Scott Conant's Corsair: Scarpetta's Solemn Sibling
The trendy Fontainebleau Miami Beach, a onetime Frank Sinatra haunt, is the raucous pinnacle of Miami nightlife. Eight miles north, at the tip of Miami-Dade County, is Turnberry Isle, a more family-oriented yet no less extravagant resort.
They share several things. Both are owned by the Soffer family, Dade County nobility once mired in financial problems that trace to the iconic Fontainebleau's $1 billion revamp. Most obvious to visitors, though, is that both boast restaurants by Michael Mina and Scott Conant, two of the nation's best-known chefs. They have brought an unmatched air of culinary panache to the ritzy properties.
The Fontainebleau's roster of eateries includes Scarpetta, an Italian restaurant opened by Conant in 2008. Mina's eponymous restaurant, Michael Mina 74, opened at the same hotel in December 2013 with dishes such as a $95 lobster potpie. It was followed by his latest effort, StripSteak, which began operating in November 2014. At Turnberry, Mina's Bourbon Steak opened in late 2007.
The latest is Conant's Corsair, which opened at Turnberry in late December. It's named for the privateers who centuries ago scoured the Caribbean, plundering at the behest of European empires. Here the chef is looking to expand his range beyond the skillfully executed Italian fare -- like a luscious $24 bowl of spaghetti in a velvety pomodoro sauce -- that secured his bona fides. "It's important to open myself up to new things," he says.
Corsair aspires to offer a survey of Mediterranean fare that hails from the broad expanse from Spain to Turkey, where Conant's wife was raised and the couple has a home. The new place is Scarpetta's low-key sibling: The service is sharp and attentive, the prices are steep, and the pasta is what you'll return for.
Conant says the 217-seat dining room is inspired by the Maine farm where his father was raised. The homey entrance is bathed in cool light and lined with black-and-white tiles and tufted leather banquettes. An opposing wall is stacked with shelves bearing cookbooks, along with a litany of small vases and bowls you might find nearby in a pricey oceanfront condo. Past a marble-and-wood bar, the dining room is awash in cool grays and blues. It's wrapped in natural, unstained wood reminiscent of a sailboat's teak. Beige leather chairs join more black banquettes around tables illuminated by bubbles of light that glow in recessed ceilings.
Despite Corsair's billing as more casual than Scarpetta, you'd be uncomfortable wearing shorts and sneakers here in the evening. A brief one-page menu broken into just three sections -- appetizers, pastas, and entrées -- indicates this is more than a convivial Southern European bistro.
Though a number of proteins are offered both here and at Scarpetta, Conant blurs his Italian framing from the get-go with a butter-soft octopus tentacle and a small plate of intensely fragrant clams and chorizo.
The former is poached in olive oil for a few hours before it's sliced and grilled when ordered.
It rests on an inky bed of steaming clams and mussels. Their juices are preserved and then mixed with squid ink, extra-virgin olive oil, and garlic. The briny mixture is reduced to a near-syrupy consistency and then combined with fregola, a Sardinian pasta similar to Israeli couscous, and the bivalves that started it all.
For the latter, tiny White Water clams look disappointing on the plate but turn out to be sweet, juicy bursts of the sea. The small pops of house-made chorizo are similar to a simple sausage. But a ruddy smoked paprika oil pooling at the bottom of the plate leeches its way into a crisp slice of bread and adds Spain's intoxicating spice and fragrance. It's one of the city's best iterations of seafood and sausage.
Conant's pastas are also among the best. A half-dozen varieties were offered during two recent visits. That number may fluctuate. Tagliolini, a narrower version of tagliatelle, arrives toothsome and twirled into a cone crowned with grassy, verdant pea shoots. Their gently bitter flavor foils a rich, almost-sticky pan sauce made with chicken stock and Parmesan cheese. There's a touch of sweetness and depth from the thyme and shallots used to sauté the veal sweetbreads. Most places just barely cook the thymus glands to take advantage of their creamy texture. Conant opts for a long, hard sear all the way through, revealing meaty packets that retain a touch of their pleasant mustiness.
Just as powerful is the rich lamb ragu, reminiscent of an Italian Sunday gravy, with spears of cavatelli made of fresh ricotta and 00 flour. What makes Conant's pastas great is constant trial and error. With restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, and Miami, the chef must cope with vastly different climates that can have a severe impact on the final product.
"Let's say you're storing flour at room temperature in Miami," he says. "There's clearly humidity here, so a cup of that flour is going to absorb water and weigh more than it would in Las Vegas."
Such details also prevail in a handful of entrées. Duck breasts are "hot-brined" using a technique that awaits many birds in Hong Kong. The ruby-red meat is stashed in a refrigerator for three days and doused in a blend of aged balsamic vinegar, salt, sugar, and garlic. What results is a crisp skin that's a touch bittersweet and pairs well with the rich meat.
With Corsair, Conant again shows why he's among the city's best pasta makers. He also hints at what else is up his sleeve. Still, the menu is too similar to Scarpetta's. The allure of that restaurant, with its perfect pastas and location inside the equally iconic and gaudy Fontainebleau, can be hard to resist.
The question is, what kind of night do you want? Sweetbreads followed by a good book and bed, or spaghetti followed by cocktails and a night of hard partying?
- Grilled octopus $19
- Roasted clams with chorizo $18
- Ricotta cavatelli $25
- Tagliolini $25
- Balsamic lacquered duck $32
- Olive oil-poached tuna $31
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