Perfectly ironed white tablecloths are topped with open glass orbs holding fresh-cut roses floating in water. The stems are twisted and tied around delicate blooms, creating bows that rise from the bowls. The rich cherry hardwood floor of Palme d'Or -- the opulent, awarded-winning French culinary temple in Coral Gables' iconic Biltmore Hotel -- is reminiscent of Versailles, Louis XIV's palace outside Paris. Wide, square mirrored columns with ornate crown moulding dot the room.
For $175 before wine pairings, patrons can slowly fill themselves with a 12-course meal that includes sea urchin, jamón ibérico, and delicately turned vegetables cooked in butter. Each bite is the creation of 33-year-old Gregory Pugin, who once traveled the world alongside famed chef Joël Robuchon and took the reins in 2011. Each grand meal lasts at least three hours. The fixed menu offers no choices besides the wine.
"The smaller the portion, the more elegant we can be," says Pugin, wearing a black chef's coat, a long black apron tied around his waist, and wood-heeled clogs in Palme d'Or's kitchen. "And because it's only one or two spoonfuls, we can be more explosive with the flavors."
Pugin is just one of a growing group of South Florida chefs offering wildly expensive, lengthy, creative meals to a new generation of Miami diners who demand sophistication and off-menu experiences. In doing so, Pugin, Shikany's Michael Shikany, and others are moving Miami into a more sophisticated league, approaching more refined culinary capitals such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, where over-the-top menus stretching beyond 20 courses and commanding $400 per person are commonplace.
Shikany, whose restaurant opened two months ago in Wynwood, describes his meals in more artistic terms. He sees each of his plates as a blank canvas. The 35-year-old spent $2 million transforming a bombed-out-looking warehouse on NW 25th Street into an elegant restaurant-studio where he plies his craft.
On a recent weekday, he uses a pair of tweezers from a dental supply company to pluck a minuscule white-and-yellow citrus coriander blossom from its stem and lays it on a dot of rosé champagne gel. The tiny, time-consuming combination, he says, will be paired with brown butter dust, a chewy peach candy called pâté de fruit, and preserved blueberries pickled in a brine containing yuzu, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf. It's all served around a fan of thinly sliced seared tuna.
"We don't do substitutions. That's like telling an artist to take the red out of his painting," Shikany says. "We create a whole new dish."
Since opening his restaurant, the Miami native has served dozens of tasting menus. He creates six-, eight-, or ten-course meals on the fly. Call ahead and he can do a vegan or gluten-free tasting. "Whatever you want it focused on, we can do," he says.
One guest brought in a mutton snapper that Shikany coaxed into five courses, culminating with a snapper Wellington with black truffle, a tart limoncello beurre blanc, and preserved lemon. Cost: $75 per person. On July 11, he will launch a ten-course, Friday-night tasting menu that will be hosted at the restaurant's 24-seat communal table for $125 per person. "People walk in the door and they don't know what they're getting, " he says. "They love that."
That challenge of creating a high-end tasting menu also simmers at the Cypress Room. The most refined location of chef Michael Schwartz's seven-restaurant empire is helmed by Roel Alcudia, who worked at Thomas Keller's Per Se and was plucked from Jonathan Waxman's Barbuto in New York City.
The à la carte menu here, like Palme d'Or's, shifts with the seasons, but the nightly five-course tasting menu is the testing ground for each new dish. It's finalized just hours before dinner begins and is a favorite among regulars. Some evenings as much as a third of the restaurant springs for the $95 option.
"A lot of the time, we use it as a platform to develop new dishes," Alcudia says. "It's fun for our guests, and I think it's important for the kitchen not to get pigeonholed into the same routine."
While Shikany stocks up in case someone wants a tasting menu, Alcudia follows Schwartz's already-successful concept of focusing on seasonal, local produce and proteins that force him, sommelier Eric Larkee, and a tight-knit team of cooks to create something new every day.
Each menu starts with a glass of champagne to wake up the palate. One night's plan to serve black grouper with spinach, zucchini, beurre blanc, and trout roe for a light second course was scrapped at the last minute in favor of seared scallops. And when the supply of duck pâté was depleted during lunch, the kitchen pivoted, opting for slow-cooked pork belly with sweet summer corn, lima beans, and pole beans.
As much as they allow chefs to break free from searing, basting, and resting the same cut of meat for months on end, tasting menus are bound by a set of rules. All move from lighter dishes -- vegetables or raw or cooked fish -- to heavier, red meats to dessert. Even Pugin, who has added tropical fruits to Palme d'Or's menu, holds fast to many of the basics of French cuisine that chefs drilled into him when he was a teenager. For example, he serves dishes according to French, rather than American, seasons. That means no tomatoes in winter, when they're at their peak in Florida.
The nine-course menu is always preceded by an amuse-bouche. During the meals, a refreshing intermezzo cleans the palate. And at the end, there's a small, sweet predessert with a digestif to prepare for the grand finish.
Though Miami has yet to see the obscure, 30-course tasting menus of other cities, our chefs are finding a happy medium that allows them to express themselves without overwhelming diners or treading too far into questionable practices like molecular gastronomy. Though Pugin offers a five-course tasting menu for $105 per person, his preference is the off-menu, 12-course, $175 option that's available to all diners.
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The longest tasting menu he's ever served was 16 courses. That was when he worked with Robuchon in Paris. It's the longest he'll go.
"It's really dangerous to go past 14," he says. "If it's too long, your palate won't be able to enjoy the meats and the sweets."