Resplendent in polished wood, Italian marble floors, Biedermeier furnishings, and silk damask drapery, the 126-seat Bizcaya restaurant exudes the classic Ritz-Carlton refinement, comfort, and taste. The space is divided into two similarly decorated dining rooms, though the one closest to the entrance has prettier salt and pepper shakers, and votive candles on the tables are veiled with faux stained-glass shades instead of plunked into plain glass bowls. All in all, the first room offers a more intimate environment, though maybe it just seemed that way because people were actually dining there. We were seated in the second, empty room at the table closest to a set of glass doors leading to the outdoor dining patio -- setting for one of the finest Sunday brunches in town.
Bizcaya opened at the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove in September 2001, and under the accomplished stewardship of skillful chef Willis Loughhead, it soon became a highly touted hotel-dining destination. When Loughhead headed to New York in mid-2004, Alfredo Patiño took over the helm. A couple of Loughhead's creations still grace the menu, and the style of cooking remains in the same realm: clean, high-concept, contemporary Continental cuisine. Nowadays, however, the concepts aren't quite as lofty, nor is the food as seasonally focused. I'm not saying the menu ignores the calendar entirely, but it might be noted that stone-crab ravioli are accompanied by "summer vegetables," a veal chop with "fall vegetables." Perhaps they're saving their line of early-spring produce for winter.
So we're sitting alone in the posh parlor setting, a guitarist strumming soothing music in the background as we munch on signature pretzel rolls. Our appetizers (duck breast, sea scallops, gazpacho) are being placed before us --
Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, 3300 SW 27th Ave
305-644-4675. Open daily for breakfast 7:00 to 11:00 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., dinner 6:30 to 11:00 p.m. Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Wait a second, a five-tiered, stainless-steel cart has just rattled through the glass doors, filled with foods and other debris from some outdoor buffet, and the stacks of dirty plates are making a racket as the trolley chugs along about twelve feet from our table.
As I was saying, the starters: A thin orange gastrique kicks in sweet and puckery notes to an otherwise ordinary duck breast, which is sandwiched between sautéed leeks underneath and a light frizzle of fried leeks on top. (Perhaps it's just as well there's no sign of the "wilted" leeks billed on the menu; they didn't sound particularly fetching.) The scallop appetizer provides more highs and lows, skinny discs of the shellfish pairing with a patty of fried polenta and spiked with lively lemon-truffle vinaigrette. The presentation dazzles as well, black fungi shavings starkly contrasting with fragile white cilantro flowers that resemble Queen Anne's Lace. Gazpacho Andaluz is likewise delicate, a refined red purée drizzled with olive oil and centered by a chilled cluster of chive-speckled lump crabmeat, though those lumps are chopped too fine to live up to their sumptuously plump name. The soup's balance of flavors is also tilted too much toward tomato --
Hold on, the next gravy train is rumbling by us.
The menu encompasses two soups ($10 to $12); two salads (citrus lobster and blackened tuna niçoise, both $16); five appetizers ($14 to $22) -- CRASH! (don't worry, just a couple of glasses) -- a half-dozen entrées ($26 to $42); plus an à la carte selection of meats and seafoods ($20 to $38) straightforwardly cooked and served with of one of nine sauces, including horseradish cream, demi-glace, chimichurri, hollandaise, Maytag blue cheese, and lobster nage. We try the last with roasted black grouper, the thin, buttery shellfish broth a simple but effective partner for the firmly fleshed fish. A fatty béarnaise works even better in countering the lean grouper, and contributes a lemony, tarragon-licorice lift.
The unmistakable aroma of dirty laundry fills the air as the linen cart rolls past.
A restaurant manager approaches our table and offers a short, sincere apology for the disturbances. We sort of expect him to solve the problem by moving us to one of the hundred or so empty, more fortunately situated seats. Maybe, if he can pretend he's in charge at the legendary, service-oriented Ritz-Carlton, he'll even offer us a glass of wine or, later on, a complimentary dessert or postdinner drink. Instead, looking a bit embarrassed, he turns and walks away. A wagon filled with clean equipment clatters by, this time in the opposite direction; it appears they're setting up a buffet for tomorrow.
Beef tenderloin arrives properly grilled and minimally seasoned, capped with buttery parmesan crust and aptly accompanied by green Chinese long beans, sliced fingerling potatoes, and demi-glace sticky with the marrow of rich, homemade stock. Spanish-style lobster and seafood "cazuela" brings an herby tomato/seafood broth brimming with brawny Pacific prawns, poached Maine lobster tail, chubby sea scallop (with fibrous connective tissue inappropriately left attached), slices of chorizo, and unshelled mussels and white-water clams sticking out. Measly squirts of saffron aioli across a wide, wispy slice of grilled bread is a lame substitute for croutons slathered in spicy, garlicky, bright-yellow rouille.
No vegetable or starch comes with the cazuela or sauce-your-own-entrées, but you're welcome to tack on any of a number of sides for six to eight dollars apiece. Most interesting on the list are polenta fries with a fondue of tomato sauce and melted cheese, and cheddar truffle mashed potatoes, the mild cheese infusion matching unexpectedly well with the earthy truffle oil.
The guitarist has packed up and there is no recorded music playing. But it's not as if we entered the restaurant just before closing; we arrived at ten o'clock (Friday night), and the kitchen serves until eleven. I should say the kitchen serves v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, for there are lengthy gaps between courses.
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Notwithstanding the distractions, service is polite but unpolished, what you might hope to find on a good night at the Marriott. At the Ritz-Carlton you expect servers to know not to cross over a diner's plate when replacing flatware, and for table linens to be swept of crumbs (and to be of proper size, since some cloths bunched on the floor at all four points).
The description of the peanut-butter cup dessert as "brownies, bananas, peanuts, and peanut-butter ice cream" promises more than it delivers -- a chocolate cylinder of extremely modest proportions filled with peanut-studded chocolate cake possessing neither the density nor moistness of a brownie. Sugar-coated banana slices emanate from the cylinder like flower petals, glazed but not colored in what appears to be a pale attempt at caramelization; a small ball of luscious peanut-butter ice cream beckons on the side. This is what Bizcaya considers a $12 dessert? Sweet-potato pie is better (and a relative bargain at eight dollars), a brùlée blanket of airy marshmallow fluff draped over a rectangle of nutmeg-flecked filling. The graham-cracker crust is soggy to the point of texturally melding into the sweet potato, and "chocolate rosemary sauce" tastes like regular old chocolate syrup, but a bonus medley of diced sweet potato and chocolate cake (with rosemary sprig protruding upward) helps compensate for --
Jeez, they've turned the lights up really bright. Looks like they're keeping them that way. Guess we'll skip coffee.