The Price of Luxury
It came down to the bottle from Gleneagle Estate, described as being "slightly tart" and "fantastic with seafood, particularly shellfish," or the one from Germany, "perfect for bold dishes as well as foods from the grill or rotisserie." We settled on the latter for an affordable $12, and after we selected our water, it was on to the rest of the menu. Welcome to The Restaurant at The Setai, located in the posh new South Beach hotel. If you have trouble finding the property, just look for the unseemly 40-story Setai Residences towering above.
There is nothing indecorous about The Restaurant, which is exquisitely designed with warm, darkly handsome Asian sensibilities. Gray brick walls define multiple dining sections that are tweaked with teak, bronze, and stone accents; plushly pillowed chairs make this an eminently comfortable place too. Those with a yen for the outdoors can dine alfresco in sunken pods set along the perimeter of a Zen-like reflection pond trellised by pergolas. If you prefer the mantra of gastronomy, numerous tables surrounding an expansive exhibition kitchen afford an inside look at the animated choreography involved in the cuisine's preparation. That's assuming there is animation -- business was sluggish enough during our visits that we could have caught more action in an accounting office.
Australian-born executive chef Shaun Hergatt is a veteran of Ritz-Carlton kitchens from New York to Key Biscayne. His cuisine at The Setai is dubbed trans-ethnic, but excepting a puzzling inclusion of Italian-style pizzas, the menu could more accurately be called trans-Asian -- with main stopovers in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and New Delhi. Our waiter explained the dining concept, which, boiled to basics, involves ordering multiple items and sharing. "You mean like China Grill?" I asked. He nodded yes and then added, "Except China Grill serves large portions; the ones here are regular so you can try more things." Looking over the lofty menu prices, I remarked to my wife: "That's quite a caveat."
The menu begins with soups and appetizers, then segues into main courses categorized according to region ("Indian Spice," "Eastern Eloquence") or cooking method ("Select Grill," "Stone Oven," and "Rotisserie"). During our first visit, we skipped starters, my wife selecting a "thali" of curries from the Indian entrées while I went with loin of lamb, the lone rotisserie item. The waiter jotted down our order, walked away, and returned about two minutes later -- with the curries. Unusual that there was no amuse-bouchée or even bread, and disconcerting that the food could be prepared so quickly. While seated by the open kitchen on a subsequent visit, I noted that the curried components were scooped from a steam table and then whisked to a tandoor oven to await the addition of nan bread. Our plate had evidently waited too long, for everything on it was lukewarm. A shiny silver platter (the thali) was centered by a meager mound of basmati rice, with five little silver cups containing small samples of, respectively: routine raita (cucumber-yogurt-mint dip); bland cauliflower and potato; and assertively spicy renditions of curried lentils, lamb, and chicken -- the last a standout in buttery coconut sauce. A trio of nan (garlic, potato, and plain) seemed more like an amateurish attempt at homemade pita. Vix at The Victor makes a better version and offers it as complimentary bread; an order here costs $12. The thali of curries, incidentally, is $42 -- twice as much as a steamy combo plate at your favorite local Indian joint, but not close to being twice as good. Other Indian offerings, like skewers of lamb, chicken, fish, or prawns cooked tikka-style in the tandoor, were unexceptional and unimaginatively plated with a pedestrian salad of greens, tomatoes, and red onion.
As our curries were removed from the table, a square, black plate containing seven succulent slices of Pennsylvanian baby lamb loin arrived. The rosy-red meat, slowly spun on a rotisserie, boasted the tender but chewy consistency of a prime English roast and was ambrosially juiced with rosemary and floral acacia honey. "Really delicious," I told my wife as she watched me eat; she doesn't care for lamb, and her entrée was no more. This notion of shared courses is no doubt workable with tables of at least four but can lead to a dysfunctional dining experience for duos.
I'm certain she would have been satisfied picking at a vegetable or starch on the plate, but all main-course meats are served near-naked, garnished only with spears of sugar cane, stalks of green onions, or in this case, a leaf. I offered the leaf, but she wasn't interested. I know what you're thinking: Hey, cheapskate, you were at The Setai for chrissakes -- you should have just anted up a little more and ordered some vegetable and starch sides. Agreed, but there are no such options on the menu. Neither is there a single vegetarian entrée, which doesn't quite mesh with the written mission statement: "We invite you to explore this menu as you would a beautiful garden." Guess "beautiful stockyard" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.
My wife, having had plenty of time to digest her meal, ordered a five-scoop serving of sorbet and ice cream for dessert: Litchi was luscious, green tea potently flavored, and sweet purple yam soothed with subtle nutty notes. Dainty French-Asian pastries offered tantalizing contrasts, exemplified by a coconut roll wrapped with white chocolate, passion fruit purée, and pungent specks of pink peppercorn. Gumdrop-size fruit jellies, chocolates, and macaroons are perfect for those who can't commit to dessert but would like a sweet little taste with which to traipse off into the night. Most haute restaurants offer such postdinner miniatures as a complimentary gesture, but The Restaurant is chintzy this way.
On our second visit we skipped the water list and went straight to wine -- an extensive, if excessively wordy menu exhibiting exclusive and exciting labels. This time we also began with some starters. A bowl of Peking duck consommé was described as including a "stuffed chicken wing with black wood ear mushrooms and prawns," which I, apparently not thinking clearly, envisioned as a stuffed chicken wing, black wood ear mushrooms, and prawns -- nice and busy, an attribute I admire in soups. In fact the wing was plumped with an ethereal shrimp mousse flecked with black mushrooms, which was very tasty, as was the consommé's sparklingly clean duck flavor perfumed with five-spice aromatics.
Consommé doesn't pair particularly well with pizza, but nothing here does. Worse, the pizza crust lacked crispness, the tomato sauce was lackluster, Taleggio cheese slid off the slices with each bite, and I now know I'm not crazy about porcini mushrooms on my pie. Pizzas run from $24 to $40, and if you're thinking you'll try for a better deal at lunch, don't bother -- same menu, same prices.
A main course of Kurobuta pork arrived next. There's an interesting story regarding Oliver Cromwell, the Japanese, and the origins of this purebred Berkshire pig, but it's too long to relate here. What's important to know is that Kurobuta is Japan's prized pig, pork's answer to Kobe beef (and like the Waygu cow, now raised in America). The color is darker than that of the other white meat, the flavor lusher, the texture supple and moist owing to a unique (for pork) marbling with fat. The slender slices served here were enhanced with char sui, a Chinese barbecue sauce flavored with honey, hoisin, and five-spice powder.
While we were picking on the pork, our diver scallops surfaced in a large scallop shell, stir-fried with celery, carrots, straw mushrooms, and XO sauce -- a modern-day Chinese creation made with dried shrimp, garlic, and spicy chilies. Rice would have been nice, but no complaints regarding the pleasing piquancy of the scallops. If nothing else, this is the best Chinese restaurant in town.
They do lots of things well here and deserve kudos for reaching high and daring to be different. As for the irksome conceptual quirks: The Restaurant has been operating for less than two months, so there's still time to iron those out and, one hopes, tinker with the Indian food too.
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