Unfinished Canvas

Color me Britto, and all over the restaurant already!
Steve Satterwhite

Britto's paintings are boastfully commercial in nature. Those in the art world can debate whether this quality diminishes his reputation as a serious artist, but there's no doubt the bold lines and bright colors make for a cheery, even dazzling dining room décor at his namesake restaurant in South Beach. Located in the new Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort, the space is defined by modern, linear design elements that become the canvas upon which Britto's strokes are splashed -- his prints hang on the walls, adorn giant cylindrical columns, are inscribed on menus, plates, and waiters' ties. Warm lighting, wooden tabletops, and plush, earth-toned vinyl chairs turn down the visual volume a bit, and altogether the room is quite comfortable.

Much like Britto's art, menu selections here are designed to appeal to the masses. That's sort of the idea of a restaurant, so this is not a bad thing. It just isn't necessarily an exciting thing to see, for the umpteenth time, an appetizer list of caesar salad; smoked salmon; spring rolls; tomatoes and mozzarella cheese; and grilled vegetables with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese. The two hefty logs of spring roll happened to be excellent, crisply fried and filled with a scintillating blend of curried chicken breast with sweet, potently gingered pineapple, raisin, and dried cranberry chutney. A stack of tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese, with drizzles of basil oil and balsamic reduction, would have likewise succeeded if the "vine-ripened beefsteak tomatoes" contained something resembling flavor.

Before any appetizers I started with a soup -- not that the staid lineup of French onion, tomato cream, seafood, or minestrone necessarily captured my fancy, but I needed something to warm up (whoever controls the thermostat, please take note: A 120-seat dining room occupied by six or fewer people requires far less air conditioning than when filled to capacity).

Unfortunately the minestrone was too cool too, and while the lukewarm tomato base was bright red and tastefully seasoned, the garbanzos, kidney beans, green beans, and carrots were either canned or mushily overcooked; tubes of penne were also soft and soggy, and promised Parmesan cheese was neither in the soup nor offered by the waiter. Sluggish business often leads to sluggish service, and though there wasn't much for the staff to do besides attend our table, waiters were rarely around to fill water glasses, remove plates, or offer more bread -- by our second visit I had learned to pace myself so the one piece served per person per meal would last at least until the soup arrived.

Britto's menu contains five meat and five seafood entrées, three pastas, and six "hot stone" specialties, wherein a hot stone is brought to the table and diners get to sizzle up their own strips of beef tenderloin, chicken breast, shrimp, snapper, or vegetables. The menu doesn't mention that this option is only available at the handful of outdoor tables; as the weather was typically summer-muggy we, like most diners, skipped the stones.

Bow tie pasta gets tossed with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and black olives in white wine sauce; penne with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken strips in cream sauce. Considering there's only a few pasta items, that's not much range. The third offering was a big bowl of firmly cooked fettuccini with four large, square nuggets of grilled salmon and a mustard cream sauce whose overwhelming roasted garlic presence pummeled the palate in unpleasant fashion. Pastas are generously portioned -- at $15-$18, and with these humble ingredients, they should be.

Sauces were uniformly disappointing. Even the best of them, a Creamsicle-like orange beurre blanc beneath the mahi-mahi, was overly sweet when paired with sugary caramelized red onions on top of the fish. Curry coconut sauce coating six pan-seared shrimp was too clumpy, especially in light of the menu referring to it as a "nage," taken from the French word "to swim" and culinarily implying a pool of sauce. And the apple mint jus under the lamb chops was not so much a pool as a puddle, and too minuscule to contribute noticeable flavor.

On the plus side, the meat and seafoods being sauced were cooked just right -- mahi super fresh and moist, shrimp tender, four single chops grilled to a proper medium rare. You can also give Britto points for diversity of starches: roasted new potatoes with the fish, buttery basmati rice with the shrimp, and unseasoned, raisin-flecked, decidedly non-Caribbean "Caribbean couscous" with the lamb. Vegetables, however, were dreadfully inadequate, all our main courses topped with a thatch of shredded carrots, zucchini, and yellow squash -- so flimsy and textureless they satisfy the vegetable requirement in name only. And though there isn't a single menu item featuring rosemary, every main course came with a sprig of that herb rising vertically from the plate. Garnishes are supposed to not just look nice, but relate to the food they're adorning.

Britto's wine list is pricey, but impressively extensive. Desserts are just pricey -- nine dollars for low-cost treats like key lime pie, coconut flan, caramelized bananas, and "chocolate trilogy," a cylinder the size of a cold cream jar layered with white, milk, and dark chocolates. Of course there were obligatory squiggles of fruit purées upon the dish, as well as a few mass-produced chocolate "straws" sticking upward. We would've tried more desserts on another visit, but after clearing the main course plates our waiter brought the bill without having offered us that option.

It's too early to give up on Britto. The room is attractive, the food fresh, and the restaurant is, after all, just a few months old -- still time to smooth service and kitchen glitches. They'd better roll up their sleeves and get to work soon, though, for if Britto wants to compete with nearby hotel heavyweights like Blue Door, Gaucho Room, and 1220 at the Tides, they've got quite a ways to go.

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