Just Needs Warming Up
When some old friends came to visit recently and wanted to know the scoop on the Beach's hottest new restaurants, I immediately mentioned The Strand. "That's been around forever," said Jennifer, a former South Beach denizen. It's true, having opened more than a dozen years ago, the old and beloved Strand was, in model years, positively prehistoric. It surprised many in the mid-Nineties by reinventing itself as a hot club called the Living Room at The Strand, and since has changed names again simply to The Living Room, which no longer serves food. The Strand restaurant officially opened in October on the oceanfront adjacent to the Savoy Hotel. In addition to serving lunch and dinner in a cluster of gorgeous rooms, bars, and a deck area, the restaurant also provides room service (including breakfast) for the Bentley and the Savoy hotels.
It's a bit confusing but no more so than most liaisons formed in the heat and hustle of this town. Eric Milon, owner of the Living Room at the Strand (on Washington between Sixth and Seventh streets) joined forces with New York restaurateur Michel Castellano (Allegria and Castellano) and chef Michelle Bernstein (formerly of Tantra) to create another seductive dining experience in a space that briefly was Azura, before that Bice, and once, long ago, a nightclub called Woody's, owned by rocker Ron Wood.
The name "The Strand" has been co-opted for this new beachfront venture. And, like the name, the atmosphere is endearingly retro. The streetside dining rooms, the only ones open when we visited for dinner, evoked memories of Studio 54 but with modern touches. The metallic stamped ceilings, glitzy, disco-style lighting, polished wood-and-marble floors, and wooden tree-trunk pillars create a classy and intimate feel. Tables are well spaced and lighted from below, creating a floating, dreamy effect.
And though we were surprised to find the restaurant sparsely populated (only three other tables were occupied) when we arrived for our nine o'clock reservation on a Sunday night, we were seated at a table in the middle of the room. We were told all the banquettes along the wall were reserved. Another dramatic dining area behind the main room was occupied by a private party of about twenty well-dressed professionals. We were glad to find the menus already on the table in sleek, faux-crocodile envelopes, because we had waited more than ten minutes for a waiter to appear and offer us drinks.
Although we were quite hungry, we also were engrossed in catching up with our out-of-town friends, so we didn't focus on the complex menu long enough to decide on the entrées. One thing we were sure of was that we wanted to share a few appetizers while delving into the rest of the choices. When the waiter returned with our wine, I told him we were ready to place the first part of our order, but would like to get back to him about the entrées. "No, that's all right," he said. "I'll come back when you're ready."
"We are ready," I pleaded, "to place an appetizer order."
"It's not a good idea. It'll really mess up the kitchen. It's best if you just order everything at once," he sniffed. "I don't mind coming back."
As he strolled away, we all looked at one another and laughed. He doesn't mind? "South Beach hasn't changed," noted my former neighbor. We allowed ourselves to be bullied with the naive belief that our food would arrive more quickly and in the right order if we obeyed.
So in a matter of minutes we decided what we wanted, choosing from eleven elaborately described entrées including everything from squab to salmon and chicken breast to shepherd's pie. To his credit the waiter returned promptly to take it all down.
Still, from the time we arrived at the restaurant, it was more than an hour before we ate our first bite. And while some of that delay admittedly was caused by our chattiness, much of it was owing to the interminable lags in service. None of which could detract too terribly from the sublime creations that eventually did make their way out of the kitchen and on to our table.
My salad of organic greens with a gorgonzola vinaigrette and candied walnuts ($10), was worth the wait. An intriguing blend of sweet and tart, crunchy and creamy, the beautiful arrangement was highlighted by slices of pear, which had been soaked in champagne. The pungent accent of aged cheese complemented rather than overwhelmed the light greens and sugary nuts, which often happens with this classic combination.
Another wonderful interplay of textures and tastes arrived in the form of sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras served with caramelized shallots, parsnip purée, and a sweet brandy-spiked apple glaze ($19). The rich fig-color sauce was as thick as maple syrup and nearly as sweet, luscious to soak up with sour dough bread. The same sauce appeared on the delicious squab main course.
Unfortunately the lobster bisque ($9), with its deep amber color, clean briny aroma, and gorgeous presentation, including a spiny crawdad on top, suffered from the unforgivable delays. It arrived as tepid as sink water. Like a banana split left to melt at a birthday party, all the elements were there, it was just too late.
Despite the fact that we ordered just as we were instructed to by our didactic waiter, our dishes still arrived -- late -- staggered and bungled. We waited twenty or more minutes from the time our appetizer dishes were cleared until our main courses were served; that is, most of them. Three of the four came at once and were placed in front of the wrong diner, while the last, my husband's beef tenderloin with cheese-stuffed ravioli ($30), arrived a full five minutes later, beautifully seared but stone cold. The gauzy pasta pillows were stuffed with a heady mixture of Gorgonzola, Reggiano, and chèvre cheese, and drizzled with a sublime reduction of Cabernet sauvignon and herbs.
Again the quality of the ingredients, the presentation on the plate, and the play of textures and flavors would have been perfect except for the glaring temperature problem.
The best entrée was a whole steamed red snapper served with vegetables and sticky rice ($23). With hints of Southeast Asia, the clean flavors of carrots, fennel, mint, lemon grass, and scallions played nicely with the firm flesh of the large snapper. Beware, though, this is not a dish for those who dislike picking around skin and bones for their fish. For those who prefer their seafood in bite-size pieces, there is an outrageous Caribbean bouillabaisse finished with chilies, lime juice, and cilantro ($29). A twist on the classic rendition, this hearty seafood stew was stocked with mussels, scallops, shrimp, salmon, and squid, and accented with a curry seasoning that imparted a beautiful golden hue and a subtle, earthy taste, while the tender vegetables gave it a pleasant crispness. It might have been even better with some rice or pasta to soak up the fantastic sauce that was left behind.
Desserts ($8) all sounded appealing in an over-the-top way. Among many offerings were a key lime sabayon with island-spiced chiffon cake; ginger caramel and exotic mixed fruits; West Indian pumpkin tartlette with pink peppercorn ice cream; and a caramelized apple and apricot timbale with a thyme-infused crenshaw melon soup. After much debate we settled on the apple tart. A light and buttery crust was layered with tender slivers of apple and rich juicy orbs of apricot. The sweet but not cloying fruit melded nicely with the citrusy tang of lime. The inclusion of the pushy thyme-flavor soup, however, threatened to overwhelm the entire dish, making it taste more like Thanksgiving stuffing than dessert.
As it was, we were eager to get going. We still felt as though we were some interloping in-laws arriving a week early with all the wrong house gifts and a rabid dog in tow. Apparently the waiter was in as much of a rush as we were: He plopped down the check without ever asking if we wanted coffees or after-dinner drinks. We didn't.
The Strand could once again become one of the easiest spots to recommend. The food is extraordinary, the setting beautiful, but, unfortunately, like a broken record, a South Beach spot fails miserably when it comes to service. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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