The Frill Is Gone
"Never give a sucker an even break" is, I believe, the philosophical impetus propelling the recent rash of "consulting chefs" that has been spreading rapidly in these parts. This public-relations ploy is akin to culinary karaoke, wherein one chef or another follows the bouncing boil and cooks along to a more famous chef's recipes. At Atlantic, recently opened in the Rubells' new Beach House Bal Harbour Resort, famed cookbook author Sheila Lukins isn't exactly a consultant, but as is conspicuously written on the menu cover, she's its "Food Guru." Whatever you want to call it, seems that in restaurants, like theaters and ballparks, a star on the marquee puts fannies in the seats. Of course at the last two places you actually get to see those stars. Yet as an admirer of Lukins and Julee Rosso's The Silver Palate and The New Basics cookbooks, I'm more disappointed that Atlantic's food doesn't reflect its guru's fertile creativity than I am at her nonpresence.
The muted ocean-blue interior of the Ralph Lauren-designed hotel lobby washes into the Nantucket-inspired restaurant, where darker blue banquettes contrast handsomely with white ceilings, tablecloths, and trim. The front of the room has a mostly-for-show open pantry space, where the staff fills baskets with fresh olive/raisin and rye breads and ramekins of butter and chive-flecked farmer cheese. The back opens to an outdoor terrace with more tables; altogether there are 275 seats. Atlantic has a tranquil feel to it, but other than the blue and a view of the hotel swimming pool, it doesn't really bring to mind the breezy nautical restaurants of Cape Cod. I'll admit, however, that the dining room at the Nantucket Marriott might look like this.
As for the food, the all-American Atlantic notion is oceans apart from Pacific Rim: It is New Basics, not New World. In the intro to their second Silver Palate cookbook, the authors write that the development of a new American cuisine relies on using "simple, fresh, clear, and distinctive flavors," and allowing "enthusiasm and ingenuity to reign." This is certainly true of the recipes found in their books, but while Atlantic comes through, for the most part, in terms of the first reckoning, enthusiasm and ingenuity are exactly what this food lacks. Did they really need a consultant to come up with crabcakes with tartar sauce, caesar salad, rack of lamb with roasted new potatoes and green beans, pork chops with applesauce, steamed mussels with French fries, and grilled New York strip steak with French fries?
Still, there's nothing wrong with the basics, be they old or new, and much of the homestyle fare here is well prepared. We began with a steamy, not-too-creamy New England clam chowder ($5), neatly seasoned and generously stocked with clams and diced potatoes. The other soup offered is "glitzy" gazpacho. (A fitting motto for this menu: "One cold soup, many annoying adjectives.") There are just three starters: the aforementioned crabcakes, shrimp cocktail with "knockout sauce" (cocktail sauce), and rock shrimp ($8). They call this last dish Cajun popcorn in New Orleans, because that's the size and shape of these sweet, nuggetlike crustaceans after being coated in cornbread and deep fried. Nicely executed here, the shrimp were crisp and moist, though "hot stuff tartar sauce" on the side wasn't hot at all, but a ketchup-mayo-relish "Russian" dressing. Two additional appetizers are filed under "indulgences": a platter of assorted shellfish, and stone crabs with mustard sauce from Joe's. Both are market price, which is a polite way of saying exorbitant.
"Roasted beets with Roquefort, walnuts, and Dijon vinaigrette" ($8) is listed with the salads, so I guess I shouldn't have felt let down to find a mound of greens as the main ingredient. Since "rustica salad" is described as "lardons, Roquefort, and croutons on a bed of curly-cue frisée," it was a little misleading not to similarly mention lettuce in the beet description. Worse, trying to find the minuscule crumblets of blue cheese and an even smaller scattering of walnut shrapnel from within those greens was as eye-straining as looking for Waldo. Even the thin slices of weak beets were obscured.
We sampled half of the eight main courses, three of which were prepared with aplomb, like a plump, roasted half-chicken ($14) with crisp skin, moist meat, and an assertive herbal flavor; accompaniments were sautéed spinach and roast garlic mashed potatoes that were more roast garlic than starch. The catch of the day, a very thick plank of Chilean sea bass, was fresh, impeccably pan-seared, and likewise paired with spinach. Pan-roasted red snapper ($18) was fleshy, flaky, and flavorful with a squeeze of lemon and not-so-"snazzy" salsa of diced tomatoes and scallions. But an old basic of cooking was ignored: The side of the fish you place down in the pan first is that which you should present facing up. In this case the meat of the fillet was nicely browned, but the soggy skin side was exhibited on the plate. A savory spiced rice came on the side.
Lobster potpie ($20), referred to on the menu as "the best thing," was the worst. Underneath a thin puff pastry shell were globules of lobster tail with diced potatoes, peas, and an overpowering taste of red peppers just over the cusp of spoilage. Considering the brevity of selections, there's little excuse for things not being fresh; in fairness, everything else was.
"The range of vegetables -- found in the market and in our gardens -- makes our heads spin. New varieties, hues, sizes, shapes -- never have there been such choices." That's from The New Basics. Most entrées at Atlantic are bereft of vegetables, and just two, grilled asparagus and sautéed spinach, are available as sides (each $3).
Service is amiable, some waiters more polished than others. Prices are reasonable. The food, notwithstanding the potpie, was fresh and cleanly flavored, as were homemade comfort desserts like banana cream pie and apple tart with luscious buttery crust (both $6). Still, expectations raised by Lukins's involvement aren't being met by what is essentially an uninspired menu executed with little flair. It's not unusual for a restaurant that is this new to rethink and refine a bit to make things just right. Atlantic's "basic" premise is promising, but it's time for the guru to renew with some Yankee ingenuity.
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