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The Skinny on Social

JOE ROCCO

We hear it over and over: Americans are too fat. Even the numbers are becoming familiar: 64 percent of the population is overweight, 30 percent of whom are obese. A recent 136-page report blames the nation's 900,000 restaurants and food-service establishments. The paper, prepared by an education group called the Keystone Center and funded by the Food and Drug Administration, notes Americans consume one-third of their calories outside the home; cites numerous studies that suggest a correlation between the simultaneous explosion of portion sizes and waistlines; and concludes that a voluntary curbing of calories-per-serving by the restaurant industry would help battle this endemic flab. The report addresses primarily fast-food and family eateries, because high-end dining establishments have long since leaned to a less-is-more philosophy — first via the nouvelle cuisine movement, and these days by way of increasingly popular "small plate" or "tasting" menus. It's a global trend locally embraced by Philippe Ruiz at Palme d'Or, by Michelle Bernstein at Michy's, and most recently by Social Miami at the Sagamore Hotel in South Beach.

Social's dining room occupies the right side of a long lobby in the sleek, chic hotel. Silver accents highlight the minimalist, hundred-seat, mostly monochromatic white setting, while the left lobby wall facing the restaurant displays a museumlike collection of photos and art installations. When empty of patrons, the area resembles a cross between an art gallery and the type of modern model dining setup you might encounter in an upscale furniture showroom. But when the clock hand nudges past nine, the space transforms into a buzzing, buoyant, and very social dinner club. An outdoor terrace is likewise defined by a stark white look, but it's too small an arena for such a bare-boned décor to succeed.

Social is operated by China Grill Management, a company that boasts an enviable track record in running successful contemporary restaurants here and in other major American cities — including this venue's popular sister, Social Hollywood, in Los Angeles. An integral element of CGM's winning formula is the emphasis on choosing talented chefs to help and helm its operations. To help: Michelle Bernstein is the chef consultant for both Social ventures. To helm: The Miami branch's executive chef is Sean Mohammed, who has worked in some of the nation's finest kitchens, including locally as sous chef at Blue Door. Social's location location location ain't bad either, sandwiched between the Delano, National, and Royal Palm hotels.

The menu is categorized into "on ice," "cold," "warm," and "hot" dishes. Chilled selections such as tuna tartare, foie gras, and ceviche are styled as large appetizers, while heated items come with accompaniments and resemble small entrées. Most plates cost $10 to $16, and none exceeds $19. Each selection provides a sampling for two or three people, the idea being to order a bunch and dig in. So we did.

Three ceviches compose the iced options, and like so much of the food here, they brim with bright contrasts. We were especially impressed by the one stocked with tuna, ginger, and watermelon, the sweet, crunchy fruit a refreshing foil for small cuts of the fish soaked in sesame-soy-lime juice. Among cold choices are "millionaire's deviled eggs," the yolks enriched by truffle oil and crowned with a dab of osetra caviar; and milky slabs of burrata cheese enlivened by a spicy concassé of yellow tomatoes. Only an uninteresting chopped Greek salad disappointed.

A half-dozen warm offerings include Bernstein's signature croquetas, the thin, crisp crusts giving way to bursts of creamy blue cheese mellifluously matched with homemade fig jam. Tender conch receives the Michy's treatment, too, tossed with hot parsley-garlic butter and spilling from a pair of conch shells. If you hold these shells to your ear, you can hear the ocean say, "prepared just like escargots!" but then you'll need to take your top to the dry cleaner to remove the grease stains.

Hot plates arrived at the table willy-nilly, each filled with its share of frills and thrills. Two single-bone lamb chops were effectively teamed with a tangy pomegranate-mint glaze and "cinnamon-kissed" Israeli couscous, though the featured spice of the latter was intensely applied — more like French-kissed. Fabulously flaky black grouper braised with potatoes, carrots, and peas in green Malaysian curry sauce was sensational, served with slices of roti bread on the side. A trio of peppery "head on" shrimp as plump as bananas were cooked Louisiana-style, meaning with savory brown gravy and minibiscuits on the side. (Biscuits taste fresh only when first pulled from the oven, so Social might consider baking these per order.)

Rich oxtail stew wrapped in delicate ravioli skins? Cornmeal-crusted fish and scallops with chips, malt vinegar, and tartar sauce? Five meaty Korean-spiced chicken "lollipops" forged of wings and speckled with sesame seeds and hot pepper flakes? Yes, yes, yes. An oink of satisfaction as well for a square of braised pork belly, the lower level constructed of succulent meat, the jiggly top layer of fat capped by a decadent crackling of chicharrone. In keeping with the FDA's request for healthier restaurant food, the pork belly is supplemented by wok-fried bok choy. Seriously, it would not be a bad idea to offer a platter of this or some other green as vegetarian fare or for tables to share.

Although Social offers plenty of ethnically diverse culinary concoctions, it does not dismiss the desires of everyday diners. Burgers, fries, and pizza, the top three foods Americans eat outside the home (or shall we say overeat?), are all on hand — albeit each comes with its own new-age twist. The burger plate, for example, brings a pair of three-ounce Kobe beef sliders slathered with sautéed onions and melted Gruyre cheese and bundled in mini brioche buns. The fries are homemade (quite unconventional these days). And thin-crust pizzas, pumped out from an open hearth on the back terrace, include an exemplary margherita pie with heirloom tomatoes, and a nightly special dusted with whimsical toppings.

The waiters' green ruffled shirts are fairly frilly as well, and some of the staff's personalities and voices were louder than their attire. Social is a mix between formal and informal, but service skews too much toward the latter. Among the misdemeanors: Plates and flatware consistently, carelessly, and distractingly clashed together at a nearby bussing station; lukewarm Voss water served from a bottle with an already-broken seal, and no ice offered; no replacement of our main plates with clean ones between a slew of seafood courses and the meaty meals. There was a service felony committed too: Our waitress switched to an outdoor station and neglected to tell us — or anyone else — so we sat with our empty plates and glasses, waiting for dessert menus, water, coffee, and so forth, for quite some time — until we signaled for help from another waiter.

The wine list is extensive and, like the food, is available in sampling sizes — in this case three-ounce portions. It's a great way to experience a vintage too expensive to drink by the bottle, like a 1999 Château Lafite ($221/bottle, $27/sample — which is a good deal). Other offerings are considerably less expensive.

Critics of small-plate dining harp that by the time you order "three or four" items per person, which is what our waiter at Social suggested, the prices add up. I find that just two selections each usually suffice and provide as much food and a whole lot more variety than one would encounter from a traditional appetizer/main-course meal — for far less money. In fact it's possible to order three dishes each — if you are two people, that would privy you to six substantial tastings — and still be presented with a reasonable check relative to hotel restaurants. But at Social, you receive a better meal than at most other places, one endorsed by the Keystone Center, the Food and Drug Administration, and Miami New Times.

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miles
Sagamore Hotel

1671 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

305-535-8185

www.sagamorehotel.com


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