor for an experience somewhat reminiscent of pre-revolution Havana. The band, like the food, is significantly better than what you might get on a cruise ship.

I'm not much of a fan of celebrity restaurants. Too often the absentee star doesn't have a clue about the business, and certainly doesn't take a hands-on approach. As a result the staff can be undertrained, the food barely edible, and the appeal of dining in such places highly overrated. Actor-restaurateur Robert De Niro is a notable exception; his TriBeCa Grill in New York City is exquisitely run. George Hamilton, I'm pleased to note, joins De Niro in this select camp. So far. Hamilton owns two other namesake restaurants (in Pasadena, California, and Las Vegas), and is planning to open nine more this year. That sounds extremely ambitious. Overextension can cause a business to go down in flames or up in smoke.

400 SE 2nd Ave; 305-381-6160. Dinner Monday -- Thursday from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 6:00 p.m. until midnight.

Duck confit and foie gras ravioli

Crabcakes with avocado salsa

Pan-seared snapper

Herb-crusted rack of lamb

Mango cheesecake


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