Back in the non-foodie Fifties, when I was a pre-adolescent child in a lower-middle-class, aspiring-to-the-stars family, I ate a great deal of chow at resort hotels -- food that signified my clan's efforts at upward mobility. And I adored the stuff.
Not for its taste, mind you, because frankly it sucked tastewise. From the moment you walked into a high-class hotel dining room, the characteristic smell of the place -- a kind of industrial au jus -- prepared you for exactly what was coming: overcooked, over-elaborate food whose degree of pretension was matched only by its high price. And yet many people loved the dishes served at such places; some even considered it haute cuisine, buying into the idea that the less spicy and more pricey a meal was, the better it must be.
But the snootiness that captivated my parents held no appeal for a kid like me -- I was drawn by the sheer entertainment value of the place. In short, hotel restaurants offered a great opportunity to play with your food. Steaks, for example, were often so overdone that, once shredded and rolled, they could be used as beefy BB shot, providing loads of under-the-table, food-fight fun. Desserts, inevitably loaded with cornstarch, also made for terrific toys; I recall a slice of lemon meringue pie that actually bounced. Those were the good old days.
Fast-forward 40 years to a recent meal at the Oval Room in South Beach's National Hotel, the 1940 Art Deco dreamboat that reopened with a splash two years ago after being lavishly restored. Fresh from researching a magazine piece on chef-run inns, my life (and dining) partner and I had concluded that New American cuisine, now decades old, had finally hit hotel restaurants. There seem to be hot hotel kitchens with superstar chefs in every major U.S. city: the Mercer Kitchen and Lespinasse in New York City, Fenix in L.A., Postrio in San Francisco, the Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe, the Windsor Court Grill Room in New Orleans, and, locally, in addition to the Oval Room, Astor Place and the Blue Room. I had heard that the Oval Room's Southern fusion wizard Marvin Woods had moved on this past summer, replaced by Rodney Renshaw, former chef at the Four Seasons hotel in Washington, D.C. The buzz on hotel food in general and on the Oval Room in particular has been so intense that I wondered if it was still possible to find one of those sucky hotel meals I loved so much in my childhood.
"Hello, Oval Room? I'd like to make a reservation for two."
Dinner actually began promisingly enough, owing to (1) free valet parking, and (2) a spectacular setting: a sophisticated main room with off-white walls, etched-glass chandeliers, a Deco-tiled ceiling mural that depicts a woman whose demeanor suggests her normal dining partners were Noel Coward or Cole Porter, and a floor-to-ceiling picture window/wall that provides a view of a palm-surrounded pool the length of, roughly, California. Both the main room and the pool area were open for dining. (The actual "oval room" -- located just off the main area, and so named because of a pink-and-green bas-relief oval design in its ceiling -- was not.)
In the air hung a trace of that unmistakable eau-de-hotel-restaurant smell -- not pronounced, but enough to cause concern. So we opted to sit outside by the pool. Bad move. First off, our settings were inelegantly deposited on the table -- no tablecloth, not even butcher paper with crayons. Still, it was pleasant to sit and listen to the sounds of a jazzy keyboard-sax duo that wafted from the main dining room -- at least until an alternative rock band started to rev, simultaneously, at the pool's far end. We decided to move back inside.
Once resituated, we ordered, and the first bite of a prawn cocktail appetizer, a special that night, catapulted us back in time four decades. Strongly touted by our waiter, this was not some nuevo Latino shellfish dish -- not even shrimp remoulade. No, this was shrimp swimming in the kind of radioactive-tasting red sauce I thought had been outlawed with the passage of the nuclear test-ban treaty.
We would have preferred the restaurant's signature starter, bourbon-cured salmon rolls, but it was unavailable, even though this was earlyish on a Saturday night. Our waiter's somewhat dubious explanation: The rolls take three days to cure. (On a return visit three weeks later, the rolls were still unavailable. Our apologetic, trying-to-accommodate waitress confided, "They've never had them anytime I've been working.")
Another appetizer, baby romaine in dough bowl with Caesar dressing, turned out to be considerably less interesting than its description. While not as gloppy as many Caesar salads, it was also less savory; and the "dough bowl" was reminiscent of a Tex-Mex fast-food taco salad shell.
The best appetizer we tried was "slow-baked potato pancake with sevruga caviar and chive sour cream." Though a bit less onion-infused than the latkes we frequently order from the Rascal House, the pancakes were far more subtly delicate -- so much so, in fact, that milder, richer creme frache would have been a more appropriate accompaniment than pedestrian sour cream.
From there it was all downhill. My partner's "cajun rubbed" grouper with blackberry and orange vodka relish was encrusted in so much rosemary that all other flavors were obliterated. And it was accompanied by totally tasteless black-eyed peas and "wild rice" that reminded me of the familiar long-grain variety that enjoyed significant popularity circa 1960. Worse yet was my filet mignon, which I'd ordered rare in what I thought was foolproof language: "Bleu. Meaning very, very, very rare. Meaning, basically, tell the chef to shoo the cow over the grill and let it walk to the table -- get it?" Our waiter said he did indeed get it.
What I got, though, was a steak that was a dead ringer, both visually and texturally, for shirt cardboard. A replacement (which showed up long after my partner's entree was finished) was closer to what I'd ordered, arriving medium-rare. However, an underlying bed of "peppery southern greens" -- which sounded so appealingly New South but amounted to little more than overcooked, Old South collards -- so imbued the meat (and accompaniments of a fennel potato fan and roasted shallots) with a soggy bitterness that the degree of rareness was irrelevant.
On this particular evening dessert was limited to three items: raspberry sorbet, raspberry key lime tart, and (non-raspberry) cheesecake. We ordered one tart, two forks. We also should have requested a knife -- the tart's dense, gluey filling was nearly impenetrable.
"Betcha it bounces, too," I whispered to my partner, suddenly feeling young again. "Wanna see?"
"Let's just get a doggie bag," she giggled. "One of our bedroom windows needs recaulking."
A few days after our initial Oval Room dinner, we called the restaurant to obtain information about its hours of operation for this review. Upon being told that a review was forthcoming, Oval Room maitre d' Fabian Gomez begged us to withhold judgment for "a few weeks," until new chef Renshaw had time to revamp old chef Woods's menu, establishing his own specialties in the process. It seemed like a reasonable request, and we said we would consider it if Gomez would tell us exactly when we would be able to check out the new menu. He promised to call us the next day. He didn't. Nor did he or the chef respond to messages left at the restaurant. When we finally reached Gomez, he revised his estimate for a new menu to "maybe in a few months."
How about a reality check? Tantra's new chef Michelle Bernstein-Nimer revamped that restaurant's menu in two days; at the time of Gomez's plea, Renshaw had been at the National for more than two months. And the Oval Room certainly is not offering diners reduced prices during this transition period.
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Happy ending: Despite recent rains, including some glancing blows associated with Hurricane Georges, our bedroom window hasn't leaked yet.
Oval Room (in the National Hotel) 1677 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-532-2311. Breakfast daily 6:30 till 11:00 a.m. Lunch noon till 3:00 p.m. Dinner 6:30 till 11:00 p.m.
Baby romaine in dough ball
Key lime tart