Played to Perfection
In his recent documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, director Martin Scorsese portrays the singer as a quietly zealous man more concerned with the impact of his music on those listening than any media adoration. Executive chef of The Biltmore Hotel, Philippe Ruiz, radiates a similarly silent intensity; he seems to care more about the people eating his food than those writing about it. Philippe began his culinary tutelage at the age of fourteen and then spent years honing his craft at various Michelin Two Star restaurants in Switzerland and France before arriving at The Biltmore in 1999. He hasn't achieved icon status yet, but Ruiz is surely one of the best chefs in town.
The Biltmore is Miami's grandest hotel, and its signature restaurant, La Palme d'Or, is the finest spot for refined French dining. Ruiz's cuisine at the Palme would be akin to Dylan's electric phase: creative, distinctive, and dynamic. His work at the hotel's less recognized 1200 Restaurant consists of more simple melodies, with the emphasis on fine-tuning standard Italian staples passed from generation to generation: bruschetta, lasagna, chicken with sausages, and broccollini the culinary equivalent of folk music.
Don't picture a meager Pete Seeger in the kitchen: The flavors here are definitely plugged-in. Take the tchinas appetizer, a papery phyllo crpe rolled blintz-style around creamy ricotta flecked with coriander and sun-dried tomato, the cheese slowly flowing out like lava onto a pile of perkily dressed arugula. Caesar salad was also peppy, the whole romaine leaves bathed in a seamless cream of egg, garlic, anchovy, and cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings draped across the top. A tomato-based Tuscan-style red bean soup is robustly fortified with Italian sausage and fresh basil.
With Mediterranean tiles and a wide-open kitchen, 1200's taupe-toned dining room is breezy, relaxed, and thoroughly devoid of Biltmore grandeur. A lushly foliated, fountain-centered courtyard provides a romantic setting when the weather is right, but during our visit, a hard rain was a-fallin', so we sat indoors and, like all diners, began with thick wedges of soft, crusty, blueberry-colored olive bread, sliced baguettes, a bowl of butter balls, and Spanish olive oil. It should be noted the butter was served at room temperature, not bread-rippingly chilled. The waiters, dressed more formally than the surroundings require, saw to numerous details (including bottled water respectfully placed in ice buckets) and provided smooth, proficient service.
Eggplant Parmesan has been covered more times than "This Land Is Your Land," and although the treatment here isn't the definitive version, it more than satisfies with soft eggplant, herb-and-vegetable-laden red sauce, and Pecorino cheese bubbling hot from the wood-burning oven. Spaghetti carbonara was the classic played to perfection firm strands of homemade noodles coated with just the right balance of egg, bacon, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and studded with green peas and garlic.
À la carte meat and seafood are char-grilled or roasted (your choice) in the wood-burning oven. The fish selections encompass Florida grouper, Scottish salmon, jumbo shrimp, and a dish of five succulent sea scallops as munificent as marshmallows. They were almost as sweet, too, seared to near campfire caramelization and bursting with briny sea notes that can be harmonized with garlic butter, tartar sauce, or a tomato "pesto."
Indecision as to how I wanted my twelve-ounce New York sirloin cooked was solved by our waiter's splendid Solomonesque suggestion to have it marked and slightly flavored on the grill and then finished in the wood-burning oven. The prime meat was so tasty and tender it rendered the three offered sauces unnecessary, although the porcini sauce was so deeply intoxicating it's worth getting if only to sip on the side.
You'll probably want to accessorize your basic Tuscan-style steak or fish with à la carte vegetables or starches, portioned for two and priced at $6. We tried a side of pitch-perfect Parmesan risotto, the Arborio grains firm, creamy, and packing surprising kicks of garlic. No need to order accompaniments with the menu's specialty entrées, which are prepared in the wood oven and plated with preset sides: veal osso bucco with risotto; baby lamb chops with olive potato purée and spinach; and a fleshy white square of halibut roasted in a casserole with a Mediterranean medley of tomatoes, fennel, black olives, and fingerling potatoes. If you have some cash to splash, try a $60 bottle of David Bruce Pinot Noir from California's Sonoma County, which pairs well with just about anything. The global wine menu also features 100 selections offered by the glass.
Crème brûlée was as texturally correct as you'd expect from a classically trained French chef like Ruiz although credit should probably go to pastry chef Marcos Gonzalez. A cheese board isn't expected from any restaurant in curd-shy Miami, but 1200 serves a selection of brie, Boursin, smoked Gouda, and goat's cheese accompanied by berries and grapes and reasonably priced at $14 (incidentally all nonsteak entrées are less than $30, which isn't bad for the Biltmore). Chocolate mikado, two thin rectangles of firm chocolate mousse over crisp wafers, was like a glorified Kit Kat bar, and housemade Sambuca-flavored gelato on the side provided a sparkling last dance on the tongue. The rest of the play list encompasses familiar favorites such as tiramisu, chocolate lava cake, and key lime pie.
Granted, the songs remain the same, but this common Italian/Mediterranean fare is prepared with an uncommon finesse. So why don't more people know about the melodic Italian fork music of The 1200 Restaurant? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.
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