The history of hotel dining in twentieth-century America was dominated by a period we'll call the Reign of Duck l'Orange. During this time, which covered many decades, you couldn't walk into a well-regarded hotel restaurant without encountering this glazed bird, along with steak tartare, trout amandine, and other Continental classics. As this style of cuisine began falling from favor during the Eighties, it was followed by the Era of Empty Rooms. Some hotels stuck with Continental, others served French or Italian or Polynesian or a little of each. A few instituted karaoke nights. These were not particularly heady times for the industry. Toward the close of the century came the Golden Years, when respected, contemporary chefs were hired to bring hotel food and beverage service up to date with a burgeoning American restaurant scene.
Locally speaking, the Golden Years appear to be dimming. Our most recent cluster of classy hotels boasts experienced chefs who are clearly in tune with the national trend of pared-down, cleanly flavored, high-quality ingredients presented prettily on white plates. Yet while this type of cooking frequently leaves the customers satisfied, it just as often lacks spark, zing, sizzle, oomph, heart, and soul. Welcome to the Age of Corporate Haute Cuisine.
Allow me to present Exhibit A: Ago (Shore Club), Americana (Ritz-Carlton South Beach), Atrio (Conrad Hilton), and Acqua (Four Seasons), which is the best of the quartet -- though this is a little like saying salmon carpaccio is better than salmon sashimi. Located off the seventh-floor lobby of the towering Four Seasons building, the 100-seat, gold-and-ochre-toned restaurant is lovely in an understated way. The room isn't as formal as you might expect, traditional white cloths having been replaced with simple linen placemats that allow the glossy veneer of burl-wood tabletops to shine through. Brightly patterned, exceedingly comfortable upholstered chairs are capable of putting anybody at ease, as is the doting service -- the best I've experienced in a long time. The wait staff's instincts are well honed, their manner congenial, their professionalism and attention to detail noteworthy.
Four Seasons Hotel, 1435 Brickell Ave, Miami
305-358-3535. Open daily. Breakfast Monday through Saturday 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., lunch Monday through Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., dinner nightly 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Executive chef Marco Bax is a native of northern Italy and arrives at this Four Seasons via their property in Milan. His menu is Italian Mediterranean, though the most visually stunning dish we encountered was more South Beach than Sicily, a pastel salad composed of three columns of fresh Brazilian hearts of palm, the fanned half of a bright green (and impeccably ripe) Haas avocado, zesty orange sections, flecks of snipped chives, and a pink pool of "marie rose sauce," which tasted like a refined, citrus-juiced Thousand Island dressing. Especially impressive was the fact that the salad was as luscious to eat as it was lovely to behold.
A vegetarian terrine was also a beauty, layers of grilled, thinly sliced yellow squash, zucchini, shiitake mushrooms, and red and yellow peppers molded into a multicolored dome. In this case, though, looks deceived, as the terrine's flavor was predominantly that of deadly dull squash. Dabs of raspberry vinaigrette on the plate rested like flowers around a tombstone.
A smoked duck breast starter brought our spirits back up, the tender slices exuding deeply smoked notes of mildly gamey flavor, with a thatch of vinaigrette-dressed micro greens providing a cleansing contrast. It would have been more distinctive had the teeny application of jalapeño-and-tomato chutney atop the bird actually contained jalapeños.
As with the starters, some entrées were clearly better than others. Seared fillets of turbot were at the top of my list, the firm, inherently tasty flesh of the fish, often compared to Dover sole, well matched with morel mushrooms and braised leeks, although the latter were rather crunchy -- hardly sautéed and certainly not braised. A smooth and silky champagne butter sauce offered an exquisite finishing touch, but an unannounced glop of avocado purée under the fish seemed out of place, as if it escaped from a Mexican combo plate and was hiding from tortilla chips.
Rock lobster tail with spinach gnocchi also appeared to be in the wrong restaurant -- one would expect to see this dish on a checkered tablecloth in a neighborhood Italian joint. The homespun nature of the food might have been just the antidote for a palate weary of sanitized cuisine, but while the oven-baked lobster was moist, it was likewise undressed, ungarnished, and under seasoned. The bright green gnocchi, on the other hand, were bursting with fresh spinach taste, and the simple tomato sauce on top was perfect. It made me lament not trying more of the half-dozen pasta entrées.
A medium-size veal chop was robustly meaty and unbelievably tender, though sides of soft polenta and softly sautéed spinach didn't add much in the way of texture or, for that matter, flavor. (A gentleman at the next table, having ordered the same dish and apparently trying polenta for the first time, informed his waiter that "it tastes just like grits.") Some might call this a deceptively simple plate of food, but because a dark-brown truffle sauce, which was a deciding factor in my ordering the chop, bore no truffle taste, the description that came to my mind was simply deceptive.
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The rest of the entrées don't make for all that alluring a read: veal osso buco with saffron risotto, mini-beef medallions, roasted potatoes, pizzaiola sauce, grilled giant tiger prawns, fennel and tomato salad. Lackluster descriptions don't mean anything in terms of how successful the food will be, but one might expect a few titillatingly unique ingredients sprinkled in, perhaps an intriguing import, grass-fed beef, or at least some local, organic produce. The closest Acqua comes to a stimulating side is the grappa-marinated apricots that embellish a breast of duck.
The dearth of exotic accouterments is compensated by surprisingly moderate prices: soups, salads, and appetizers run $7 to $11, pastas $13 to $18, main courses $21 to $32, and desserts $7. Of course, by the time you choose a bottle from the fairly priced, mostly American/Italian wine list, and top things off with a cup of coffee (or one of a wide selection of high-grade teas), your bill will reflect a night of fine dining. But these prices are still less than the other haughty hotel restaurants are charging.
Pastry chef Frank Monnier's delectable desserts would be a bargain at any price. My wife and I ordered a sampler for $15 that should have included mini portions of any four desserts on the menu. Evidently they were out of miniatures, so we were served a quartet of full-size renditions so delicious that the two of us experienced not a whit of difficulty finishing an intoxicating "napoleon" of dark chocolate ganache, hazelnut cream, and praline cake with divine lemon sorbet on the side; crackly and creamy passion fruit créme brùlée tented with giant tuille; milky, jiggly panna cotta with intensely fruity strawberry sorbet; and an outlandishly refreshing Campari granita in a martini glass with orange and grapefruit sections and a dollop of orange sorbet.
We exited Acqua on a high note to be sure, but as I later lay awake waiting for my sugar levels to return to earth, images of Acqua's food weren't dancing in my head. I was obsessed instead with trying to recall the last time I'd had a really good duck l'orange.