When budding chef Sharon Feldman pulled up her Boston roots to move to Miami, she had her doubts. Was she leaving mecca -- a position at Cambridge's prestigious Michelas -- for a city barren of opportunity? After all, she recognized only a couple of restaurants' reputations (Chef Allen's, Mark's Place), and neither of those had been created by women.
But the SoBe scene was developing, and her hopes along with it. In the spring of 1991, after a false start as the chef of a forgettable Italian eatery, she assisted the renowned Norman Van Aken in the opening of a Mano, the Beach's bravest new bistro.
Perhaps he appreciated her spatular skill. Perhaps he recognized in her the determination he knew in himself. For whatever reason, he offered her the running of Stars & Stripes Cafe, where he worked as executive chef while simultaneously nurturing a Mano. (Stars & Strips and a Mano were situated side by side on the ground floor of Ocean Drive's Betsy Ross Hotel, where a Mano still thrives; Stars & Stripes has since closed). Though Van Aken would remain as consultant -- and mentor, maybe -- Feldman would have complete kitchen control.
But instead of culinary freedom, she found limitation. The fourth head chef in two tumultuous years, she found rebuilding a clientele too difficult. Stars & Stripes was more a bar than a restaurant, tight on tables, and low on promotion. Feldman could not maintain her ideal of fabulous food at fabulous prices, and after a final clash with the owner -- not Van Aken -- (he wanted sandwiches, she wanted chichi), she cited irreconcilable creative differences and went on her way.
Her way was also the way of David Bracha, the beverage manager from both a Mano and Stars & Stripes, and his partner from New York, Roberto Bianchi. Four weeks ago the two men opened Four One One, an unabashedly Euro-style bistro permeated by the aromatic abundance of ciao. Originally hiring her as a consultant, they asked Sharon Feldman to stay on as head chef.
Feldman has been fortunate to work in some truly great kitchens. She has been equally fortunate to run some kitchens of her own. But this may be her first opportunity (apart from the catering business she still oversees on the side) to freely don her creative apron. Droit de seigneur is hers by law of ladle and leek, as she mixes nouvelle European flair with South Florida's Caribbean grillery.
A restaurant designed to showcase beautiful food as well as beautiful people, Four One One, named for its address on Washington Avenue, does not offer your average neighborhood fare, nor does it attempt to. Insiders are already dining here twice weekly, and they alone can fill the place with friends and relatives faster than a bald man can comb his hair. And with a menu this creative, success will not long be behind. Examples of the specialties include the soft-shell crab sandwich with red pepper remoulade on focaccia ($10.95), the arancini, a saffron risotto enhanced with veal and fontina and baked in a juicy tomato sauce ($4.95), and the hummus-like white bean dip with deep-fried leaves of fresh pasta ($4.50).
One chef-trap I've seen in my dining experiences is a tendency toward varying performances. At Four One One I had two very different meals -- one excellent, one merely satisfactory. And I'm not counting the numerous new-restaurant glitches, which are excusable, and the unfriendly service, which is not (although our second meal was served with more personality than attitude). The disparity to which I'm referring is due to one simple fact -- on the chef's day off the food, quite simply, is not as astonishing.
While this is hardly her fault, a chef is only as good as the staff with which she surrounds herself. Just as the owners can be held responsible for hiring unapproachable waiters, the chef should know her kitchen and adjust accordingly. Feldman claims such awareness and says she is actively seeking a sous-chef.
Regardless of the lack of touch in the Sunday oven, some of the dishes were capable of wrapping us in rainbows of rapture; for example, the sauteed salmon was topped with shredded hearts of palm and a smooth mustard dressing, and complemented with three crab wontons so delicate they tore as easily as lace ($15.95). This fine rendition of a cold-water fish made me think of the noble and chilling rush of Northern waters (and wonder why sushi restaurants can't seem to purchase the same startling quality).
Almost as thrillingly prepared, the grilled dolphin ($13.95), braced with garlic, tamari, sesame, and citrus and heaped with roasted vegetables, was a huge, piquant plate of happiness. And the grilled tuna-medallion appetizer ($6.95) had been lightly marked on one side, served with mushrooms and a piece of garlic bruschetta.
The grilled pork chop (it begins to seem as if there is no other method of cooking) for $14.95, overdone and served without a steak knife, may have been the only mistake. Denture-wearers, beware. At Four One One, this white meat is no tooth-saver. The tomato sauce, flavored with raisins, olives, and cipolline onions, that embraces the chop, however, is a keeper, almost sweet-and-sour in philosophy. And the side dish that accompanies it, a green-pea and roasted-squash risotto, may necessitate a call to 911 for causing the heart to swell, as mine did, with ecstasy.
An inviting, but not life-threatening, reason to sample Four One One, aside from the distinctive cuisine and reasonable prices, is the way the menu is arranged. Courses are categorized as small plates ($3.95-$7.50), middle plates ($7.50-$11.95), and large plates ($11.95-$15.95), as well as side-dish servings ($2.00-$3.00). While this selection of sizes may be designed to pad the bill, or tempt you into ordering more than you really wanted, it also creates some intelligent options for those deprived of an appropriate appetite.
I found satiation, for instance, in starting with a small plate of stone-crab fritters in a clingy mango sauce ($7.50), and finishing with a middle plate of the linguini Roberto ($10.95), a pesto-sauce pasta tempered with creamy mascarpone and Parmesan. Notice, though, that these two plates added together cost more than a single large plate.
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And for those conscious of what and how they eat, Four One One, with its preponderance of grilled and roasted entrees, is not an unhealthy choice. Options like the fish soup of lobster, snapper, clams, and mussels in a white wine and tomato broth ($15.95), the grilled seafood salad ($6.95), or the clams and mussels in a lobster-orange stock ($5.95) are surely a bit lower in calories than the cheesier calzone ($8.95, and fillings change daily) or vegetable and goat cheese pizza ($8.95). From the good looks of the clientele, this is the kind of consciousness that goes appreciated.
The other consciousness that goes appreciated is the architectural. Chef Feldman believes that "a restaurant endeavor...is an entire package." By this she means that the cuisine must work in conjunction with the room to create the desired dining experience, just as the kitchen staff must jell with the management to create success. Co-designers of the restaurant, Bianchi and Bracha, must share this belief, for rarely have I experienced such a perfect mating of the visual and the sensual.
The room is large and luminous as a monastery. Stark columns and walls, adorned with a few, select painted tiles, give the restaurant an air of sanctity. Yet this is not an unwelcoming tone; rather, it's one of privilege. I have a special fondness for painted ceilings, and this one takes on the blue of a sky just after sunset, when darkness flies on the wings of clouds. A longing for the real sky can be satisfied on the greening patio, where seating is available for the more casual, tennis-playing set. Inside, warmed with wood, both square and round bistro tables are grouped throughout the room. It will be interesting to note which sections become the most requested. I already have my favorite.
FOUR ONE ONE 411 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, 673-5873. Dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 7:00 p.m. until midnight. Closed Monday.