Ocean Drive's Last Great Hope
By this time in a year of typical South Florida weather, locals would have retreated indoors weeks ago, not to emerge from our excellent air conditioning till October or so. This year's unseasonably cool spring, however, has blessed us with some extra time to enjoy the beach -- time that's especially enjoyable because it's high-season weather without high-season tourists hogging all our sand space. What could be better?
A decent place to have a beachfront meal, is what. The culinary offerings along Ocean Drive's restaurant row apparently must please visitors from many parts of the universe; if they didn't, all those petrified plates under plastic wrap wouldn't be replaced by simply more of the same every time an eatery's ownership or chef changes. But no one who actually lives in Miami is going to risk bikini bulge indulging in such mediocre-tasting calories. Miamians may be nuts, but we're not damn fools.
When 1220 at the Tides Hotel got an impressively credentialed new chef, Chris Tapper, at the beginning of this year, Ocean Drive once again seemed worth a visit. After working at Mark's South Beach, the new head honcho had done time as executive sous-chef at Manhattan's justly famed fish spot Citarella. The totally revamped menu at 1220 reflects Citarella's emphasis on light, innovative seafood preparations. Not that the Tides' former chefs were chopped liver. But much of the old food seemed fussier than what sunbathers crave when they stroll in for a bite with sand still in their shoes. And if it wasn't fussy, it was the same sort of glorified bar food (fried calamari) served everywhere else on Ocean Drive. Additionally a meal was roughly the price of a Hummer.
Lunch will likely still cost you more than at neighboring eateries, but servings are more sizable than before, so the check won't bust the budget -- or your waistline. Tapper's Asian and Mediterranean-inspired New American food aims at tastiness without overrich heaviness. He often hits the bull's eye.
Gazpacho verde, for instance, was excitingly elegant but substantial enough to serve alone as a light lunch. In Andalusia, which is ground zero for gazpacho, there are probably as many authentic variations on this cold soup as there are cooks. However, none of these refreshing potions (traditionally used as an afternoon pick-me-up for peasants working the fields, but equally restorative for hard-lounging beach-chair potatoes) bears any resemblance to the chopped-salad soup most often served in the U.S.
Tapper's version is a smooth, pale-green purée whose color came from the substitution of tart tomatillos for tomatoes. Avocado provided natural richness; cucumber balanced that. Herbs, sufficient salt, and plenty of garlic added intense flavor to the vegetable freshness. An inventive ball of sweet red pepper sorbet in the bowl's center delightfully countered the soup's savor. I only wish there'd been enough to have a little with every spoonful.
All too often in Thai restaurants, basil duck is overcooked, dried-out poultry encased in cement-thick breading. The white meat chicken slices topping Tapper's crispy Thai chicken salad had the thin, greaseless, crunchy coating and moist meat that one always hopes for in the more traditional Asian dish. A chopped salad bed of napa cabbage and bok choy was perfectly coated in red pepper-spiked peanut dressing. Two thin, slightly spicy sesame breadstick antennae were as tasty as they were amusing.
Unfortunately not all of 1220's lunch food was fun. In fact a sliced breast of turkey sandwich with applewood-smoked bacon and intriguing ginger-lemon aioli was downright annoying, since the turkey turned out to be smoked. Many people like the overkill that comes from combining bacon and smoked poultry, but I'm not one of them, and wouldn't have ordered the sandwich had the turkey been accurately described on the menu. The unwanted smoke was not the only problem; the turkey itself was not cut fresh from the bird's frame (as you'd expect in an upscale restaurant), but rather from a turkey roll -- with the plastic rind left on the edges, no less. As for the intriguing aioli, little lemon and no ginger whatsoever was discernible, and the housemade mayonnaise was too sparely applied anyway. A request for extra aioli brought a bowl of regular jarred mayo. The sandwich's bread, though, was good: focaccia, crunchy crust and nicely moist inside. An accompanying red cabbage/bell pepper slaw, in a subtly spicy kim chee dressing, was terrific.
Two dinners were also a mixed success, as signaled from the get-go by their bread baskets. On one occasion, sesame breadsticks were sublime; on another they were so stale as to be inedible. The winner dinner started with an exquisite clam chowder reminiscent of Norman Van Aken's conch chowder, thinner in texture but redolent with the same sophisticated flavors of saffron, orange, liqueur, coconut, and cream. The clams, described as littlenecks, were the size of canned baby clams, but the pleasantly chewy bivalves otherwise bore no resemblance to their mushy processed counterparts. Instead of chowder's standard cheap filler (potatoes, celery, and so on), slivers of classy black chanterelle mushrooms added exotic earthiness.
Most of 1220's entrées are fish, but a chicken dish in Parmesan broth sounded too interesting to resist. It was indeed good. The chic little bird, about the size of a rock Cornish game hen, was roasted so precisely that the skin crackled but the meat within was still perfectly juicy -- even the white meat. The breast slices and whole thighs came on a bed of Swiss chard leaves that would have been more graceful cut smaller (whole, they dribbled on my shirt), plus diced carrots, celery, and sunchokes. The last, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, metabolize in some miraculous way that makes them starches even low-carb dieters can enjoy. The broth, complex and more meaty than cheesy, was too thin to coat and flavor the chicken pieces, but made a great potlikker for the greens.
For dessert a key lime cannoli was a creative take on both the Florida and Italian classics: a caramelized coconut tuile wrap outside; tart, airy lime mousse inside. The plate came drizzled with raspberry syrup and garnished with fresh berries as well as a mound of intense mango sorbet that would have been more interesting had there been even a hint of the ginger it allegedly contained. Still it was good.
But not so good was the Florida lobster tail at a second dinner. Though an accompanying salad of watercress, oranges, pickled onion slivers, and fennel was nicely dressed, the lobster tail itself was overgrilled to leathery desiccation. The taste was less like lobster than like charcoal lighter.
Calamari with prosciutto, roasted peppers, kalamata olives, and frisée was worse. The prosciutto was unpleasantly thick and salty. The olives were unpleasantly strong and salty. The soggy lettuce, drowning in dressing, had been rendered even more sadly limp by the heat of the grilled (not battered) calamari mountain on top. And the squid itself was rubbery hard as a Superball and supremely slimy.
Then ... surprise! Sea scallops, sweet and tender specimens with a lovely caramelized exterior, were so wonderful the dish could have come from a different kitchen. The bacon-dotted shellfish came atop a mound of still-crunchy wilted spinach, the whole dressed with a subtly sweet blood orange vinaigrette that married the flavors superbly.
It seemed a shame, perusing Ocean Drive's commercial strip from the beach after three of four visits, that less interesting eateries buzzed while the tables on 1220's perfect people-watching porch were half empty. The cuisine's concept is there. With more consistent execution (and perhaps a more reasonably priced wine list), the joint could be jumping.
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