Where Kerry Simon goes, I will follow.
Or will I?
Follow the leader is a natural inclination on South Beach, where no phenomenon is considered good until the A-listers have been caught doing it, seeing it, smoking it, or eating it. So when Simon deserted the Raleigh Hotel's Blue Star -- the popular establishment that provided his entree to the South Beach elite -- after only half a year to open the new Starfish Restaurant, it seemed reasonable to asssume the poseur posse would reappear there.
To a certain extent they have. The local press would have you believe that Starfish, which brought together Simon and Meet Me in Miami boutique's Debbie Ohanian, is the hippest fish joint in town. Indeed, the enclosed patio with white wrought-iron furniture, the cozy bar, the glamorous dining room with pink pastel walls and drapes and beautiful terrazzo floor are a chic updating of the old Gatti's Restaurant site. And my first meal at Starfish, when the restaurant was weeks old, almost lived up to the promise of the Cinderella-type decor. My mistake was being tempted back for more. A second visit made it easy to differentiate the hip from the hype.
Hip is taking reservations and honoring them, which Starfish does. Hype is preopening invite-only gatherings and postopening shutdowns for private parties, which the restaurant also does A a recent double birthday bash closed the doors for an entire evening. Private parties are every restaurant's privilege, of course, but on a Friday night? I don't care who it's for; either do it during down time or go into catering. Alienating potentially loyal regulars amounts to image suicide on the order of Marie Antoinette. (She figured she had the A-listers' number, too.)
The understated starfish that serves as the restaurant's sign is classy, like the small brass plaque that announces Bang. The Gatti placard that dwarfs it, however, is another matter. Others might interpret this ghost of the previous tenant as preservation, a hot topic on the Beach. But I'm no romantic. What I see is the shameless invocation of the Gatti legend, trading on the still-glowing allure of Al Capone's old haunt.
Kerry Simon himself is hip, his long hair ponytailed when he abandons the kitchen for the floor. Here, at least, camera flashes don't illuminate his entrance (a significant distraction at Blue Star). Maybe it's because Starfish is better lighted. Or maybe Simon is less concerned with that nonsense now. But plainly he's latched on to the word "star" for a reason. And Simon's table-hopping hasn't changed since Blue Star: he greets his friends and acquaintances, and no one else. An editor I know lives by the credo, "Avoid publishing your personal friends." The restaurant corollary: Don't cook for them, either. In the long run, there aren't enough pals to pay your bills. Even on South Beach.
A more basic error in judgment is Simon's spotlight on seafood, which doesn't jibe with the hearty down-home fare and heavy spicing he excels at and can't resist. Tuna tartare with curried plantains was a table favorite, the succulent ruby tuna bits scooped up with crunchy plantain chips. The addition of lemon grass to this appetizer was a fresh, subtle citrus kick, freshening the fish the way a real lemon might have. As good as the tuna tasted, though, the transition to a meat-and-potato entree was awkward, to the detriment of both dishes. Meat loaf here was dense but not hard, tender but not soft. The flavor was almost fruity, as if a chutney had been mixed into the ground beef. Mashed potatoes, a side dish for which Simon is rightfully known, lived up to expectations, though I do miss the roasted garlic version he served at Blue Star.
Elements that worked well at Blue Star -- the hamburger dinner option, for instance -- fail to impress at Starfish, where the menu is much more limited. Not only did the spicy fried chicken seem as inappropriate as the meat loaf, but it tasted mediocre. Slightly greasy and hardly spicy, the chicken was accompanied by a ginger-mint potato salad that sounded interesting but tasted odd, the ginger-herb combination too disparate a mix against the bland canvas of potatoes.
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Potatoes were also the backdrop for a salmon dish I tried more than once, with worsening results. The grilled fillet of salmon, enveloped in wafer-thin slices of potato and served on an asparagus salad, was an attractive presentation, verdant baby asparagus poking out from underneath the parcel of fish. The first time, however, it tasted fishy; the second time it was dry and shrunken. A companion also expressed reservations about how the the crisp, somewhat tough potato covering dominated the flaky salmon.
Another fish dish, steamed yellowtail with roasted vegetable sauce, tasted of the sea -- an extremely salty one. Not surprisingly, Simon's tipsy spice hand worked far better with grilled tuna, served deliciously rare and piquant. This thick steak held up to its treatment, its strong essence a match for the peppery outer seasonings. A toasted-almond-and-orange quinoa salad, one of the few side dishes not based on potatoes, was a marvelous accompaniment.
Though a waitstaff's early inconsistencies usually disappear as a young restaurant ages, this wasn't the case at Starfish, where the service, outstanding during our first visit, was utterly deficient the second time around. The first trip commenced with savory drop biscuits delivered by a waiter and individually placed on our bread plates. Throughout dinner, more biscuits were offered. Orders for drinks and dinner were taken immediately. Utensils were whisked away and replaced between courses. Coffee was served with sugar and cream accompaniments. On our second visit, during the twenty minutes that elapsed between the time we shut our menus and the time our order was taken, our waiter attended to a table that had been seated long after we were, and then he disappeared. Bread (honey-wheat this time, which only made us miss the biscuits) was delivered with no butter; by the time we persuaded a busboy to bring us some, we needed more bread. And so it went. Water was carried two glasses at a time to our table of five. Utensils had to be requested after dishes had already arrived. Desserts -- we ordered three for the table -- were brought without forks and before the coffee. Coffee was delivered by two servers who carried the cups in their hands, and neither of whom thought to bring cream. It would be my guess that there's a shortage of trays -- or brains -- in the house.
Toward the end of one visit, an out-of-town guest pushed back his plate, gazed admiringly at the surroundings, and remarked that Starfish "would be great if it had a different chef." That, I think, is going too far. But I do miss the menu at Blue Star, and I believe Simon's Caribbean inspirations are misguided here. He'd be just as successful -- perhaps more so -- if he stuck to what he does best: the quail, the duck, the rack of lamb. He'd better hurry up, though. Larry Forgione's An American Place is opening this month at the Jockey Club, and if it's as good as it's reputed to be, it'll be a tough lead for local steak-and-potatoes chefs to follow.