False expectations can ruin a perfectly good evening.
Take for example a recent dinner my husband and I had in New York. My sister suggested we celebrate our arrival with a meal at Jean-Georges, the newest and hippest restaurant in the Trump Tower. Chef-proprietor Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who also owns the much-celebrated Vong in Manhattan, has whetted my appetite for years: National food magazines constantly laud him (as does my childhood friend Amy, who used to date the general manager of Vong). We anticipated a superb evening, despite having to start it extremely early -- we could only get a reservation for 6:30 on a Monday evening.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant was empty when we got there. So we were a little shocked to be seated by a snotty hostess at the worst location in the house, a table for four practically in the entrance. Anybody walking by would trip over us; anyone waiting for a reservation would be granted an opportunity to scrutinize our table manners. When we requested a change, the waitress and the hostess felt it necessary to confer for five minutes before grudgingly agreeing to move us.
First impressions set the scene, and nobody bothered to correct them. When I complained about a chip in the lip of my martini glass, the server glared at me as if I had bitten off the shard myself. Her recommendations consisted of the most expensive items on the menu, but when my brother-in-law pointed out that "tuna tartare" had been spelled incorrectly so as to seem to be a twenty-dollar tartar sauce appetizer, she failed to see the humor. The $40 entrees averaged about ten bucks per bite and were so mediocre that we figured Jean-Georges must have been cooking at Vong that evening -- until he walked past in his whites on his way to the bar. Half the tables were still unoccupied when we left at well past 9:00, leading us to wonder why there was no reservation available for us at, say, 8:00.
More often than not, this has been my experience at ritzy NYC eateries: Judged guilty of some mysterious wrongdoing, the diner is penalized by ridiculously early reservations, astronomical bills, and carelessly cooked cuisine.
I suppose that's why I've never been fond of China Grill, the New York outpost of superiority that drew press raves within weeks of its opening a couple of years ago. All too frequently you get sneered at, dismissed, or ignored in the overcrowded dining room, depending on which celebrity your server would rather be attending to that evening. For that you pay a hefty price and leave hungry.
My stomach sank when I heard the management of China Grill was taking over the Blue Door restaurant at the Delano -- which itself has never been known for either its consistency or its approachability -- in league with Claude Troisgros, one of the world's best-known chefs. Troisgros, it seemed, would devise the menu and cook there periodically, leaving the kitchen in the hands of Marc Salonsky, another New York chef who trained in France. Troisgros, a French native, springs from a family of chefs -- his father and uncle run the Michelin three-star restaurant Troisgros in Roanne. He left the fold to open the posh C.T. in Manhattan, as well as another namesake restaurant in Brazil, where he now spends about half his time (the New York restaurant closed last year). Imagine the combination: South Beach, New York, France and Brazil. Utter a heartfelt oy. You know you'll never eat there.
Well, time to revise that vision. Reservations at the Blue Door are easy to come by, and at a reasonable (read: late) dinner hour too. The hostess smiles (!) when she greets you, and thanks you for coming. Pick a table, any table. She'll follow your lead. The waiter knows the menu; not only that, he knows Claude Troisgros's whole history and is willing to tell you about it at length. The bar makes a great martini, in glasses unchipped, thank you very much, and it arrives pronto. If a restaurant could take Xanax, the Blue Door has swallowed the entire bottle.
Of course, all the newfound friendliness in our rather limited world doesn't mean much if the food's no good. Fear not. I could end this review right here with one encompassing word to describe the tropical- and Latin-influenced French cuisine: fabulous.
I luxuriated in the first starter on the menu, the "big raviole." One king-size pillow was filled with a marvelous taro root mousseline, a blended substance with a fine grain like grits. The earthiness of the root vegetable was complemented by a garnish of wild mushrooms and a light, milky sauce -- almost a soup -- heightened with white truffle oil. Truly an accomplished dish, and one I almost ordered twice.
Cold chayote soup had a feel similar to that of the mousseline, the Caribbean squash creamed but not loose. Served just slightly below room temperature, the sumptuous puree was infused with garlic and soy sauce. Papery slices of lime-green chayote drifted like flowers on top of the thick soup, dotted with a sprinkling of caramelized garlic that also flavored the two pan-seared sea scallops that composed the centerpiece.
