Of all the significant trends in the food world over the last decade of the last century, the most exciting for travelers was the revolution in hotel cuisine. And encouragingly, it wasn't just in sophisticated cities that hotel restaurants transformed from lowest-common-denominator food factories for tasteless (presumably) tourists into kitchens offering culinary competition to the hottest non-hotel eateries. During an assignment early last year for a national travel magazine, I found nearly 100 hotel/resort restaurants serving cutting-edge, globally influenced cuisine in areas of the United States that, ten years ago, seemed bastions of canned crapola. At one historic hotel deep in Minnesota's meat-and-potatoes heartland, for instance, the chef offers world fusion dishes like a Czech/Chinese nine-vegetable strudel (including fresh water chestnuts and shiitake mushrooms) with Spanish saffron sauce.
Haricots verts in cowboy bean country? Oui, at a rural Arizona hotel where an Alain Ducasse-trained Southern cracker chef combines nouvelle Provençal with cuisine de Kentucky. Then there's the place in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, featuring unique dinner cruises on the resort lake: Vacationers skinny-dip in private coves between courses of Indonesian slaw with Georgia-pecan/African-sesame cream; New Zealand tiger shrimp in Floribbean mango beurre blanc over Italian spinach fettuccine; and Franco/American-South cornbread madeleines.
Clearly if hotel kitchens like those just described can exist in places like those just described, they can exist anywhere in the known universe. I said the known universe. Despite being one of the nation's major resort destinations, Miami's hotel restaurants have resisted the revolution. Only in the past few years have a few bright spots appeared, notably Wish (The Hotel) and the Gaucho Room (Loew's) in Miami Beach, the retooled Palme d'Or (the Biltmore) in Coral Gables, and Baleen (Grove Isles Resort) in Coconut Grove. Downtown Miami, though, remained a holdout. Enter -- with much hoopla -- Indigo, in the mainland's Hotel Inter-Continental. The space, which has been open only a couple of months, is striking: a columned see-and-be-seen lobby/restaurant covering four times the area of most SoBe eateries. The cuisine is "global," an appealing sound bite for we want-it-all types, whatever that means. The valet parking is ... free! My dining partner and I raced over.
100 Chopin Plaza (in the Hotel Inter-Continental); 305-577-1000.
Open daily for lunch, noon to 3:00 p.m. (international buffet Monday through Friday only, Saturday la carte, Sunday brunch); dinner 6:00 to 11:00 p.m.
Dinner was, in a word, disappointing. A more specific word? Bland.
Vegetable cocktail with rouille (pungent pimiento sauce) and chickpea crêpes raised hopes (given the chef's Dutch/French pedigree, according to our server) that it would be the succulent Provençal chickpea specialty, socca. But what arrived was a mass of minced veggies in a martini glass, looking like trendiness personified, tasting like nothing, and accompanied by a few dry crackers plus a bowl of boring pink stuff resembling, possibly, remoulade, but not rouille.
Stone crab croquetas demonstrated why Joe's only serves the creatures cold. The cakes were as stringy inside as sea legs, with none of a quality croqueta's creaminess. A liberal, watery dousing with what appeared to be the pink stuff, thinned down, reduced the texture to that of soggy shirt cardboard. Jumbo shrimp in "crispy potato jacket" were similarly sodden, with no discernable taste of a promised curry topping. The sauce was, in fact, pink stuff.
Blessedly the dressing on the salad of lobster, fresh hearts of palm, and carrot was not pink stuff. It was merely tasteless. And frankly, for $20.50, I expect a lobster bigger than the average palmetto bug.
Finally the one dessert we managed to taste, a leaden chocolate sorbet item festooned with stale, striped cookies, made it quite clear why ours was one of only four filled tables on a high-season Saturday night. To be fair a marinated tuna and swordfish "tower" was good, grilled to perfect juicy rareness and accented with too-few drops of two sauces that tasted herby and peppery. But considering the $168 bill for four tiny appetizers, one tiny entrée, one dessert, and a very modest wine, it was not enough.
Lunch is a far better deal (though the room was even emptier), especially if one opts for the all-you-can-eat $19 "World's Fare" buffet. The represented region changes weekly, and menus change daily; the accommodating staff will actually fax you the whole week's choices. That's not to say that what you see is what you get. Substituting, for example, for two intriguing-sounding fish items on the Caribbean-theme menu faxed to me (banana-crusted fish with tamarind tartar sauce, and red snapper with cilantro lime sauce) were a not vaguely Caribbean salmon with mushrooms, and a fish stew that, though packed with spiny lobster and similar expensive shellfish, would have been better had the fish been fresher. And the promised beef dish was replaced by a plain and overdone fillet, to my disappointment. I've never had a Caribbean Beef Wellington.
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Ajiaco criollo (Cuban creole stew), though, was fabulous, the succulent beef short ribs falling-off-the-bone tender and the sauce just spicy enough. Mofongo (mashed plantain balls) also was tasty, if a totally traditional treatment and definitely not, as our server insisted, vegetarian. The salad bar was a knockout: two bowls of lettuce (iceberg for the rubes, mesclun for the rest of us) supplemented by a sophisticated soppressata-not-Spam selection of cold cuts, assorted cheeses and fresh fruits, a half-dozen raw vegetables, and ten country-theme salads. Some of the salads tasted alike, owing to dressing duplication. But with this variety, who'd quibble?
Most amazing, given dinner's dessert debacle, were the sweets. All six items, while not those on the faxed menu, were winners, particularly light tembleque (sort of a coconut crème brûlée); satisfyingly rich budin (bread pudding); and not-too-sweet, flaky-crusted key lime pie.
Indigo's 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. happy hour also seemed like a great deal, as advertised: 50 percent off featured wines, plus hors d'oeuvres including dim sum and "favorites from our Sushi & Seafood Bar." But things were not quite as advertised. There was no dim sum (and no explanation offered), and the sushi/seafood bar translated as a sushi selection as limited, though less imaginative, than that at Publix -- period. My companion and I opted to drink, period. The reduced-price featured white was Marques de Riscal, supermarket stuff that is, in my opinion, not a bargain at any price. We opted for a bottle of Villa Maria, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc so sparkling fresh that it almost feels as though you're doing your body a favor by drinking as much of it as possible. Unfortunately Indigo's price is $38 per bottle -- more than three times the retail, not wholesale, market price (the stuff costs $10.99 at Crown) -- which, even understanding the rationale for restaurant wine markups, is not in the spirit of happy hour.
Which is perhaps why the room was, once again, nearly empty. On the other hand, the deterrent could have been the two jackhammers drilling away in the lobby. Hopefully Indigo will pull itself from potential into prime time; downtown needs the kind of hotel restaurant this stylish space could be. At the moment, though, the place's most tempting inducement to return is the free valet parking.