Second Coming

For starters I was not looking forward to dining at Bice. The new Italian restaurant in the Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove replaced one of my favorite eateries, the Grand Cafe, where I'd enjoyed chef Pascal Oudin's Old World French technique practiced on New World ingredients. And in a city already teeming with pasta palaces, do we really need another?

For another thing Bice is an international chain run by the Ruggieri family, who opened the original restaurant in Milan in 1926, and now maintain outposts from Chicago to Istanbul. To the uninitiated it might sound like the Chart House of Italian fare. On principle I seemed predestined to dislike the place.

Then there's the matter of my most recent Bice experience, which occurred when the restaurant did business briefly on South Beach from late 1995 to early 1996. Customers and critics alike panned the place for its cold and soggy fare. Even Geoffrey Tomb, formerly a food writer at the Herald, gave Bice a lousy review, which means he called it "good."

Three years later Bice has clearly taken all those bad notices to heart. With a fresh look, a talented chef, and attentive waiters, Bice at the Grand Bay has quickly attracted big crowds, no doubt in part because Grove professionals are thrilled to eat somewhere other than the area's numerous theme restaurants and fast-food joints. More than that, though, Bice, which opened late this past year, is as refreshingly accomplished as its previous incarnation was disappointingly amateurish.

Some of its popularity is likely attributable to the renovation the space underwent. Now the Grand Cafe was certainly lovely -- multitiered and carpeted -- but it was muted, exactly what you think a hotel dining room should look like. The new Bice challenges that notion with polished cherry-wood and white-pine striped floors, generously spaced tables, bouncy banquettes, and a colorful mural in the bar area. The only decorative item left over from the Grand Cafe is a giant centerpiece of flowers, which is so overwhelmingly fragrant that it might make more sense to place it in one of the rest rooms.

The staff at the Grove Bice is considerably better trained than the one that "worked" in the place on South Beach. Back there the host lost reservations, the busboys crashed into one another like bumper cars, and the waiters ignored requests. Nobody seemed to care that diners weren't being treated properly. Now when something goes wrong, the staff, under the direction of maitre d' and general manager Daniele Mastagni, tries to make amends. For example during a recent visit my party sat for twenty minutes with our menus closed before someone came to take our orders. Instead of feigning ignorance, however -- what, you mean you didn't just sit down? -- our server apologized by giving us a dessert on the house: a splendid ricotta cheesecake with strawberries that failed only in that it sported a mere two berries. Hey, that's an eight-dollar value.

But responsibility for the bulk of Bice's vast improvement goes to chef Antonello Fornasari. (He can't take credit, though, for Oudin's sumptuous she-crab soup, fragrant with shellfish, a holdover from the Grand Cafe menu.) As for the Italian dishes, I remembered several, some with slight alterations, from the old Bice; that sent up a red flag. But Fornasari can give himself a pat on the back for superb execution. I sampled one pasta entree I had disliked at the SoBe Bice: hand-rolled ravioli della massaia con funghi e rosmarino. Three years ago I found the minced veal-and-spinach ravioli in a mushroom-rosemary sauce way too salty. The current version's six plump pockets were moistened by a rich, complementary demi-glace, while the meaty, sauteed mushrooms added earthy notes, counteracting the flowery rosemary. Another hand-rolled pasta, cavatelli, was also excellent, the ricotta-based noodles entwined with diced zucchini and a sauce of chopped tomato. Fresh basil perfumed the dish, which we shared as a starter but couldn't finish.

It may be difficult to pass over the pasta starters, including ricotta-arugula canneloni au gratin, but more than a dozen antipasti beckon. Some of the salads are pleasantly light -- fresh baby greens with oil and vinegar, for one, and a very proper beef carpaccio garnished with baby arugula and heart of palm. Others vary from simple to extravagant: Traditional caesar salad gets a lift from lobster ($18), and avocados and William pears are enhanced by stone-crab meat ($16). We went with a sedate Amish chicken salad composed of thin-sliced chicken breast with asparagus, marinated tomato, and mozzarella. The asparagus spears were exquisitely fresh, the poultry supple, and the cheese moist, but overall we thought the combination bland. Even the tangy tomatoes couldn't liven up the dish. Tuna tartare was a distinct improvement. Chunks of sushi-quality fish were tossed with a mango-ginger vinaigrette, then molded into a loose patty. Cucumber and marinated red onion -- a veritable skyscraper of produce -- sat atop the tuna, with a light, crisp cracker perched at the peak of this culinary architecture. A little difficult to dismantle, but worth it.

The Amish chicken (raised without electricity) reappears as a main course roasted, with baby onions, and the menu features several other regional specialties, including North Atlantic salmon grilled with portobello mushrooms, Nebraska filet mignon with a Madagascar green-peppercorn sauce, and veal chop Milanese with arugula and cherry tomatoes. We opted instead for French rack of lamb, which was thoroughly delicious. Roasted with chanterelle mushrooms and glazed in a rosemary sauce similar to the one napping the ravioli, the double-cut chops were full of musky bite.

Zuppa di pesce, Tuscan fish soup, was the only real misstep among the main courses. Although the entree-size soup overflowed with seafood (snapper, monkfish, sea scallops, shrimp, mussels, clams, and half a Maine lobster), it was just a wee bit overcooked. And its saffron-tomato-based broth was as salty as if it had been made with seawater.

As befits a hotel restaurant, the wine list is a veritable book of international vintages, which range wildly in price. The staff is happy to make a recommendation based on how much you want to spend, including after-dinner port by the glass. (The bar is elegant and well-stocked.) I stuck with a foamy cappuccino, however, and its caffeine jolt made me think of the energy that pulses through the new Bice: strong, consistent, and even a little bit thrilling.

Bice (in the Grand Bay Hotel)
2669 S Bayshore Dr, Coconut Grove; 305-860-0960. Breakfast daily from 7:00 a.m. till 11:00 a.m. Lunch from 11:30 a.m. till 3:00 p.m. Dinner from 6:00 till 11:00 p.m.

Tuna tartare $14.00
Cavatelli $13.00
Veal and spinach ravioli $17.00
French rack of lamb $28.00
Zuppa di pesce $28.



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