I was tempted to stick with the cool, beautiful textures, which are presented so temptingly on the list of appetizers: watercress mousse wrapped in a pancake and covered with Gorgonzola cheese sauce; "crabavocat," avocado guacamole with fresh crab mousse and tomato coulis; pan-seared foie gras "exotica" with jicama, kumquats, and star fruit; salad poupre, a royalty-hued combination of red endive, radicchio, lola rossa, red oak leaves, shrimp, smoked salmon, purple potato, peanuts, shaved Parmesan, and foie gras. We ultimately chose a salad of poached Maine lobster, which was attractive and refreshing. The terrine-shaped mold of lobster and tomatoes was topped with a curly proliferation of carrots, daikon, and beets; the spicy sesame oil vinaigrette with which it was dressed gave it a subtle Asian flair.
The lobster theme carries over to the entrees, where a ragout of the Maine crustacean stars in a gingery coconut milk broth. Lobster meat, peas, and asparagus were perfectly poached, scented aromatically with lemon grass and mixed with rice, and lidded with a rice flour pancake garnished with a large stalk of rosemary and a piece of the bright-red lobster shell. The construction was delicious crumbled into the stew, an upscale oyster cracker in a sophisticated chowder.
The first three main course choices listed are fish dishes, and after trying two of them, I realized why Troisgros rates his fish recipes tops. I have rarely had Chilean sea bass so ethereal and translucent. A brown butter sauce added richness without masking the fish's delicate flavor; underneath, an unusual sauteed combination of cashews, peanuts, and raisins was flavored with garlic, lime, and fresh rosemary. Roasted fresh hearts of palm, stalks without the tough fiber, provided an alternative to a starch for this entree.
The quality of a salmon fillet was inspiring, as was the preparation. The moist, flaky pink flesh was rubbed with a melting aioli and served on a bed of toasted angel-hair pasta, like pan-fried Chinese noodles. The pasta, softened by the fish and sauce in some places and delightfully crisp in others, was shot through with diced tomatoes, black olives, and fresh basil.
The small menu doesn't allow for a ton of options, but poultry lovers do get to choose between duck breast with passion fruit and apple puree and free-range chicken breast in a bread crust with Chinese cabbage, bananas, raisins, and an almond galette. Meat eaters can make do with filet mignon in a cabernet sauce with a yuca biscuit and a mache salad, or grilled pork chops marinated in achiote and lime juice. I enjoyed the latter, which was actually a single juicy double pork chop. The pork, grilled medium-rare to order, was just a little too charred on the exterior for my taste, but it was presented artistically, rimmed by a luscious boniato puree. The meat and potatoes were uplift-ed with a wine-dark, curry-scented sauce, musky chanterelle mushrooms, sugar snap peas, and a single piece of battered, deep-fried Chinese okra (longer and thinner than Louisiana okra, hexagonal rather than round).
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I love the way the menu ends -- with a simple "Thank You." And I appreciate how the fare lives up to the monetary investment the diner is required to make (appetizers range from twelve to seventeen bucks, while main courses start at twenty-two and top out at twenty-eight dollars). In short, it's worth it. But I draw the line at nine-dollar desserts -- that's bill-padding if I've ever seen it. And I wasn't terribly impressed with what I paid for. A tatin of apple, banana, and mango was an unremarkable candied tart with filling that reminded me of chutney. (I did, however, like the mango sorbet that topped it.) And a bitter-chocolate tart had a good dark chocolate flavor and dense consistency that contrasted nicely with the partnering coconut sorbet, but a too-soft crust was a major detraction. Had I gone just for dessert, I might have come to the conclusion that once again the Blue Door, draped as always in floor-to-ceiling white tapestries and linens, was all hype and price, no substance.
Fortunately, the influence of Troisgros and the expertise of Salonsky ensure that this is not a case of la mame chose. And China Grill's management has shaped up the staff. If only they'd do something about the shallow, invisible step that leads from the terrace to the dining room. Two years ago when the restaurant first opened, the only entertainment I got from dinner was watching stork-legged supermodels trip. Now that the clientele has become less self-impressed, it pains me just a little (but still makes me giggle) to see folks wind up on the floor. Aside from dessert, the supposition that the floor stays at the same elevation is just about the only false expectation left in the place.
1685 Collins Ave (in the Delano Hotel), Miami Beach; 674-6400. Breakfast and lunch daily from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Sunday -- Thursday from 7:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.; Friday and Saturday until 2:00 a.m.
Chilean sea bass
Ragout of Maine lobster