Rotisserie Chic

The heat's abating, the rain's slackening. The daunting subtropical summer is undeniably drawing to a close. So why aren't more South Beach natives relaxing on their front porches, enjoying the cooler night air? Why are so many people still partying desperately in bars and restaurants that are kept as cold as champagne? Perhaps their behavior has nothing to do with the departing weather and everything to do with the upcoming season.

Despite the recent tragic wave of crime against tourists and the international outcry that accompanied it, this winter promises to be the Beach's biggest boom yet. National attention is focused more intensely than ever on the "American Riviera": feature films and television series are taking art deco for a dramatic backdrop, celebrities are opening nightclubs and restaurants, and the models are flocking back from Milan like swallows to Capistrano.

For the district's locals, the collective mood appears to be a schizophrenic mix of anticipation and dread. The after-hours scene will no doubt be improved by the international talent wintering here; the very air will glitter with stardust. Most people won't want to miss a night of it. And judging from the past, the crowds and celebrities will prove contagious, beckoning outsiders who will claim the weekend parking spaces, the prominent tables at the latest trendy restaurants, and the premium dance space in the clubs. Trapped between the superstars and the rabble, residents at times enjoy the scene's aura, at other times simply suffer.

If you live on the Beach, some advise, the way to survive season is to fully immerse yourself in it, and to regret none of it. Unfortunately, you're probably not in shape for the rigors of club-hopping and endless socializing -- even if you've made one or two trips to the Hamptons. Want to sharpen your A-list networking skills, your bored insouciance and wicked little grin before the winter begins? Practice at SoBe Bar & Rotisserie, Washington Avenue's hot new restaurant. It's the SoBe that's already in season.

Success has come quickly for the trendy eatery. When the lease was signed a year ago September, Four One One was the only appealing restaurant-bar in that then-seedy section of lower Washington Avenue. Now the Chili Pepper and Union Bar & Grill, as well as the nightclub Bash, contribute to the area. Rather than creating competition, this allows revelers to drink, dine, and dance at a variety of places, all of which serve different needs. In addition, a parking lot, free on weeknights to the Rotisserie's customers, is one of its extra attractions.

A few of the ten owner-investors share the responsibility of running the restaurant. The most famous is actor Ed Marinaro, known for his roles in Hill Street Blues and the current drama Sisters. He -- along with the rotisserie -- is the resident star.

Ture Tufvesson is the only one with real-life restaurant experience -- over two decades' worth. A veteran of the New York restaurant business, Tufvesson established Amsterdam's on the Upper West Side, along with branches in SoHo and Providence, Rhode Island. Tufvesson claims Amsterdam's is New York City's first rotisserie; he modeled SoBe after it, keeping the same menu. The Ginger Man is another successful New York-based restaurant group he started, and, thirteen years ago, he owned a Florida branch of the Ginger Man in the spot where Coconut Grove's Mayfair complex now stands.

He chose South Beach this time for two reasons. It's a walking section of the city -- when they're not hunting for parking spaces, people don't drive, thereby creating lots of foot traffic -- and it's filled with New Yorkers.

So go ahead, Manhattanites, call the SoBe Rotisserie home. The long, New York-style black bar is a familiar comfort to a mixed-ages but like-minded (read: heavy-drinking) crowd. On the evening we visited, patrons clustered in high-spirited, unmistakable groups of models, actors, and the South Beach in-crowd. Gorgeous and pouty-mouthed, the crowd's collective height was as remarkable as its look. I'd forgotten how Lilliputian high season makes me feel and the real season hasn't even started yet.

In fact, the whole space, designed by the Miami firm Arquitectonica, reminds you of a warehouse eatery common to SoHo. Wall-size mirrors, an open kitchen, and a raised dining platform add geometric depth to the room. The resulting stark elegance is softened by green woven tablecloths and linen napkins, and given humor with an oil-on-canvas bar scene painted by the artist Charlotta (which features a self-portrait as well as informal depictions of the restaurant's ten partners). In the winter, a candle-lit back room, boasting removable wall panels, is opened to the air.

Don't fear, though, that an influx of air will cool your food too rapidly. Rotisserie poultry and meat, SoBe specialties, are meant to be served room temperature. This is due in part to the style of cooking. Meat and fowl roast on timed rotating skewers, a technological advance on the spit of old. All sides are not exposed to fire at the same time; slow cooking keeps it tender.

Rotisserie cooking has its own philosophy, too. When the meat is finished to the satisfaction of the chef, it's removed from the heat even if it's not to be served right away. This method prevents an overcooked meal but precludes a hot one. A topping, however, adds warmth as well as flavor to rotisserie foods, especially to chicken. SoBe offers two plates of poultry, one with an herb sauce and one with a sauce of the day. On a recent Friday evening, I tried a half-chicken covered with a delightful white and black bean sauce. Chunks of onion and smoky bacon increased the intensity of the sauce, which had taken on the grainy richness of a bean soup. The chicken was plump, juicy, and amenable to a fork (no knife required). Small, fried "new potatoes" and a sweet, tangy shoestring-cut cucumber salad completed the plate.

A roast of the day is always available and always varied. Duck, lamb, and pork are among the basic meats -- what goes on top is left to the discretion of Executive Chef Alex La Bouwit, formerly of the Colony Bistro. Though Tufvesson is responsible for the original menu of such rotisserie foods, as well as the pastas and grilled meats, La Bouwit shows his hand with a lovely international influence that often enhances fish. For example, a grilled tuna appetizer arrived rare and juicy, slathered with enoki mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and capers on butter lettuce with a light dash of lemon juice and olive oil. The thick fillet was large enough for an entree and expertly cooked.

Fish can also be cooked in the rotisserie, as was the fresh salmon. Like the tuna starter, a salmon entree exhibited enoki mushrooms in addition to tomatoes, haricot verte (green beans), and a lively sauce of black beans, shallots, and chives; like the tuna, the salmon also was wonderful, roasted to an exquisite tenderness. Though the fillet was slightly fishy, the intense flavor of the sauce more than compensated for that.

A fish of the day entree, Alaskan halibut with an orange glaze, failed to achieve the same quality the other two had. The fillet was firmly fleshed but too dry, and I found the orange flavor bitter and distracting. This meal was grilled as opposed to rotisseried, which could account for its more arid taste. A grilled shrimp appetizer, however, seasoned with an orange flavor in the form of salsa cruda, was moist and sweet. Chipotle pepper cream laced the plate, a pretty but empty gesture, as the cream lacked snap and seemed unnecessary.

A third appetizer, spicy fried calamari with three peppers, ginger, and coriander, had been dipped in a heavy batter and deep-fried. The calamari seemed lost under soggy breading, and the combination of flavors was decidedly odd. La Bouwit tends to combine Asian, Italian, and Southwestern spices, sometimes to great effect. This time it wasn't, the fried squid not receptive to the flowery ginger and fresh, zippy coriander.

Desserts were average. Key lime pie with a raspberry compote tasted more like cheesecake, dense and rich. Seasonal berries with cream and berry puree was a beautiful martini glass of fruit, but the fruit was sour. Of course this was hardly SoBe's fault, but it did give us something to think about -- an "in season" restaurant serving "out of season" fruit. Is that a bad omen for the restaurant's future chicdom? Not likely. What Tufvesson has said about South Beach also relates to the South Beach Rotisserie -- it will "continue to bloom.


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