Prelude by Barton G. at the Arsht Center is tops
Since Barton G. the Restaurant opened on South Beach in 2002, it has generated passionate opinions. There are some who insist it offers more bravura showmanship than gastronomic substance, and others who laud its perpetual proffering of innovative products, presentations, and technologies. I belong to the latter camp, because almost all of the 50-plus restaurants I annually reviewed during Barton's first few years offered essentially interchangeable menus (within the respective genres). In terms of sheer creativity, Barton G. was to most other Miami dining establishments what the Beatles were to barbershop quartets. Prelude by Barton G., which in October debuted on the second floor of the Ziff Ballet Opera House (in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts), would be more like the Fab Four unplugged.
The electrically designed, deco-inspired supper-club décor is certainly charged. The sophisticated room features lily-pad lights floating from the ceiling, flat-screens displaying fluvially flowing jellyfish, a backlit onyx-and-glass wall, a long onyx bar, wooden booths, and fresh orchids on the tables — all cast in a soft golden glow. It's gorgeous.
Diners can share a warm, puffy pillow of crisp-crusted ciabatta bread served with softened butter while perusing the serious and extensive wine list. Prelude offers some 90 labels in three portion sizes — a sampling of 1.5 ounces, a four-ounce pour, and a six-ounce pour. This is just one of many customer-friendly measures; another is mentioning an appropriate wine pairing below each menu item. Friendliest of all is the "Diner's Decision" concept of ordering: Prior to 8 p.m., patrons assemble any three-course dinner from the menu for $39 (or any two items at lunch/brunch for $23). This can translate to starter/entrée/dessert, but a lumberjack type might skip the appetizer and go with two main courses and dessert, or someone with a sweet tooth can get an entrée and two desserts, and so forth, in any permutation (the same menu is handed out with à la carte prices after 8 p.m.; starters are $11 to $16, and all entrées go for under $20).
Here is a suggested strategy: If dining as a couple, one of you should order an extra starter or entrée in lieu of dessert, for most of the sweets are portioned to share (same rule applies to larger groups). It generally doesn't make sense to order two main courses (Do you really need to eat duck and chicken?) unless one of them is the goat cheese ravioli — which fits into the traditional idea of pasta as a first course. And do try the five sumptuous homemade pasta bundles, filled with ethereally soft cheese and tossed with asparagus tips in sweetly roasted red pepper-infused cream — even if it means having it for dessert.
Barton G. Weiss made his mark as a cutting-edge catering impresario with a flair for gargantuan dramatics balanced with a microbe-hunting attention to detail. The details remain: Glassware and cutlery here are of highest quality. Colorfully glazed, handcrafted, and hand-blown plates of all shapes and sizes are used. There are, however, no duck decoys or shrimp enshrouded in dry ice smoke, no Brobdingnagian cotton candy confections or nitrogen cocktails or coffee beans culled from animal turds. There are no pop-tarts in toasters or milk shakes in blenders; surprisingly, no kitchen appliances whatsoever were brought to the table. Prelude is practically prop-less.
That said, Weiss's whimsy is still evident in dishes such as tuna and roasted beet salad, whose latter component is presented on the plate as thin red and yellow checkerboard squares separated from four lightly seared slices of meltingly tender tuna by a row of grape tomatoes topped with microgreens and minced leeks. A "ginger syrup/jalapeño emulsion" didn't register, but the delicately delicious combo succeeded without it.
A puff of crème fraîche and a plume of tarragon primp and perfume a velvety corn chowder dotted with potatoes, snippets of chives, and salty bacon specks. Are you a two-appetizer type? The chowder would partner perfectly with a panzanella assemblage of double-smoked salmon, brown bread croutons, grape tomatoes, cucumber, celery, red onion, capers, and parsley in a pungent red wine-mustard vinaigrette.
Executive chefs Tony Dee and Justin Albertson, under the guidance of Barton's longtime head toque Ted Mendez, put on a striking show without any props. A red snapper entrée is as simply satisfying as food gets. The seared, modestly portioned fish tasted clean and light upon flawlessly cooked cubes of eggplant, fennel, zucchini, and yellow squash; all the components cohered with a sublime lemon-butter sauce. Grilled skirt steak burst with juicy flavor alongside corn, red beans, and a large roasted poblano pepper. Confit of duck leg was apparently culled from a hungry bird, but it was tasty enough atop green lentils flecked with slices of homemade garlic sausage and fully drenched in melted duck-carrot-onion flavor — though it was awfully close to the border of oversaltiness.
Prelude plugs in at dessert time, perhaps because Barton's P. T. Barnum instinct dictates that show-stopping numbers come last. Take the triple chocolate cupcake with chocolate buttercream/truffle filling, the whole coated in chocolate ganache and topped with a proverbial cherry. Or witness a chocolate chip cookie bar capped with mini marshmallows, caramel brownie bits, and glazed pecans, with a crème fraîche ice-cream pop on the side. Then there's my favorite: a generous scoop of grape jelly gelato (terrifically true in taste to the real deal) flanked by two pyramids of peanut butter mousse — one with a pink macadamia-praline glaze, the other bathed in chocolate ganache. Put 'em together onto one spoonful and it's like the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich reimagined by a French Eskimo.
A quintet of custards, presented like vibrantly colored votive candles on a convex candelabra, pleased via a wide range of flavors, from sweet coconut-mango to subtle pistachio to sultry-smooth coffee. Still, it seemed a bit subdued compared to the other, more theatrical desserts.
Service is personable, professional, and swift — important if you are eating before a show. The menu contains caveats you don't often see, such as "Expect the dining experience to take about 90 minutes" and "Patrons seated after 6:15 will not make 8 p.m. curtain; for 7:30 performances, patrons seated after 5:30 will not make curtain" and "Diners arriving more than ten minutes after their reservation will not be guaranteed seating." Most patrons prepay for their prix fixe dinner, a smart way to get from dining room seat to theater seat quickly.
Prelude is open to nontheatergoers as well, but when I visited, virtually everyone left their seats almost in unison to catch the 8 p.m. showing of 101 Dalmatians. One minute the room was packed to the gills, the next we were the only ones left. The waiter eyed us somewhat suspiciously. "We're cat people," I explained.
Next stage for Mr. Weiss: The Villa by Barton G. in Casa Casuarina. Opening night is slated for sometime next month, even as applause for Prelude's first act still rings.
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