La Dolce 8 1/2
When the Clinton Hotel on South Beach's Washington Avenue first finished refurbishment in 2004, the in-house (or, more accurately, side-of-house) restaurant was the pish-posh Pao Chinese. Pao's seats were initially filled by foodie fannies, but about an hour later, the fickle SoBe populace was hungering for something else. Enter Aigo, a French bistro that served Italian food, and, well, let's just say the tenants of this space have had troubles.
Jason McClain, Kevin Boals, and Richard Burton are the latest to give it a go. This past June, they opened the doors to their simple but stylish Restaurant 8 1/2. Thus far the partners seem to be successfully negotiating the pitfalls that predetermined their precursors' poor performances; Jason and Kevin's 40 years of industry experience no doubt help in this regard. McClain, a Jersey native, worked in acclaimed restaurants up north, moved to the Beach and learned what he could from chef Nobu Matsuhisa at the Shore Club, shipped off to Chicago to be executive chef at that city's well-regarded Narcisse Restaurant, and then returned south to helm the kitchens at Pearl Restaurant and Nikki Beach. Where McClain goes, so goes Boals, serving as general manager at each Miami stop along the way. The personable GM considers himself "an aspiring enophile" and takes pride in 8 1/2's inventory of 80-plus wines (30 available by the glass in three- or six-ounce pours). The bottle markup is modest as a means of encouraging diners to imbibe.
The logistics of the room haven't changed; it is still pretty small (or, as guide books like to put it, "intimate"). But the 30 indoor seats are supplemented by plenty more outdoors in front and back, both areas visible through floor-to-ceiling windows that at once bookend the space and open it up. A full-service, ten-stool bar anchors the eatery's left side, while the right boasts black banquettes bolstered by orange pillows and a large, wall-length mirror looming overhead. Above this mirror, just below the ceiling, hangs a single framed movie poster. Thumbs up if you correctly guessed it's of Fellini's 8 1/2.
The bright, shiny, square orange menu takes almost as long to decipher as that dreamlike film. Not that there are a whole lot of dish descriptions to digest the four small panels of print contain just 21 items. But there are innumerable ways of assembling these: A nightly four- or five-course tasting menu created by Chef McClain; "spontaneous dining," whereby the customer customizes his or her own four- or five-course tasting menu; any of these meals paired with a wine flight of three-ounce pours; an "ultimate degustation" menu of many courses and wine pours; the Miami Spice menu; and regular old à la carte. While dwelling on these multiple choices, you might come to discover, as I did, that the bartender here mixes a rather zesty mojito.
There is nothing especially Felliniesque about Chef McClain's self-described "creative global" (but mostly Mediterranean) fare. We were started with soft, seasoned pita wedges and a dish of lemony hummus heady with feta cheese and olive oil. An array of appetizing appetizers followed. Moroccan-spiced calamari rings, fresh and tender in a noteworthy way, bristled with sweetly browned butter heightened by a hint of Meyer lemon. We seamlessly segued into another Med-theme plate, this one painted with delicate circles of rosy lamb carpaccio marbled with minuscule veins of fat and drizzled with Banyuls syrup (a reduction of sweet red Banyuls wine from the French Pyrenees). A minimound of accompanying hummus and microgreens was sprightly, but we'd already had our fill of garbanzos.
"Tempura rock shrimp," barely battered and tossed in a piquant, mayo-based chili-garlic sauce, were excavated from their bowl in rousing fashion by my dinner guests. I would have dug them more had sweet, petite rock shrimp been used instead of regular small shrimp, but it was an undeniably lip-smacking dish sort of like warm and spicy shrimp salad, except better than that sounds. It was also better than the crabcake, the sublime meat of which was camouflaged by Cajun seasonings and burdened by charred corn relish, key lime chipotle aioli, and too much salt.
A "duet of soups" harmonizes one cup of harmless but hardly inspiring tomato-basil pistou (which could have been called "tomato soup with pesto") with another containing a creamy purée of potato-leek flecked with duck confit. Next time I'll ask for two of the latter and will also request that the potent puddle of balsamic vinegar and Spanish olive oil that soaked into our Caprese starter be served on the side. The five canape-size layer cakes of organic Faykes tomatoes from Homestead, fresh mozzarella, and basil were otherwise faultless.
There isn't much versatility in the way entrées are constructed: Almost all plates are centered by a main protein propped atop some soft purée adrift in a pool of thin broth. Two juicy, mustard-crusted New Zealand lamb chops, for instance, arrived leaning on a wet parsnip mash encircled by translucent brown sauce speckled with lentils, green peppercorns, and fresh thyme. The meat exuded abundant flavor but was parsimoniously portioned in light of the $33.50 price. A tenderloin of veal wrapped in crisp, salty Serrano ham was also lightly doled, but the delicate discs of tender pink meat were so delectable it seems petty to quibble about size/cost ratio (though I will mention it's $34.50). A drizzling of arugula pesto and some more Banyuls syrup perked up the pork, as did white bean purée, rapini greens, and a shimmering splash of cleanly reduced veal stock.
A fleshy fillet of pan-seared grouper, like all of our main courses, was cooked just right and, like all of our main courses, was served on a mound of savory mush (polentalike grits studded with corn and fava beans). The pooling bouillon this time came infused with wild mushrooms and the earthy aroma of "truffle essence" (which tasted suspiciously like truffle oil). Other main courses include filet mignon matched with lobster-studded mashed potatoes; grilled salmon draped over smashed avocado; and miso-glazed sea bass stuck on sticky rice.
Restaurant 8 1/2 embraces la dolce vita via a number of homemade, preciously presented desserts nothing you haven't seen before, but satisfying nonetheless. Warm chocolate lava cake is intensely dark and bittersweet alongside pistachio ice cream; warm apple-rhubarb tart fresh and heartwarming with cinnamon ice cream; warm bread pudding sweet, sweet, sweet. I was grateful that pumpkin cheesecake exhibited less sugar intensity than the others, but its attractively bronzed meringue topping proved rubbery. If dining with a group of two or more, you might consider a sampling platter of all four desserts a bargain at $16.
Chef McClain occasionally traipses through the room and checks in with each table, both to introduce himself and to see how his guests are enjoying their meals. GM Boals does likewise. Each makes it a point to personalize the dining experience a small gesture with a big payoff that a surprising number of restaurants fail to exploit. The attentive waitstaff is equally amiable, and a tangible friendliness fills the air. In fact acoustics are such that the air is crowded with all sorts of things, including music and the reverberating clack of flatware and chatter. Which is clearly preferable to the sounds of silence that numbered the days of 8 1/2's predecessors.
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