South Beach's Wish Restaurant
A decade ago this month, chef Gary Robins inaugurated Wish Restaurant in The Hotel with a brash and brilliant haute vegetarian menu. The public didn't bite; Robins went on to achieve fame and acclaim in New York City. Andrea Curto took over the South Beach spot, made Wish come true, and successfully springboarded to Talula. Next in line was E. Michael Reidt and then Michael Bloise; both gained national notice for cool, cutting-edge cuisine — although when New Times visited Wish in August 2007, we found it to be either resting on laurels or suffering from summer doldrums. Bloise left a few months later, and this past summer, Marco Ferraro became the restaurant's fifth chef.
The 29-year-old's resumé is as enviable as those of his predecessors. Ferraro was born in Italy and tutored at the French Culinary Institute in New York. He trained at Michelin two-star Le Muscandin in Mougins, and followed up with two years at Vongerichten's Jean-Georges in New York. In pre-opening promotions, Ferraro bandied about words such as simple, pure, seasonal, local, and light. It sounded very Vongerichtenesque, so we anticipated pristine pools of pulsating fruit and vegetable essences. Not quite.
The magical ambiance hasn't changed. Dining in the canopied garden patio is so idyllic it summons to mind a Renoir picnic (indoor tables are mostly used as backup for rainy evenings). A mosaic fountain with flickering lights centers the 130-seat space, which is also illuminated by string lights laced through foliage, twinkling candles, and blinking electric ice cubes in the cocktails. Unfortunately we were seated on the upper level of the outdoor area, at arguably the least desirable table in the house. Our view on one side was of a bush that practically leaned against us; the opposite vista opened up to a short stairway busy with workers streaming back and forth into the lobby and kitchen. In short, we ended up with a realist depiction of Wish, as opposed to experiencing the more intimate impressionist perspective below.
Worse, it happened because the restaurant fudged our reservation. We called; gave the name, time, number in party, and contact number; and then repeated the name and time just for good measure. When we arrived, there was no record of our call. At that point, though plenty of prime seats were still available, we were banished to the spot evidently saved for hapless walk-ins.
Diners are started with an amuse bouché, on one occasion comprising two teeny, delicate smoked salmon gnocchi in a zingy mustard sauce. On its heels came a basket brimming with Parmesan-crusted bread, olive bread, and focaccia, plus a ramekin of black bean spread smoothed with avocado and spiked with cilantro and ginger. This is what the old Wish served. In fact, although menu items have changed, the fare remains contemporary American with Mediterranean and Asian influences, and the format is still a concise collection of six appetizers, 10 entrées, and a smattering of salads and sides.
Some dishes come closer than others to Ferraro's stated ideal. None was better than a starter of lobster ravioli: three al dente homemade pasta pockets stuffed with nuggets of Maine crustacean and lifted to wow status by skinny coins of pickled radish, pastel puddles of pure green pea purée, and an assertive citrus-sparked yuzu foam.
The other knock-your-socks-off moment came by way of a shiny snow-white cauliflower purée that possessed the astounding consistency of butter at its softest solid state — and emanated the absolute purity of the vegetable. A streak of it glistened alongside a lightly grilled swordfish steak that was small in circumference but nearly two inches thick — and cooked to perfection. Steamed white, yellow, and purple cauliflower florets accompanied the fish, as did bulbs of bok choy and a savorily herbed sauté of crimini mushrooms.
Calamari rings and two each of tiger shrimp, mussels, and cockles get sealed in a mason jar along with gentle, wine-accented, shallot-laden poaching broth and then poured at the table into a bowl filled with a mound of sumptuously soft white polenta. Dabs of tomato added a bit of color to the appetizer, but the one-dimensional broth sustained interest for only a few spoonfuls. We cared even less for three measly, juiceless strips of grilled deckle steak (the cap covering the shoulder end of a prime rib) half-buried under a blizzard of frizzled onions and sided by two wedges of avocado tempura. A small salad of charred green and yellow wax beans with ripe heirloom plum tomatoes was simple, pure, seasonal, local, and light.
An entrée of three enormously thick diver scallops enticed with fingerling potatoes, a few strands of spicy-sweet piquillo peppers, and an uneventful whisper of horseradish foam. Missing were artichokes that were to chaperone the spuds, and a Serrano ham crust on the scallops — although it is possible the bivalves' desiccated crumb toppings might actually have been the multiprocessed byproduct of a pig from Serrano. If so, what a waste of great ham.
A hefty Kurobuta pork chop was moist and flavorful, if not as tender as one might expect from this well-marbled Berkshire breed. A pairing parsley sauce, thankfully splashed on the side, tasted of watercress and bitterly overpowered the meat. Strips of garlicky peperonata (roasted red peppers stewed with onions and potato) proved a more palatable partner, but a "stuffed" baby eggplant exuded mostly breading. The chop (and the deckle) arrived on the medium side of medium-rare; the waiter neglected to ask what doneness we preferred. Service was otherwise solid, though waiters are not especially smooth in their tableside manners.
Their recommendations weren't always reliable, either. One server ecstatically touted a side order of truffled mac and cheese, describing it as a creamy "fondue" of Manchego, Fontina, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and blue cheese flecked with black truffle shavings. What arrived was horn-shaped cornetti pasta coated in mild white cheese sauce perfumed with truffle oil. It was tasty enough, but more distinctive in price ($12) than flavor.
A new rule of thumb: Never order French toast for dessert. Our waiter's overly imaginative depiction was an alluring abstraction of the flimsy, somewhat burned triangle of egg-soaked, pan-fried, Grand Marnier-splashed brioche that showed up. Just the sight of it pricked our expectations like a pin in a balloon. A generous portion of diced fruit salad on the plate was fresh, varied, and capped with a cool quenelle of crème fraîche. If they'd bill this as fruit salad and toss in the toast as a surprise garnish, diners would likely be less disappointed.
Vanilla pot de crème was not nearly as texturally tender as the cauliflower purée, or even as that of a typical pot de crème. Fresh orange slices on top couldn't rescue it, and potent crackles of pink peppercorns nearly ruined it.
Although some items missed the mark and others were less than inspired, most of Wish's repertoire will satisfy discriminating palates. The problem is pricing: The ravioli appetizer is $21; pork chop $42; French toast $12; cocktail $15; coffee $8. You can do the math. As one of my guests put it, "There's nothing wrong with the food that $10 less per starter and entrée couldn't fix."
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