Juvia's Cuisine Doesn't Quite Equal the Setting, but the Vista Is Glorious
Cold smoked scallops
Courtesy of Juvia
Juvia sits on the penthouse level of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed building at 1111 Lincoln Rd. like a sparkling jewel set in concrete. After a brief elevator ride, guests step into an open-air dining room with vertical gardens designed by Patrick Blanc. The rest of the space is defined by nature, with sweeping views of South Beach and beyond, and a trackless retractable roof protecting diners from Mother Nature's wrath.
Indoors, another dining room is softly hued in taupe, cream, and light gray, wrapped in windowed walls, and covered in organic materials such as Brazilian wood flooring and ceilings, woven chairs framed in petrified wood, and another Blanc wall of foliage. An illuminated, amethyst-topped bar takes up one side of the room, and a totally open kitchen steams and smokes on the opposite end. Music, unfortunately, is typically lousy and loud, but it's an exquisite space with a soaring, panoramic vista.
Hustling about the kitchen are some two dozen cooks — more than enough to spoil the broth. Fortunately, though, the sizable culinary contingent doesn't spoil anything. But neither does it quite meet the high bar of expectations set by Juvia's lofty prices and star-studded resumés.
How star-studded? Executive chef Laurent Cantineaux is a protégé of Daniel Boulud's. The other executive chef is Sunny Oh, whom locals know from his decade at the helm of Miami's Nobu. Executive sous-chef Kaoru Chang likewise labored at the house of Morimoto, while corporate pastry chef Gregory Gourreau worked with Alain Ducasse and François Payard. Even if the team's backgrounds weren't so stellar, diners could be excused for expecting a lot simply because there are two executive chefs and a brigade of cooks (there are 210 seats indoors and out).
Some of the ambitious cuisine here is indeed mighty tasty — especially uncooked items. A cold bar serves oysters, stone crabs, king crab legs, and so forth, with each pristine shellfish accompanied by a choice of bright and distinctive dipping sauce (wasabi cocktail sauce, mustard oil dressing, creamy aji amarillo, etc.).
Crudos, tiraditos, ceviches, and nigiri-style plates likewise showcase lusciously fresh fish. One such course introduces six thin slices of raw hamachi with a mildly spicy, citrus-accented espuma of yuzu kosho (sauce made with yuzu zest and chili peppers) piped into the center of the Japanese yellowtail petals like whipped cream on a flower. Micro-cilantro sprouts finish the bite with just the right flavor.
Another frothy offering flaunts coins of cold-smoked scallops with a denser dollop of bloody mary foam, a crisp round of pancetta, micro-celery sprouts, and a sprinkling of ito kezuri — the smallest grade of dried bonito flakes. (Bonito, incidentally, is the name of the well-known Saint Barts restaurant owned and operated by Juvia proprietors Jonas and Alexandra Millan.) The bloody mary mousse, loud with piquant notes of Worcestershire and Tabasco, is positively delectable — although it arguably drowns out the softly briny song of the ever-so-slightly smoky scallops.
Hawaiian palm heart salad is presented as a vertical wall of paper-thin, paper-textured shingles that run through the center of the plate like a divider. It's rather fetching when soaked in slightly piquant sesame-accented poke dressing — which also flavors the mound of green mango, green papaya, and cucumber threads found on either side of the palm.
Unagi chocolate causa, one of five warm appetizers, translates to tiny, bitter chocolate shavings that contribute just a tad of sweet to the terrific soy-eel sauce that glazes fresh, moist fillets of the freshwater eel (which is delivered fresh daily). A puff of Peruvian causa (yellow potato mash) is also piped onto the plate.
Main plates are split between composed entrées and those grilled in a straightforward manner over diamond-hard binchotan coal (a Japanese charcoal that burns long and nearly smokeless). The latter group includes bone-in rib eye, marinated short rib, Hawaiian blue prawns, and a beef tenderloin that proved the stuff of dreams: assertively grilled, meltingly tender, deliriously juicy, and thoroughly delicious. The only flaw was timid seasoning, which likewise characterized a modest rectangle of binchotan-grilled salmon. The fish was also overcooked and altogether a surprisingly insipid offering.
