Like the rest of the Deco properties that dress Ocean Drive, Ocean Five Hotel possesses a pleasantly primped pastel exterior and an in-house restaurant whose tables spill out to the sidewalk. No doubt it draws its share of out-of-towners looking for a spot to stop for postbeach burgers and beers, but once you enter Fifty's handsomely renovated interior, it becomes obvious this isn't just another fuddy-duddy tourist trap.
The earth-tone space is designed with contemporary architectural sensibilities, but in a warmly wooded way. To the left of the entrance is the main dining area, which seats just eighteen but bustles with more because of constant action at a tiny, evidently popular bar. Across the room is communal seating at a U-shape counter backed by a giant, illuminated mosaic-tile column that serves as a smokestack for a currently unused pizza oven in its base (as soon as the fire department gives a green light, thin-crust pies will be flying from that hearth). A glass display case of wines gleams across one of the walls, and houses an excellent collection of bottles from California. Yet if a couple of tourists did indeed try Fifty for lunch, they'd find plenty of accessible comestibles sandwiches, pastas, caesar and cobb salads, and even hamburgers, although the latter are plumped with a surprise slathering of garlic butter. And if this hypothetical couple returned for dinner, it is quite possible they would forevermore rate Fifty as one of their most serendipitous culinary discoveries. I know that after one bite of the plantain-wrapped crabcake, I was sure as hell impressed.
Even before that crunchy bite, I admired the crisp way the paper-thin, greaselessly fried green plantain crust shattered upon impact with my fork, and how pure, sweet, juicy lumps of peeky toe crab leaked out of the brittle shell and into a luxurious pool of the most buttery of beurre blancs. The icing on this cake was a meltingly soft dab of avocado aioli. From here on in, this is the standard against which other crabcakes will be judged.
Fifty: A Restaurant and Lounge
444 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 305-532-2441
Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; midday snacks 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 6:00 to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.
There are all manner of intriguing ingredients and treatments on Fifty's moderately sized menu. Wild rice tabbouleh is sprinkled with roasted tomato dust. Rack of lamb gets splashed with chili pasilla-cacao sauce. Pan-roasted grouper soaks in an exotic mango-cardamom water. There are even three types (and colors) of highfalutin' salt placed upon each table although, regrettably, the food was seasoned with such aplomb that I never got to sample any of them. Yet some items most difficult to find among Fifty's offerings are the sweetly briny Ipswich clams, which have been in short supply for years and are especially rare in these parts. A scant few are served here, buttermilk-battered and fried up with squid and chili rings as one part of a calamari trio appetizer; the other two components are a chilled, mildly spiced cocktail of calamari and baby octopus, and a squid stuffed with braised oxtail in piquant tomato sauce.
Dining at Fifty is nifty, but not especially thrifty which isn't to say it's unfairly priced. Most appetizers run from $7 to $12, pastas are $12 to $18, fish dishes are in the mid-$20 range, and meats meander from a $19 chicken breast to $39 veal chop to $49 surf and turf of Maine lobster and filet mignon. That's pretty much in line with other South Beach establishments, but the cuisine here is much, much better than at most. Still, if instead of a good deal you want a steal, take advantage of the Miami Spice dinner for $30.06 (not inclusive of beverages, tax, or tip). There are three starters to choose from, including the aforepraised crabcake, and the same number of entrée selections. I was tempted by "roasted Jurgielewicz Farms Long Island duck breast and confit leg," but the prospect of having to publicly pronounce Jurgielewicz swayed me instead toward the only slightly less tongue-twisting "crispy crackling Kurobuta pork osso bucco." Turns out I was rewarded for my linguistic cowardice, because the plump morsels of pork possessed the same slow-cooked sumptuousness as meat freshly peeled from a pig on a spit. The "crispy crackling" was sliced into squares and served on the side atop sautéed spinach leaves. Also sharing the plate were mashed sweet potatoes with a Thanksgiving-invoking dose of cinnamon, and a nearly translucent, slightly sweet jus spiked with Riesling wine. The featured Miami Spice dessert is pastry chef Carolina Romero's signature tres leches Boston cream pie, a teeny, toylike tasting of milk-and-sugar-soaked cake capped with thin lines of custard and chocolate. It was a delicious little thing, heightened by a pool of orange cream and a puff of cocoa sorbet shot with crunchy cocoa nibs. Consider Romero a rising star in our limited constellation of Miami pastry chefs. She was once a pastry chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu, and her treats alone are worth a trip here.
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Fifty's affable and relatively well-trained waitstaff dutifully informs guests of yet another dining option, chef/owner Roly Cruz-Taura's nightly tasting menu. It's a fine-tuned five-course meal for $65 per person (plus an uncounted intermezzo of litchi sorbet perfumed with Kaffir lime leaf and capped by a brashly refreshing mint granita). A wine flight costs an additional $30 per person, but we soared instead with a bottle of 2004 Clos du Val Pinot Noir ($44). Although the Pinot boasted an almost Burgundian bouquet of black cherry, it was well balanced enough to pair with the various courses, beginning with a cocktail glass of tuna tartare lightly touched with rice wine vinegar and chili paste, threaded with crisped squiggles of fried garlic slivers, and dappled with a dab of rich avocado sorbet. "Twice-cooked" duck drumstick followed the soft, confit-style meat sliding off the bone and into a hearty, mud-color puddle of bacon-smoked split peas. Next came the intermezzo, a stimulating ice bath for the tongue, before its encounter with the main course of filet mignon. The steak was rather ordinary, and a little overcooked to boot, but even Fifty's weakest showing exhibited signs of strength: A fried ravioli of creamy crabmeat crowned the steak, velvety mashed potatoes were imbued with truffle oil, a neat stack of baby green beans were impeccably cooked, and Pinot Noir demi-glace was aptly sticky and rich and darkly echoed the notes of our wine.
I must admit that Georgia is not the first place I think of in regard to great cheese-producing regions, but a sampling from that state's Sweet Grass Dairy farm (the tasting menu's fourth offering) convinced me otherwise. I especially enjoyed the buttery Green Hill, a cow's milk cheese with creamy Brie-like texture and thin white rind; and Lumiere, a crusted goat cheese layered with French grapevine ash that lends a gentle blue cheese flavor. These and other American farmhouse cheeses can be ordered à la carte as well.
I also confess to not formerly appreciating the potential pairing of chocolate and carrots, which I always assumed went together about as well as Mel Gibson and a bar mitzvah. So I was again pleasantly pleased at how smoothly the subtly shaded flavors of each melded into one another in the chocolate carrot cake dessert which was really mostly carrot but crafted in a classic French manner. Lending a boost was a vibrant and tangy roasted carrot-orange sauce and tiny diced squares of mango nectarine a hybrid of two types of pale nectarine that has nothing to do with mango other than a faintly tropical taste. Nevertheless it's a scrumptious fruit available at Epicure for $7.99 per pound.
Hats off to pastry chef Romero, sous chefs Agustin Toriz and Nestor Gomez, and especially Cruz-Taura, a Miami native who formerly forged his craft at the Miami City Club. Chef Roly's progressive menu of delectable cuisine had me exiting Fifty in a buoyant mood, filled with optimism concerning Miami's potentially resurgent dining scene. Perhaps even more incredibly, Fifty instilled within me a newfound respect for the state of Georgia.