When Michael Schwartz jumped ship from Nemo last summer, this town's foodies practically choked on their sushi in shock. After all, as co-owner and executive chef, Schwartz helped make that establishment a modern-day dining landmark on the Beach, while also successfully steering nearby sisters Shoji Sushi and Big Pink. Local gourmands gulped hard again when he landed on the deck of Atlantic Restaurant in the Rubells' Beach House Bal Harbour Resort.
Could one of the most ebullient chefs around find contentment in a hotel environment?
Atlantic opened in 2000 with cookbook author Sheila Lukins as resident "food guru" in charge of developing what turned out to be a very basic menu of homestyle American cooking -- New England clam chowder, crabcakes with tartar sauce, roasted chicken, and so on. In effect the food guru has been replaced by the "food dude," but the emphasis on basics is still intact; it's just coming from another direction. Schwartz's influences include Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters, his cooking style steeped in the simple notions and clean ingredients of West Coast cuisine -- in other words, more Pacific than Atlantic. But notions and oceans aside, Michael's greatest culinary asset is his ability to keep the flavors on each plate fresh, distinctive, and vibrant.
The man also loves a good raw bar. The selections at Atlantic are shiny, briny, and anything but tiny, starting with a "gigantic shrimp cocktail" -- actually, the cocktail is only as sizable as you choose to make it, the shrimp ordered separately at $4.50 apiece, but the crustaceans are truly gargantuan, each one containing as much meat as the trio of "jumbo" shrimp usually found clinging to the rim of a cocktail glass. Stone crabs, Whitewater clams on the half-shell, and Kumamoto oysters are also sold individually, making it convenient to assemble your own personalized shellfish platter.
Most of the seven appetizers offered are also based on seafood, as you might expect from a place called Atlantic. One of our favorites was a crabcake complemented by sweet, buttery carrot sauce, the cake so filler-less it was hard to see how the plump clumps of lump crabmeat could hold together. A spicier start comes via a stimulatingly potent gazpacho, chunky with tomatoes and cucumbers, the tender lobster meat floating on top akin to the prize in a box of Cracker Jacks -- nice bonus, but not integral to enjoying the snack at hand.
An appetizer of duck confit exemplifies chef Schwartz's direct and classic take on cooking, the duck skin crackly, the meat juicy, cherry sauce so tasty I had to sop every last drop with slices of seven-grain bread that, incidentally, is addictively delicious. Completing the plate was a cool couscous salad spiked with tart grapefruit, deeply sweet amarene cherries, and fresh mint.
Similarly sensible sensibilities were showcased in an entrée of black grouper peppered with paprika and grilled to a succulent state. The mild white flakes of fish brightened with thin lemon aioli poured from a petite porcelain pitcher on the side. The aioli is also meant to be drizzled over the accompanying vegetable, Brussels sprouts pan-roasted with meaty nubs of pancetta.
Another local fish, yellowtail snapper, was likewise adeptly grilled, and served on a bed of "Italian couscous." Also known as "Israeli couscous," the soft, pearl-size pellets of semolina were tarted up with slivers of preserved lemon and green cerignola olives, and sweetly undercut by red peppers and roasted tomato compote. Darkly crusted leg of lamb was texturally more like steak than roast, but the assertively seasoned, ruby-red slices of meat were nonetheless imbued with a robust lamb flavor, and harmoniously paired with homemade mint jelly and thin shavings of grilled onion tossed with vinegar and parsley. Impeccably executed, as were all main courses except an overly salty brisket of beef sided by extremely consoling mashed potatoes -- creamy, buttery, and smooth.
Desserts will satisfy those with moderate postdinner expectations. A circle of lemony, almost mousselike ricotta cheesecake pleased with cubes of poached pears and a shredded wheat crust, but I thought the warm, intensely bittersweet "chocolate pudding pie" with vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream provided a more strongly appealing taste with which to end the meal.
While Schwartz's cuisine sails merrily along, the rest of Atlantic has trouble staying afloat. The dining room is as handsomely nautical as ever, swathed in calming ocean-blue tones with white wood paneling, wicker seats, and floor-to-ceiling windows that afford a romantic Atlantic Ocean view. It's altogether a very comfortable space, but emanates about as much personality as a Ralph Lauren furniture showroom (Lauren designed the hotel's interiors). Nemo it is not.
The peculiar lifelessness that pervades the restaurant can be partly attributed to a paucity of diners, but there also seems to be little interest on the part of management in making the dining experience special. A stultifying lack of imagination is reflected in everything from regulation salt and pepper shakers that you'd encounter at a diner, to chintzy votive candles of the type sold ten for a dollar at Walgreens, to preprogrammed jazz music that descends from ceiling speakers like magical sleep dust. Name tags hanging from the staff members' necks are another tacky touch, and, worse, made me feel like I was attending a Rotary Club function.
Service was likewise lackluster, specials enunciated with all the enthusiasm of someone reciting names of dead soldiers at a war memorial. On one occasion the room was practically empty, which afforded waiter, busboy, and manager time to quickly check in at our table and ask if everything was all right; they left just as rapidly, none noticing that our water glasses needed refilling, nor waiting around long enough for us to point it out. Dining establishments that bring in a big-name chef usually accompany the move with a new focus on other details. That hasn't happened here.
What has happened is that Michael Schwartz's cooking is leagues above what Atlantic had before -- consistently fresh and tasty, nicely priced (entrées run in the $20s), and paired with affable, affordable, mostly Northern California wines. It's true there are no new culinary territories explored on this menu, but perhaps Schwartz wants to make sure his entire ship is in tiptop shape before heading out toward more ambitious gastronomic journeys. It's evident he'll need some help from higher-ups in command toward achieving that end. If he gets it, I'll be back on board.
POSTSCRIPT: He's not going to get it -- upon our going to press with this review, Michael Schwartz left Atlantic. So regarding the question posed earlier as to whether one of the most ebullient chefs around could find contentment in a hotel environment -- well, at least not in this one.
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