Early one morning several years ago, speed-reading through the e-mail that had accumulated overnight, I found a long letter that appeared to be from a friend. It started like a continued conversation among people who knew each other well enough to totally dispense with formalities: "Here's a story." Though I hadn't been aware that any of my buddies had been planning a cross-country drive, I figured I must have just forgotten because the first few paragraphs were full of the kind of intimate trip tidbits you don't get from Fodor's: days cruising non-Interstate "blue highways" in a homemade custom convertible (an old Cadillac with the top sawed off); nights inhaling cocktails; food; sex; other adventures. Maybe it was my morning blur, but it wasn't until somewhere on the second page, when my good buddy seemed to have turned into the head chef at what used to be one of my favorite Key West restaurants, that I woke up and skipped to the signature -- because I have no Key West chef buddies. To guard my restaurant-reviewer anonymity, I try to avoid even being introduced to chefs.
The note was from Willis Loughhead. Although I'd never met the guy, it went on to chronicle his journey through the kitchens of Key West's Palm Grill, a second Palm Grill in Miami, and Pacific Time and Tantra in Miami Beach. His no-holds-barred honesty made me think I'd like Loughhead as much as I'd liked his food at Tantra; he'd basically taken the restaurant/lounge's gimmicky "aphrodisiac food" concept and transformed it into cuisine as creative and straightforward as his letter. What I'd decidedly not liked was Tantra's eating environment. At virtually all restaurant/lounges one side of the slash suffers, and in my experience it's the loungers who are happy (restaurant food sure beats typical bar food), while the diners trying to enjoy quality cuisine in nightclub conditions are left holding the short end of the stick.
Tantra's aphrodisiac incense totally obliterated all dinner aromas and its thunderously loud dance music obliterated any possibility of dinner conversations, I'd seethed in my review, musing that a serious chef like Loughhead was destined for a more serious dining environment.
The Ritz-Carlton, 3300 SW 27th Ave, Coconut Grove
305-644-4680. Open daily for breakfast 7:00 to 11:00 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., dinner 6:30 to 11:30 p.m. (Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.)
It's been a long time coming, but Loughhead finally has a real restaurant venue at Bizcaya Grill. In fact one dining companion on my first visit to the room, located in the Grove's new Ritz-Carlton hotel, felt the dining environment went a bit beyond serious to "stilted." Although the room does feel formal, it's relatively racy for a Ritz restaurant. Scattered among the ritzy Biedermeier furnishings, silk damask drapes, Italian marble floors, and Brit men's club-like hardwood paneling are subtle accommodations to tropical South Florida style: woven bamboo wall inlays, columns sporting what look like faux-Bahamian shutters. And as you're seated, servers place stools beside each chair in recognition, according to a Cuban friend, of a Latin superstition that putting pocketbooks on the floor is bad luck for prosperity.
That could be disastrous at Bizcaya, since the elegant décor and muted music make the place a perfect setting for business dinners. Unlike at Tantra, Loughhead's not the kitchen's only creator at Bizcaya, but works with German-born executive chef Roberto Holz, a veteran European hotel chef who oversees all the Grove Ritz's culinary operations. In collaboration, they have designed a menu as classic and classy as the décor, a sort of combination cuisine of subtly reinvented Old World bistro and New American grill dishes.
For instance there couldn't be an older bistro standard than onion soup, which here starts with comfortingly familiar meaty-rich stock, but a delicate quail egg replaced the usual hearty French peasant-style topping of melted cheese; for that earthy touch there was, instead, a truffle. A luxuriantly lavish quantity of truffles also figured in homemade pasta with black truffle sauce, along with a sinful but perfect amount of cream. Normally an $18 appetizer, this delicious dish was served in full-sized portions to everyone at my table during one visit as a complimentary amuse-bouchée. (And it wasn't because Loughhead recognized me as a reviewer. I've still never met him.)
Another starter, seared foie gras, featured not only caramelized pear, New World cuisine's standard sweet fruit accompaniment, but also a far more effectively contrasting "cocktail" of complex Doktorenhof vinegar sipped between bites of the buttery liver, to cut the richness.
According to a chatty Ritz exec, Loughhead deals directly with two local produce farms. The results are demonstrated by a lightly rich roasted vegetable tart, offset by a rather refreshing crème fraîche-dressed cucumber salad and baby arugula; each veggie was bursting with its own unique, unusually pronounced flavor. The four varieties of tomatoes in a salad of heirloom tomato and fig carpaccio with tart/sweet fig vinaigrette certainly weren't supermarket stuff, either. I do wish, though, that restaurants would stop calling simple sliced fruits and veggies "carpaccios."
What looked more like carpaccio was the in-house smoked salmon with crabmeat -- and the thin-sliced fish would've been more successful raw; the smoky taste was so strong it even overpowered accompanying salty crisp-fried caperberries. And if the molded mound of crabmeat was dressed at all, I couldn't discern it. (Horseradish was mentioned on the menu.)
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Among entrées, linguine with Maine lobster Bolognese was a variation on the beef-sauced standard that had a piscatorian friend practically on her knees in gratitude. Meat was missing but not missed in the fresh tomato/basil sauce enriched by cream, refreshened by balsamico, and packed with lobster.
Barbecued cochinillo was like lechon asado that went to finishing school. Cut in a perfect square, the piece of pork was topped with an offset square of its own crackling and flanked with two huge citrus-seared langostinos. Though the suckling pig's bed of sauce stretched the saltiness border, its pronounced port wine flavor was an effective balance.
It may seem silly, with all the above creative plates available, to go for anything on the "simply grilled" list. But a selection of terrific sauces (half a dozen, including chive-spiked multimushroom cream sauce, green peppercorn/Dijon mustard, and hearty Barolo wine with foie gras), served tableside to one's own taste, transformed a hefty thirteen-ounce dry-aged prime rib-eye of superb quality from a businessperson's perfect power lunch/dinner dish to ... well, simply perfect. Although Suits dominated the dining room when I've been to Bizcaya, it's hoped Trendies tired of chewing to top 40 rhythms will follow.