On the Mark
The first impression was the worst. I'm not talking about the creamy white interior of the refurbished Nash Hotel. That was the second impression. The third would be the restaurant itself, Mark's South Beach, and how the walk downstairs to a sleek, contemporary dining room, with outdoor seating by a pool area, is reminiscent of another Peter Page-designed property, Astor Place. Of course the Astor is a few years old already, so the Nash is more reflective of what's going on right now in the Wallpaper world of interior stylings, which is, according to Page, "the look of a vintage James Bond movie." This translates to soft cove lighting, a low console ceiling (bring a shawl or jacket in case you're seated under one of the equally low air-conditioning vents), tinted maple walls with rounded airplane-window-shape cutouts over the actual windows, and patterned fabric, more Brady Bunch than Bond, on the walls flanking an open kitchen.
The elements cohere into a graceful dining space, not exactly the adjective I'd use to describe ill-fitted drab-gray jackets worn by the waitstaff; I felt as though I was being served by members of the Soviet politburo. They knew their menu, though, and service was better than at most places on the Beach -- excepting two occasions, on different visits, when waiters cleared our silverware and began removing plates we weren't finished with.
You have about as good a chance of spotting Marky Mark at Mark's as you do Mr. Militello, but the cuisine here unmistakably bears his trademark traipses to the edges of ledges of flavors. Sometimes it seems as though just an additional millimeter of salt or ten seconds more of reducing a sauce and the dish would be disastrous. Doesn't happen. The daring roller-coaster tastes are based on solid culinary tracks that never leave the ground. Mark Militello is simply one of Miami's best chefs. Then again, a hefty portion of credit should also be divvied to chef de cuisine Tim Andreola, who spent the past eight years at Chef Allen's (Mr. Susser being no slouch himself). While the spotlight's glare has been focusing on his big-name bosses, Andreola has been orchestrating the kitchen heat. Here he does so admirably, producing food equal in style and quality, if not ingredients, to Mark's prior ventures in North Miami and Grove Isle, and present endeavors at Las Olas and Mizner Park.
Our revel was in the details: A fresh bread for every taste (walnut loaf, onion focaccia, crisp wafers, sourdough, and sweet bread), served according to whim from a wandering waiter's basket; bottled waters kept chilled in wine buckets; a savvy wine list; innovative sorbet intermezzos to freshen the palate; and amuse-bouchées, such as oysters Rockefeller in a bite-size pastry shell and salmon tartare wrapped in cucumber wisp, that serve as miniature mimicries of delectable things to come.
Some of the appetizers were pretty miniature, too. I don't take issue with petitely portioned starters, which, like the amuse, are meant to bait, not sate, one's appetite, but the duo of blue spot prawns ($15), in sparkling bisque with dreamy black truffle sabayon, should have been used as bait to catch larger prawns. Even teenier were three morsels of sweetbreads ($13), though these came with two thick, juicily seared sea scallops, black trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms, a purée of Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes, and a meaty pinot noir glaze, which gave us plenty to chew on. That those pea-size pieces of sweetbreads were so pleasing led me to ask aloud why it was that bad food so often comes in big portions, great food in small ones. A gentleman at the next table softly responded that life was unfair.
Two other tasteful beginners were more generous: Three sausagelike disks of smoky, pan-roasted loin of rabbit, with creamy polenta and a shiny veal glacé spiked with porcini oil; and poached Maine lobster with white beans, pumpkin, and small tubes of macaroni in a cognac-and-pistou boosted consommé -- a decidedly upscale minestrone. If these sound tempting, that's because everything on this daily changing menu does. A quick read of the salad ingredients, without even delving into subtleties or specifics, reveals their simple refinement: Florida organic heirloom tomatoes with extra-virgin olive oil and Tinto Granache vinegar ($11), red and white endive salad with Roquefort and spiced pecans ($10), arugula leaves with roasted peppers and Parmesan ($10).
The fare is more Mediterranean than at Mark's other spots, though we did try one of the exceptions: slices of rare moullard duck breast ($32) draped over red colusari rice (which constitutes a Med element, as it comes from the Middle East) and imbued with the smoothest "barbecue sauce" you'll ever likely have, one entwined with the tastes of tamarind and mango. Tenderloin of beef ($28) was cooked to textbook perfection, a hunky cut stuffed with roasted garlic purée on a polenta crouton, with an intense demi-glace dotted with a ragout of diced root vegetables.
First-rate seafood, too. Scottish salmon ($28), with truffled sweet pea coulis and leeks braised with tomatoes and mascarpone, was everything you could ask for from a piece of fish: fresh, crisply cooked with a succulent coral-color center, and seasoned to impress the palate, not enhance the menu (indeed, while fresh herbs are used, there is no mention of them). Black grouper ($26) was likewise luscious, pan-seared with poached potatoes and spinach in a saffron-tinted, picholine olive-infused, butter-bolstered seafood broth, with fresh parsley and basil.
By the glass: eight dessert wines and eight ports ($6.50-$45). On a cart: cheeses ranging from nutty Italian pecorino to sharp Gruyère from the caves of France ($14-$18). From a soufflé cup: puffs of steam as the impeccable brown butter and hazelnut soufflé gets punctured and the waiter pours in a rich Bailey's chocolate sauce. Pastry chef Pamela Michaels has a tough act to follow, but she does so with aplomb -- sometimes with many plums. The half-dozen offerings (all $9), which also change nightly, smartly appeal to various cravings: banana split for heavyweights, sorbet for lightweights, bittersweet chocolate cake for chocoholics, and, for those seeking comfort, three timbales of moist and chunky upside-down apple-carrot cake with lemon-ginger sauce anglaise.
Unlike the valet attendants at the Nash who required payment up-front, I've courteously waited till the end to relay that first impression: a $25 dollar parking fee. Or shall I say $25 with a $15 option, the difference loosely defined as "a ten-minute wait after handing in your stub." Considering the prices charged at Mark's, surely they can afford to pick up part of the parking tab. After all, the valet isn't just the first impression, but the last as well. Well, maybe next to last. The final feeling retained would be just how gratifying a dining experience Mark's really provides.
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