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When chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo took over the kitchen at the massive Water Club this past May, she had just completed her stint as a contestant on season seven of the frighteningly popular reality show Top Chef. She was also still running Talula, a beloved Miami Beach restaurant that she and husband Frank Randazzo had founded in 2003 and recently closed. Oh yeah, and she was also heading a catering company and raising three children.
The Water Club, which occupies a 27,500-square-foot renovated space in North Miami Beach formerly occupied by Shooters, might be a bigger challenge than any she has faced. With seating for 500 diners and room for 500 more, it offers lovely views of the Intracoastal and dock space for 50 boats.
The menu relies on applying twists to American classics and, like the space, offers something for every taste, from a raw bar to burgers to five cuts of steak. But maybe the restaurant tries to do too much.
Entering the gargantuan space, you pass a hostess stand and a gift shop that carries Water Club gear. Continue through the hallway that connects the entrance to the doors leading to the dock, and you see a large kitchen, a wine lounge, an indoor dining room, and a lounge with retro yellow-and-teal-dotted couches. Finally, there's an indoor bar with several flat-screen TV sets, which were too loud during our first visit. Walls are a grayish blue, except for one that runs the length of the indoor space and is painted with the faces of Al Pacino, J.Lo, Madonna, and a slew of other celebrities. The best seats in the house are on the outdoor deck, which also features a second bar and a swimming pool complete with cabanas.
Our first visit got off to a shaky start when our server took my dining companion's order and left without taking mine. The absent-minded young man seemed to catch his mistake on the way to the bar and returned quickly. Problem is, by then, he had forgotten what my date had requested. A manager made sure to stop by our table to ask about our meal on one visit — a nice touch — yet failed to notice the dirty glasses and napkins that sat on a nearby empty table an hour into our dinner.
The meal began on a good note, with a basket of warm, buttery bread rolls. A starter of steamed top neck clams and Prince Edward Island mussels arrived lukewarm but nicely flavored by a broth of beer and citrus. A refreshing salsa of watermelon and blackened corn enlivened four fried oysters dotted with green chili aioli and yuzu tobiko. Salmon served with salt-and-vinegar potatoes was the only somewhat redeeming element of a trio — the Water Club three-way — that arrived with bland snapper ceviche, unexciting calamari-and-bean salad, and the aforementioned version of salmon tartare. Other appetizers were beef tartare and lobster bisque.
A section on the menu titled "Anytime, Anywhere Selections," which includes pork sliders and chicken quesadillas, provides more choices of starters and small plates. There are also sandwiches, including a house-smoked pastrami with chicken liver pâté and Gruyère. Another unlikely option is the "hang-over" burger — topped with a fried egg. Maine lobster salad comprises meaty pieces of the crustacean subtly dressed in a citrus-mint mayo. Small squares of overly sweet pineapple, described as Thai pineapple marmalade, were superfluous.
Because the restaurant has a wine lounge, it offers close to 200 bottles, most in the $40 to $60 range, and a welcome selection of about 36 by the glass, including a half-dozen dessert wines. Beers and cocktails are also available.
Entrées ($14 to $22) consist of three fish, two chicken, one pork, and two pasta dishes, not including five cuts of steak; the most expensive one, at $38, is a grilled spinalis rib, a tender cut of meat that was proffered at Talula. A thick, tender pork chop, served with creamy mashed potatoes and a mushroom-bacon sauce, bordered on overdone, but it was one of the dishes we liked most. It apparently also impressed a woman sitting two tables away — she gnawed at the chop's bone, cleaning it of every last smidgen of meat.
A bucatini (hollow pasta) pescatore was lightly flavored by roasted tomatoes and preserved lemon and parsley but lacked spice; the dish was accompanied by a generous amount of Key West shrimp, mussels, and, sadly, chewy top neck clams. An uninspired yellowtail snapper fillet arrived on a bed of Spanish pearl couscous and al dente haricots verts. Other entrées were a cast-iron-pan-seared salmon fillet, chicken curry, grilled ahi tuna skewers, and rigatoni tossed in tomato, basil, and mozzarella.
Desserts are fitting for the restaurant's casual atmosphere. There's key lime pie; doughnuts with cinnamon sugar and espresso cream; vanilla crème brûlée; dark chocolate torte; and our favorite: a large, creamy wedge of chocolate-pudding icebox cake topped with toasted meringue.
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But the sweet ending didn't make up for the uneven food and service.
One would hope that a restaurant in the experienced hands of the Randazzos would have worked the bugs out of its system after four months. I left the Water Club wishing I had settled for bar bites and drinks. Maybe this eatery should return to its roots — as a place to sit outside with a burger and a cold brew watching boats as they sail into the sunset.