Since opening on the southern tip of South Beach in 1995, Nemo has consistently been rated as one of Miami's very best restaurants. Like the proprietors of many of the United States' other highly touted contemporary dining establishments (The French Laundry, Chez Panisse, Spago, et cetera), co-owners Myles Chafetz and chef Michael Schwartz forego the trappings of formality and concentrate on providing fine food and service in a subtly hip and overtly pleasurable environment. This philosophy dictates that one can enjoy delicious cuisine on a sheet of brown paper (which covers the tables at Nemo) as readily as on starched white cloth. Other rogue elements include plenty of raw metal and hollowed-out ostrich-egg lights, yet the odd parts add up to an intangibly traditional whole. In fact it's the well-trodden floor, made up of tiny white tiles with borders and patterns in black, that best exemplifies Nemo's appeal: National kudos and "destination" label aside, it exudes the ambiance of a great neighborhood restaurant.
Everything clicks: The crowd is a festive mix of locals, tourists, models, movers, shakers, Quakers, whatever. The front-of-the-house staff is strong and executes well as a team, runners and busboys providing skillful back-up work to professional, unpretentious waiters. A savvy selection of wines, culled mostly from premium boutique vintners on the West Coast, are available by the glass and matched with specific items on the menu. Foods are orchestrated by Schwartz, and desserts are made by pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith -- two of the finest. A couple of the least acknowledged sous chefs, Joann Schultz and Joe Isidori, must be pretty good too, as the meals they kick out of that kitchen exhibit consistency and confidence.
It's not just what Nemo has but what it doesn't have that makes it successful. For instance it doesn't have any distracting dance tracks thumping through speakers; mostly jazz music plays, prevalent enough to add to the atmosphere but not intrusive to conversation. Nemo also doesn't have television sets, not even over the bar; an open kitchen provides an eyeful in the main dining room, and a cool blue swimming pool visually entrances those in the backroom. Grabbing attention on the cobblestone patio are an enormous oak tree, twinkling white lights, passing pedestrians, and Shoji Sushi, Nemo's new next-door venture. And when sequestered in the intimate 33-seat dining room in between the rest, you can gaze into the eyes of the person across the table. With regard to one more thing that Nemo doesn't have, I've sent their menu to Ripley's Believe It or Not! with the suggestion it be categorized thus: "SOUTH BEACH RESTAURANT THAT DOESN'T SERVE PASTA!"
The cuisine also prospers in part by what it doesn't have. Amateurs in any profession tend toward overdoing things: The first-time film director devises gimmicky angle shots, novice novelists fling in florid flourishes that fail to forward the narrative, and the unseasoned chef sweats out squirts and frills and garish garnishes until the primary and pristine flavors of the foods are capsized by a cacophony of accompaniments. When Schwartz reaches the point at which he feels the tastes and textures of a dish create a harmonizing effect on the palate, he does something only experienced chefs dare endeavor: He stops.
The only time he stopped too soon was with bright green English pea soup centered by a radicchio cup topped with lump crab and grilled onion salad; for $13 it should have contained more soup and at any price packed more punch. I also could say there was a problem with the grilled oyster mushroom and roasted Brussels sprout salad with Maytag blue cheese and roasted red pepper vinaigrette -- on one visit they were out, on the next it was replaced on the menu altogether -- but in fact I'm just grasping at flaws. Starters were excellent, and none contained more innovatively provocative flavors than savory duck confit set in soft cauliflower mash, with sweet pear-raisin chutney, pungent wilted greens, and a spicy swirl of curry oil.
A raw bar offers the usual chilled shellfish along with nightly specials, some presented on three-tiered pedestals that elicit audible "oohs" and "aahs." We went with a more modest lobster cocktail: half a Maine crustacean on crushed ice, seaweed, and herbs. The tail section lifted right out of the shell, and a nutcracker facilitated the removal of claw meat; but because the lobster lay on ice, there was no place to cut those two sections into bite-size pieces -- the plate was just too wet. The meat was sweet and tender, though, so lobster lovers will just have to make do.
Diners also have to make do with a do-it-yourself tuna tartare, a molded disk of big eye with chili oil and quail egg on top, spokes of other fixings emanating outward: minced shallots, ground pepper and coriander, and tobiko and wasabi caviars. Mash the egg into the tuna, add the rest all at once or in increments, and scoop with buttery sweet "Maida's corn melbas." (Melba toasts are thin, crisp wafers that famed chef Escoffier created for opera singer Nellie Melba; he also named peach Melba after her. Maida's corn melbas presumably are lifted from -- I mean made in honor of -- famed pâtissier Maida Heatter.)
A main course of firm, mildly flavored halibut was hooked in Alaska; cooked in a searing pan to the proper point of succulence; and looked good over oyster, shiitake, and white mushrooms, fresh fava beans, and a thin butter-boosted sauce made from fish and fungi juices. It was topped by a pile of fried leek sticks and a splash of spicy aioli. Sea bass likewise was pan-seared, with sautéed spinach, carrots, orange-cumin sauce and nothing else -- clean presentation, clean tastes, and, in the end, a clean plate. Had no trouble finishing every bit of a red snapper fillet either, which wasn't a given in light of it being surrounded by arugula sauce, the bitterness of which has a tendency to burst bubbles of subtlety. Not this velvety version -- spiked with lobster oil, it merely added tang to the oven-dried plum tomato halves on top of the snapper and lobster-studded hash browns below.
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Seafood dishes may be the mainstay of Nemo, but meat offerings are just as distinctive. Grilled twelve-ounce Angus sirloin au poivre gets bathed in smooth peppercorn-flecked brown sauce and paired with a plate of homemade fries. What's so special about that? Nothing but the flawless quality of meat, sauce, and fries. The brand of bird used in the grilled chicken is topnotch as well (Bell & Evans, sort of the Lexus of chickens), the preparation pulled off with aplomb. The skin was crunchy and herbed with rosemary and thyme, the poultry moist, and mashed potatoes infused with roasted garlic and shallot conspired with tart black olive sauce to spin the homespun dish into something just a little more intriguing than usual.
Leg of lamb was even better (a Lamborghini by comparison), the meat chargrilled to a ruby-red center and shingled over a fried quinoa cake that resembled a veggie burger -- crunchy outside, soft interior, flavored with cilantro and star anise. Apricot-cardamom sauce swirled with green mint syrup prettied the plate and titillated the tongue, while a couple of grilled scallions served as the greens. Astute readers may have noticed that Nemo is not big on vegetables; you might want to request an order of sautéed spinach, though. The rest of the sides are starches and include signature polenta fries, six golden brown rectangular logs with garlicky tomato ketchup.
Don't leave Nemo without sampling dessert. A disk of key lime cheesecake, encircled by sunburst splashes of papaya and raspberry purées and bookended by candied kumquats, was, as you'd expect, rich and sweet but not too rich or sweet; the citrus, sugars, and cheese maintain a gleeful equilibrium. Warm chocolate pudding cake, complemented by a cup of cream and sweet amarini cherries, is one of those smoothly satisfying treats that generally is referred to as "heavenly"; it tasted like a soufflé removed from the oven before getting the chance to rise or solidify. Chocolate is a specialty of chef Goldsmith, so no surprise that warm chocolate macadamia torte also was sinfully good; with an intense rectangle of macadamia brittle and smidgen of ice cream flecked with bits of that candy, it afforded a delectable spectrum of taste, texture and temperature.
A few entrées exceed $30 (steak, sea bass, snapper) but most cost between $24 and $28; appetizers are all in the double digits. That's expensive, yet most local restaurants charge just as much or more, and Nemo is the cream of the crop.