Atrio restaurant sits off the 25th-floor Sky Lobby of the new Conrad Miami hotel, located in the Espirito Santo Plaza high-rise, that indented glass monolith on Brickell Avenue. Conrad is Hilton's upscale line of hotels; the pedigreed corporate surname is conspicuously absent from the premises. Atrio's décor reflects the sleeker, boutique-ier nature of the Conrad brand, the 80-seat room clean-lined and resplendent in rust and earth tones. The furniture and appointments are all chic, elegant, and of undeniable quality; organic sounds of cascading water emanate from a fountained wall that serves as a partial barrier between restaurant and Sky Lobby. Because the restaurant opens up into that lobby, it feels more like a gorgeous hotel lounge than high-end dining establishment. Of course, if you look toward the opposite side of the space, and out the lofty floor-to-ceiling windows, you'll be privy to a hypnotic vista of Miami's night lights glittering below.
Tableware twinkles, too -- shiny, stylish sterling flatware, spotless Riedel wine glasses, dazzling place settings, modernistic brushed-metal salt shaker and pepper grinder. Curious, then, that some of the tablecloths were crookedly set and as wrinkled as a linen suit after an overnight flight. This was the first hint that some things at Atrio might be slightly askew.
Chef Roger Ruch formerly impressed at 1220 at the Tides; his brand of clearly defined, worldly-wise American cuisine was inventive but practical, meaning it was fancy but tasted good. At Atrio Mr. Ruch spins mostly Mediterranean and Asian influences into his contemporary cooking, but misguided conceptions and unfocused preparations yield dizzyingly dissatisfying results. Tomato-watermelon gazpacho might have offered a provocatively different take on the classic soup, had the base contained tomato juice, pepper, cucumber, or even the "roasted corn salsa" mentioned in the menu description. As it turned out, a liquid that tasted like straight watermelon purée, flecked with a few specks of finely diced tomatoes, was poured tableside into a Dada-esque white plastic bowl with three Belgian endive leaves protruding outward, a spiced pecan nestled at the base of each, a sprinkling of Spanish goat cheese on top. A scoop of lime sorbet might have made this a refreshing dessert, but it was too sweet and one-dimensional to succeed as a starter.
Conrad Miami, Espirito Santo Plaza, 1395 Brickell Ave, Miami
305-503-6529. Open seven days for breakfast 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Beef carpaccio attempted another unfortunate twist on tradition. Instead of garnishing the thin slices of tender, smoky tenderloin with olive oil, cracked black pepper, and parmigiano shavings, this rendition was inexplicably adorned with an iced wedge of pear, blackberry, and a puff-pastry tartlet filled with gorgonzola cheese. Different, yes, but ....
The foie gras treatment was unique as well, a small, plump piece of juicily seared goose liver topped with two petite strips of pork meat stripped from ribs and glistening with sweet-tart tamarind glaze. Not bad, but it would have been more compelling had the brioche crouton been dusted with cinnamon as the menu implied, and even more so had an also-promised splash of white truffle oil actually been applied -- for $21 you'd think the waiter would come over and peel a few fresh white truffle shavings onto the dish. Come to think of it, would truffles and tamarind even combine well?
The dining room is dimly lit, and the ambitiously global wine list (with no bargains to be found) was written in petite lettering. When we asked for a reading light, the waiter brought over a candle the size of a small spaceship. We ordered a pricey, spicy Chilean cabernet, but had to pour most of it ourselves. Having a waiter attend to the bottle is a small gesture, but expected in a fine-dining establishment. Service here has a way to go.
Half the entrées are piquant and sensuous, the other half robust and savory. These aren't my adjectives but the way main courses are categorized on the menu. The former grouping features giant prawns in golden pepper miso broth, grilled mahi mahi in bell pepper miso broth, and a crisply seared square of wild salmon atop black "beluga" lentils, both melding smoothly with a coarsely puréed sweet green-pea sauce. An entrée of "oven roasted organic vegetables" was impressive in the spectrum of green produce provided: snow peas, haricots verts, asparagus, and broccoli rabe, all brightly prepared (if not exactly oven-roasted). A smattering of roasted mushroom caps and fingerling potatoes didn't add much, and the advertised "balsamic syrup, cilantro lime mojo, and sun-dried tomato pesto" turned out to be a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar, sugary mint-lime mojo, and mushy pulp of roast tomato -- neither piquant nor sensuous.
Pancetta-wrapped pork tenderloin and five-spice duck breast, in contrast, were indeed robust and savory. The pork came pooled in a deep demi-glace with mildly acidic hints of sherry. Thick snippets of succulent asparagus spears and sweet dried figs surrounded the meat, all of which would have worked out well had the tenderloin been a tender loin, not a tough, overcooked clod of pork. It might have been moister had the waiter asked how we wanted it cooked.
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He didn't ask how I'd like the duck breast cooked either, and though the fanned slices came more well-done than I'd have requested, at least the meat was soft and imbued with exotic five-spice flavor. A small lollipopped leg and hacked piece of thigh were allegedly prepared via a "ginger confit" treatment, but they tasted as though they were forgotten in the deep fryer for a very long time. Duck chitlins, anyone? Softly whipped mashed potatoes, smartly infused with vanilla, played nicely against the five-spice aromatics, as did a sweet-and-sour kumquat chutney.
Lady apple carpaccio with toasted cumin tapioca provided more promising words and disappointing results. The carpaccio slices were attractive mosaics of whole and puréed apples with a concise cinnamon kick, but mushily textured, like paper-thin discs of mashed potatoes. The smidgen of tapioca was dry but otherwise harmless; I took the small scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream on top to be a consolation of sorts.
Another fussily arranged dessert featured various cocoa-based components like dark "chocolate bark" shavings that held delicious little scoops of dark chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream, and "chocolate glass," which I think was the syrup on the plate. There was also a grainy chocolate fondant with mint crisp and fresh raspberries, and a chocolate swizzle stick with a teeny gold-leaf pennant on top that sparkled like those city lights beckoning from the windows.
The vivacious view is a given at Atrio, but prospects for a scintillating dining experience are, at the moment, dim.