Binchotan plates are bare besides the main protein and a small side dish of sauce such as Béarnaise, yuzu hollandaise, aji panca demi-glace, red shiso salsa, or onions caramelized with sesame and soy. The shiso salsa lent a much-needed spark of vinegary tang to the salmon. We ordered the caramelized onions as garnish for the steak, but it just sat; it's criminal to top this meat with anything but salt and pepper.
Composed courses include chicken vadouvan, a breast and thigh spiced with the namesake Indian spice blend; griddled sea scallops with black trumpet mushrooms, yellow chanterelles, and garlic chips; endangered Chilean sea bass with maple glazed eggplant and fresh palm hearts; and milk-fed pork confit.
That last item, slow-cooked in duck fat, is pressed into two compacted rectangular slices of pulled pork, each topped with a smooth, shiny pork crackling and pooled with a mild honey-ginger sauce. "Dressed-up football food," opined a dinner mate, referring to the Cuban-style roast pork served at tailgate parties. There are certainly strong similarities between the two, which is fine; the problem is that this refined version, though requiring more kitchen skill to prepare than the street rendition, isn't noticeably tastier.
A piddly amount of finely shredded sour cabbage (think sauerkraut) rests against the pork, along with a couple of shiitake mushrooms and a single snow pea snipped in half — and as with the other binchotan-grilled dishes, nothing else nestles alongside. Turning instead to à la carte sides, we enjoyed an impeccably steamed, diverse array of fresh vegetables (baby yellow beets, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and three or four others) — even if we had to supply our own salt and pepper. There was nothing we could do to save a dreadful dish of quinoa couscous overburdened with bulky whole almonds, raisins, and way too much mint.
The wine list comprises bottles specifically selected to complement Juvia's Japanese/French/Peruvian fare. The bulk of the bottles range from $60 to $90. The bar also pours premium sakes; sprightly, innovative cocktails (most $18); and a peerless sangria made with Sauvignon Blanc, Asian pear, St-Germain, and Canton ginger liqueur. If you want to bring along your own bottle of wine, the corkage fee is $50. That's not nice.
Juvia is, otherwise, quite friendly, with the staff doing its best to stay cool and efficient under generally trying circumstances (this place fills to the brim). Though there are hitches and delays here and there, the restaurant has operated for less than two months. And it can't be denied that Juvia is expensive, but except the corkage fee and a few deluxe items, it isn't out of line with other dining establishments on the Beach. Most starters — hot, cold, and raw — are around $15 to $19; entrées average $30, binchotan entrées $34; and desserts are $8 to $10.
I've never met a deconstructed key lime pie I've liked, so I never considered Juvia's rendition. I might not be as dismissive the next time, though, because my selection — apple tarte tatin — had a shortbread base rock-hard enough to take an eye out; when intense pressure from a fork finally made impact, pieces shot skyward as if propelled by a sling. Besides, who uses a cookie in tarte tatin? Pastry chef Gourreau does, and it could be a great idea if he created a softer shortbread. The slowly caramelized apples on top were sumptuously tender; almond ice cream on the side was wonderfully creamy if light on the almond.
Other whimsical desserts include lychee fruit soup with tapioca and raspberry sorbet, and hazelnut ravioli with citrus consommé and pomegranate sorbet. Juvia suffers no shortage of creative ideas; it's the execution that needs improving.
From its crown perch atop the neighborhood's newest landmark, Juvia is a quintessential South Beach restaurant: pretty and pricey, stylish and trendy, and ever so up-to-date. It's also the rare SoBe spot that rewards early birds; you'll miss the buzz that vibrates during late-night hours, but a spectacular sunset view is quite the compensation. There might not be a better spot in the area for hoisting cocktails at this hour.
It's a worthwhile place to dine too, but while the kitchen crew works out some entrée inconsistencies, it's probably safer to stick with the starters.
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