Lounges that serve food provide one-stop shopping for those interested in dinner, drinks, and a high-spirited evening of socializing without having to get into and out of automobiles in between. Staying put in one place saves time. It saves gas. It also prevents the heartache of abandoning a prize parking spot to search for another. Maybe all of the above relate to the recent re-emergence of a lively lounge scene on South Beach. Or maybe not. In either case, 510 Ocean and Spy Lounge are two of the latest to clue in to this club food revival.
Although the waiters at the latter spot have more in common with fashion models than rocket scientists, we were cordially seated and handed menus before you could say, "Spy Lounge & Brasserie at Maxine at the Catalina Hotel & Beach Club." Almost everything else was brought in a timely fashion, too, excepting a fried calamari appetizer that arrived after more than a twenty-minute wait. The manager eventually brought it over, apologized, and deftly turned the misstep into a merry round of mojitos.
The delayed squid was clearly the kitchen's fault; our waitress went back numerous times to fetch it and kept returning empty-handed. This was just one sign of dysfunctionality from Spy's culinary operation, which sadly performs with all the efficiency of the CIA. During both visits, numerous menu items were unavailable, and on one occasion the nixed list included our first three choices for appetizer: mini Spy hamburgers; crabcake; and tuna tartare. That left only a few other starters.
Spy's original chef was the accomplished Jean Pierre Petit, formerly of the Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove, but he lasted about as long as Porter Goss. Gone, too, is his menu of "traditional French country-style cuisine," which boasted bistro-ish bites such as duck confit and foie gras in puff pastry; escargots; braised short ribs; and lobster navarin (a ragout with root vegetables). Things have since been culinarily dumbed down to a compendium of dreadfully dull dishes fettuccine Alfredo, chicken schnitzel, hamburgers, and the like. Spy is no brasserie, nor is it a very good restaurant. As a lounge, however, it's 007 cool.
The interior contains a few strains of early Sixties style, though most diners opt for sitting outdoors on the spacious stone terrace overlooking a bustling stretch of Collins Avenue. The clientele tends toward typical tourists during breakfast, lunch, and early dinner, but after 9:00 p.m., the patio begins to swell with a more eclectic group including a few local lounge lizards. Some come simply to sip specialty cocktails and lie on bamboo-shaded beds by the pool out back (so, so SoBe). A DJ spins loungy house music at Spy Bar next door on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Many patrons, especially among the later crowd, are here to party, not partake of a memorable epicurean experience. Thus few will likely care, or even notice, that the rough-cut rectangles of fish in "ultra rare yellowfin tuna niçoise salad" are cooked to a pinkless medium state. By the same token, and in the same salad, the colorful nature of blue potato slices might divert attention from the unseasoned and undressed nature of the spuds, and cloddish cuts of romaine leaves, hard-boiled egg wedges, unripe cherry tomatoes, and anchovy twirls may provide cover for the missing green beans and namesake olives. An unremarkable chicken schnitzel is competent enough that it won't summon complaints, nor will the pale, limp fries alongside. After a few drinks, imbibers become oblivious to the greasiness of fried calamari rings and insipidness of mostly mayonnaise tartar sauce or at least Spy hopes they do. I wonder how many will note the ethnic discrepancy of a Middle East platter of hummus and baba ghannouj being accompanied with "tortilla chips."
On the plus side, tender and mellow little veal-lightened meatballs were tasty enough tossed with tagliatelle and cream sauce. And a flat-iron steak was surprisingly satisfying succulent, assertively salted, and imbued with a cleanly charred flavor. Still, the steak was only a smoke screen for otherwise mediocre food. Spy is a happy place to hang, but not a worthwhile dining destination.
Same goes for 510 Ocean, which opened on the ground level of the Bentley Hotel in August. The floor and walls are mantled in marble, and a dramatically backlit onyx pillar juts out in the middle of the space classy, no? But one main wall is dominated by an ugly white door with a red exit bar across it. Artwork consists of dated Warholesque prints of people such as James Brown. It's as if 510 can't decide if it wants to be a Bentley or a VW van with a peace sign painted on the side.
According to press materials, the rooftop garden with an unobstructed ocean view sounds like the best place to dine, but it was not open during our forays. A quaint, well-foliated courtyard in back would have been preferable as well, if for no other reason than to escape the Sixties rock classics played too loudly indoors, but we were not offered that option.
Management at 510 initially hired the talented Cory "Big Tex" Smith, formerly sous chef at Pacific Time, to operate their kitchen. But like their counterparts at Spy, they subsequently traded down for a lesser talent again, with unfortunate results. For starters we were lured to panko-crusted goat cheese with "tomato basil fondue." But when the waiter, upon questioning, explained "fondue" meant "a splash of sauce," we switched to the "fried calamari tower," cigarette-size cylinders of breaded squid bodies piled up and served with a trio of dipping sauces: soy-ginger, tomato coulis, and spicy "sweet Asian chili sauce" (which, I suspect, is poured from the same bottle as the sweet "spicy Asian chili sauce" that accompanies a starter of seared tuna). We also sampled a beef tenderloin appetizer: two teeny, overcooked discs of meat dotted with Gorgonzola cheese and sided by shreds of undressed cabbage and a vinegary chimichurri sauce.
Seafood entrées include blackened mahi-mahi busily burdened by pineapple-rum pico de gallo and coconut/sweet-potato purée, and a thin fillet of "pan-seared snapper" that arrived breaded and pan-fried (not the same as pan-seared) and capped with a sappy salsa of black beans and corn (actually, less a salsa than just cold black beans and corn). Lamb T-bone was plated as two plump, fatty, undercooked, unseasoned steaks; there was no salt shaker on the table either. A stuffed tomato on the side was mushy and bland, but an apple-and-bacon hash was quite toothsome. (For those keeping score, the lamb was supposed to be accompanied by a micro-green salad and balsamic tomatoes.) Although the meat was generously portioned, for $36 I'm fairly certain one would do better with dry-aged lamb chops at a steak house.
To say 510's service was uneven is being kind. The waiters' tableside manners were clumsy. Flatware and glassware had not been cleaned properly. Water was refilled by the sip, an unnecessary overcompensation for otherwise negligent attention to detail. To top things off, the credit card machine was not working, so we sat around for about fifteen minutes until someone finally printed a receipt. We were the only patrons in the place, so you would think they might have offered us a drink or something while we waited and waited not only to make amends for time wasted but also for making us endure a song by Gordon Lightfoot as we sat. 510 and its music liven up late nights on weekends, but like Spy, this is a lounge best suited for lounging around after you've eaten elsewhere.
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