Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli's Driftwood Room Needs More Time to Improve

Roasted eggplant dip
Roasted eggplant dip
Photo by Andrew Meade / Courtesy of Nautilus, a SIXTY Hotel, in South Beach

The roasted eggplant dip at Driftwood Room, the new restaurant at the revamped Nautilus South Beach Hotel, arrives packed inside a charred zucchini. Diners have two options: Plunge the accompanying pita slices into the tangy eggplant, or cut right into the zucchini and enjoy two tasty vegetables in one bite, sans bread. Such was the intention of the eatery's executive chef, Alexandra "Alex" Guarnaschelli, who willingly admits she has a hard time eating just one piece of pita.

Despite being an Iron Chef winner and a judge on the wildly successful Food Network culinary competition Chopped, Guarnaschelli is humble and hilariously self-deprecating. Asked how she balances her TV gigs with motherhood and being the executive chef of two restaurants — the other being Butter in Manhattan — her response is a succinct "How about badly?"

The daughter of esteemed cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, Alex grew up surrounded by food and honed her skills under culinary legends such as Larry Forgione, Guy Savoy, and Daniel Boulud. In 2003, she became the executive chef at Butter, where she says her philosophy is to serve green, market-driven, seasonal cuisine.

At Driftwood Room, Guarnaschelli's goal is to highlight Florida's natural bounty of ingredients while ensuring the cuisine is in harmony with the hotel's beachy, Mediterranean vibe. A big fan of Miami, the chef says she couldn't stop pinching herself when hotelier Jason Pomeranc and restaurateur Jeffrey Chodrow approached her to helm an eatery inside a boutique oceanfront hotel in South Beach. (Like Butter, Driftwood Room is owned by China Grill Management.)

Located on Collins Avenue at 18th Street, the deco-style Nautilus was designed by renowned architect Morris Lapidus in the 1950s. It was completely restored and revitalized before its grand reopening a couple of months ago. Though the dining room at Driftwood Room is an elegant midcentury modern space, the restaurant's covered patio steals the show.

Hanging wicker lanterns diffuse light onto a billowing white canopy, creating shadows resembling ocean waves. The view is of the luminous swimming pool, and on a recent evening, the breeze was movie-set perfect, making for a truly Mediterranean feel.

Unfortunately, an order of grilled globe artichokes with mustard sauce left plenty to be desired. Not only were the vegetables burnt and bitter, but also the petals had virtually no pulp in which to sink one's teeth. The artichokes, along with the overly pungent sauce, were sent back to the kitchen. Thankfully, the generally courteous waiter didn't argue about the problems.

But later in the meal, the same server didn't bother to inquire why an order of mushroom crostini with ricotta was barely touched. The answer: The mushrooms were swimming in vinegar, and the acidity was overpowering. The Brussels sprouts shared the same downfall; they'd fare better if they weren't spiked with so much balsamic.

Alex Guarnaschelli
Alex Guarnaschelli
Courtesy of Nautilus, a SIXTY Hotel, in South Beach

Could some of the blame for these misses lie in Guarnaschelli's admittedly hectic schedule? The chef plans to average 12 days a month at Driftwood Room, but she wasn't in the kitchen on New Times' two visits. However, her executive sous-chef, Lucas Marino, is present at all times. The Argentine native grew up in Miami and worked at Butter for about five years before seizing the opportunity to relocate closer to his family. Two other Butter team members joined him.

When writing the menu for her beachside spot, the Iron Chef knew it wouldn't be complete without a fried fish basket. And because this is Florida, she wanted the frittomistostarter to include local shrimp and snapper in addition to mainstays such as squid and octopus. As for the dipping sauce, it's a chunky blend of chopped pickles, capers, and vinegar. Overall, it's a good dish, but less time in the fryer would allow the natural flavors of the seafood to shine that much brighter. The slivers of fried lemon in this appetizer would be fine — perhaps even pleasant — if so many of the other items ordered weren't overly acidic.

That includes the herb-crusted lamb kebabs. Two skewers of meat are prepared with charmoula, a lemony mixture of spices, garlic, and fresh herbs prevalent in Moroccan cuisine. Unfortunately, the taste of the meat is lost beneath the shroud of seasoning and the pungency of the preserved lemon slivers that fringe each piece of lamb.

The Nautilus pasta features noodles shaped like shells. The sauce is a combination of Teena's Pride red and yellow tomatoes infused with rice wine vinegar and olive oil, rendering it closer to a vinaigrette than a tomato sauce. Pieces of braised octopus, together with roasted and sautéed peppers, and a touch of parsley and basil complete the dish. Though the sweet peppers add a nice kick to the pasta, the sauce is slightly too oily and the octopus is more burnt than it ought to be.

One main dish that's gluten-free, dairy-free, and meat-free is the cauliflower steak. Guarnaschelli created it after growing tired of watching her vegetarian best friend struggle to order decent entrées at restaurants. First, a split cauliflower head is blanched in boiling water flavored with chili flakes. Then it's cooked for a few moments before being marinated for one to three days in coconut milk. As the final step of what Guarnaschelli refers to as the cauliflower's "spa treatment," the vegetable is warmed in the oven and then broiled. The kitchen presents it alongside small florets cooked in turmeric, as well as brown-sugar-seasoned carrots, hazelnuts, coriander and sesame seeds, sherry vinaigrette, and a drizzling of coconut milk.

Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli's Driftwood Room Needs More Time to Improve
Courtesy of Nautilus, a SIXTY Hotel, in South Beach

Yet despite its intricate preparation, the cauliflower steak is an unsightly mess. It's drowning in sauce, and the nuts and carrots spill over the edges in an amateurish fashion. In this instance, the food doesn't taste better than it looks, and the cloying coconut-milk-based sauce cloaks the vegetable's natural flavor. Guarnaschelli cooks a similar meatless main course at Butter. In photos, at least, the presentation is far better than the one at Driftwood Room.

Following the overwrought cauliflower steak, a simply grilled branzino fillet ought to be a nice change of pace. But while the protein is aptly cooked, the fish itself doesn't taste fresh.

Refreshingly, Driftwood Room does have the least celebrity vibe of the many restaurants helmed by TV-famous chefs in Miami Beach. The prices are also reasonable considering its location. These are all positive characteristics, but if Guarnaschelli wants her second eatery to be truly embraced by locals, there's much work to be done. A good starting point would be less focus on fussy cooking methods and de-emphasizing the use of lemon and vinegar — a recurring issue across many dishes.

For now, the chef's plan isn't to expand Driftwood Room but rather keep the concept unique to Miami.

"I'm not the mogul type. I don't want to have a hot-dog stand in every city," says the star chef, adding she hopes Driftwood Room will only improve as she becomes better acquainted with the city.

Driftwood Room
1825 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-503-5700; Lunch daily noon to 4 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 7 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7 p.m. to midnight.

  • Roasted eggplant dip, $13
  • Grilled globe artichoke, $13
  • Mushroom crostini, $12
  • Brussels sprouts, $10
  • Beachfront frittomisto, $19
  • Herb-crusted lamb kebabs, $13
  • Nautilus pasta, $21
  • Roasted white cloud cauliflower steak, $19
  • Grilled branzino, $28
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