The waiter spilled an entire glass of ice water onto the lap of one of my guests and failed to apologize -- or even provide a napkin so she could mop up. Another server, attempting to change the soaking wet tablecloth, sent another glass crashing to the floor. The wild asparagus soup with morels was cold (a shame, 'cause it was outstanding), the double-cut lamb porterhouse was overdone, and when we were eating dessert we found a pebble in the chocolate sauce. For that experience, we paid 80 bucks a head.
Where were we -- South Beach?
Nope. We were in New York, incomparable home of -- to hear New Yorkers tell it -- the well-heeled gastronome. What makes it more ironic is that we were dining in the Thompson Hotel at Thom, which is partially owned by Jonathan Eismann, chef-proprietor of Pacific Time, one of my long-time favorite restaurants. You might think that I was asking for it, going all the way to SoHo just to sup at a SoBe knockoff. Of course I was going to receive questionable service. I should expect nothing less -- or more, for that matter.
But I, naturally, beg to differ. For starters Pacific Time is noted for its excellent staff, routinely the best on the Beach. Eismann has been known to fire waiters who merely point the way instead of personally escorting a patron to the bathroom (not to mention those who have missed their shifts because they spent too much time in the drunk tank at the local police station). Given his rigid standards and the pool of out-of-work actors in New York, I was so positive we'd have an impeccable evening that I arranged to meet an extended group of friends there for dinner. And indeed, it was just bad luck that it was cooler-than-expected weather in the city, or my friend might have appreciated the accidental dousing. As it was, her jeans took about as long to dry out as a head cold.
But then Thom is not Pacific Time. Nor was it ever meant to be, Eismann tells me. "The idea was for this to be a bridge toward maybe opening a Pacific Time in New York. But [unlike Pacific Time], this isn't anyone's pet restaurant. The Indochine people came to me with this deal on the table, lease in hand. The management is hired, everything's farmed out. It was a business deal. I look at it as an investment." To that end, he recently installed executive chef Michael Batt in the kitchen, giving him room to create a menu that is much more New American bistro (think butter-poached Maine lobster with spring pea broth, one of the most savory lobster preparations I've had in some time) than it is Pan-Asian. Only a couple of Eismann's specialties -- lamb-mushroom dumplings, tuna tataki, and beef salad with satay flavors and black vinegar, among others -- are available. And you can only get them in the lounge upstairs, a VIP room that is apparently so exclusive I didn't even know about it until I returned to Miami.
When Eismann was offered his ten-percent share by the team who put the Thom concept together, he did originally intend to play a larger role, though not necessarily a culinary one. He was spending three to four days in New York every week. He and his wife took an apartment. He says, "We thought to establish roots, put Morgan [their daughter] in school there. But a lot of things changed after 9/11, particularly the travel back and forth." Not to mention his living conditions -- the Eismann domicile overlooked Ground Zero. "Miami life seems more and more endearing all of a sudden," he notes wryly. "I love living here."
Eismann isn't the only South Beach chef who feels, despite Big Apple excursions, intrinsically connected to the South Florida area. Dewey LoSasso, the first executive chef of the five-year-old Tuscan Steak in South Beach, left Miami to open a sibling Tuscan for China Grill Management in Midtown Manhattan about eighteen months ago. But he and his wife Dale, who was a general manager for both Chef Allen's and Mark's South Beach, never sold their Miami Shores house, simply because they intend to someday move back into the relaxing Miami lifestyle.
"New York is a twelve-month-a-year business, and New Yorkers have more choice about where they go to eat," LoSasso comments. But philosophically speaking, he doesn't see much difference between running a restaurant in Miami versus making one happen in New York. "Wherever you are, you have to work for it," he says. "Our experience in South Beach or New York is, if you do a good job, you'll be rewarded for it."
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He did have to make an adjustment in his day-to-day operations, though. Whereas LoSasso used to pull up outside Tuscan Steak and throw his keys to a valet, he now has to commute from his home in Paramus, New Jersey, a journey that takes him anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Damn, might as well be an investment banker. As for Eismann, he was clocking more frequent-flyer miles than a flight attendant. "It just got ridiculous, especially with my kid back here," he shrugs.
But while the commuting and garage fees may be a burden, LoSasso finds one major positive in the New York culinary scene: the Union Square Market. "On a global level, the market up here is much better," he states. "There's more of a plethora of products." Indeed when he does return, it will probably be with some proactive intentions. "There should be a coalition of restaurants and farmers in Miami. The farms need to be closer [more available] to the chefs," he says.
Eismann intends to spend about three weeks out of every month at first-love Pacific Time, and keep an eye on Thom in equal measure with the other partners. Still he also realizes some benefits to Big Apple restaurateuring. Believe it or not, landlords have long-term vision in New York, granting operators extended leases and more reasonable rents. The Thom partners are currently holding a twenty-year lease for the place, and while Eismann says he has rental longevity on Lincoln Road (and he must be the only one), he pays much more per square footage here.
Finally, Art Deco advocates forgive me, there are some arguably more interesting spaces to situate an eatery than crumbling pink-and-yellow shells of buildings or prepackaged strip malls. While Tuscan Steak South Beach is certainly not an ugly place, in New York it's a soaring, multistory establishment with a floating "wine tower" as a focal point. The Thompson Hotel was never designed to have a restaurant; as a result of the conversion of the first floor, the sequence of dining rooms is cozy, comfortable, and conducive to attracting artsy regulars, which it does in droves. Sometimes, Eismann admits, "It feels like someone's living room." My girlfriend with the drenched jeans can certainly attest to that. No doubt she would have appreciated it if it also felt like someone's laundry room.