Those who believe in unlucky restaurant locations would probably consider the National Hotel one such site. They could trace the origins of the curse to the Oval Room, which opened three years ago in the ravishingly renovated hotel. I still remember their "butternut squash risotto-style," which I misread as being a risotto. My mistake, though I'm fairly certain the only times they ever sold this dish were when others likewise misunderstood; who, after all, would knowingly order a main course of slowly cooked squash? Anyway, the Oval's food was expensive and flat, the service slack, and the curtain came down with merciful speed. A short time later I returned to sample what the National touted as an "authentic afternoon tea service," held in what was then an atrium located in the rear of the lobby. Evidently the phantom spirits of failure were able to make the necessary adjustments. I would only add that the service consisted of a few Twinings tea bags, stone-hard scones, butter pats, and the driest, paltriest finger sandwiches ever exhibited in public. I think they had jam, too. The Oval Room was relocated to the former tea room last year and reopened as Café Mosaic. Running the kitchen is "five-star, five-diamond" executive chef Dondi McNulty, who is featured in a slick promo that boasts of "setting the standard of excellence for tropical elegance in cuisine and service." Also included in the ad is the lure of "complimentary valet parking." At least that part turned out to be true, even if they did bring me the wrong car.
We arrived one Thursday evening, around 8:00, during what is considered peak season on the Beach. The restaurant was empty. Not to quibble with those who would chalk this up to an inevitable ill-fortuitous fate, but, just for the record, chef McNulty had the night off. Guess all those diamonds and stars make for such lofty laurels that the urge to rest on them is irresistible. No matter: We sat outside and enjoyed a mesmerizing view of the ludicrously long and narrow National pool, which is lined on both sides by identically perfect palm trees.
The dinner menu offers two salads, five appetizers, and eight entrées. There are no soups or sides, yet the well-balanced variety of fish, meat, and poultry dishes should provide enough choices for anyone tolerant of Latin- and Caribbean-influenced food. The best starter was a jumbo dome of homemade ravioli filled with portobello mushrooms ($13), which sat in a bowl of bright green "essence" of sweet peas. Shavings of sharp Manchego cheese and a mild infusion of opal basil added just the right flavors, though the pasta could have been thinner and more delicate. Less successful was a singular plump scallop wrapped in two split and overcooked shrimp, paired with al dente lentils marred by the salty intrusion of too much prosciutto. Sweet dabs of minced tropical fruit helped soften the salinity somewhat. The most intriguing-sounding starter was "Island spiced scented Okeechobee frog's legs" ($14), but the spice and scent were that of a barbecue sauce not much different from a bottled brand. Still the four meaty legs weren't bad, nor were the "roasted corn and frizzled onions" on the side, a mix of fresh corn and okra and a few crisply crusted onion rings.
Main courses, like the appetizers, are for the most part competently prepared, but modern fusion cuisine like this should contain an innovative explosion of flavors, especially when you claim to be "setting the standard of excellence." Some items are indeed inventive, but of all the dishes sampled, only the mojo-marinated duck entrée ($26) kicked off any culinary fireworks. "Pulled" strips of the robustly flavored bird, compressed into the shape of a hockey puck, were flecked with specks of golden pineapple, which contributed occasional bursts of sweetness. Paper-thin slices of cabbage atop the duck puck weren't piquant enough to qualify as a "fiery slaw," but were deliciously tinged with lime juice and cilantro and brightly complemented the dish. Three measly slices of cleanly fried plantain provided the starch.
Ahi tuna tempura ($27) is prepared by having asparagus spears stuck into a sizable hunk of the fish, dipping it into a light and zesty batter, and plunging it into hot oil. The presentation is unusual and not unattractive, the tuna cut in half diagonally and served in two wedges, asparagus tips protruding from the sides, with crimini mushrooms, three strips of bok choy, and dabs of a rich balsamic-port wine glaze scattered about the plate. I think it would have worked better, though, with three or four smaller slices of fish individually battered and fried, which would pair tasty tempura with tuna in every forkful. Also the asparagus, mushrooms, and a real piece of bok choy that one could actually savor, as well as a dipping bowl of the sauce, would all have been more practical, if less dazzling, served on the side. No such rearrangement could improve the lamb shank, tough and dry with a "cola nut BBQ" sauce similar to that on the frog's legs, only cooked down to a sticky, unpleasant syrup. A "warm potato salad" on the side was nothing but four quarters of a roasted new potato.
It wasn't until I arrived home that I noticed, written on the menu: "Ask your server about this evening's Mosaic dinner." Must've been a "don't ask, don't tell" policy; I didn't ask, they didn't tell. The waitstaff -- and I use that term loosely to describe various semitrained people who performed the necessary tasks of service without injuring anyone -- asked if we wanted coffee, but neglected to offer dessert. I asked; they brought dessert menus.
We chose the "black skillet chocolate bourbon cake" ($6.50) and "biscuit and gravy," the latter characterized as "hard to describe, but very good." Inside the little black skillet, which was hot from the oven and served on a large white plate decorated with purely-for-show fruit purées, was a moist, mini chocolate cake with a scoop of generic chocolate ice cream melting on top. The biscuit and gravy were pretty much the same thing, but without the skillet and with the addition of crunchy banana fritters, which a waiter later confided were the "biscuits." The "gravy," we resolved on our own, was the melted ice cream, but we never did ascertain what a garnish of wispy white threads of rice noodles were supposed to be.
There is such a thing as being unlucky, but more often than not, luck is the residue of design. Not visual design of course (you couldn't create a more elegant restaurant setting than this, and the food is quite pretty, too), but like many a South Beach spot, Café Mosaic continues to stick with a game plan of style and hype (at no small price) over substance. Which means if you come to the National Hotel with a design on fine dining, you're out of luck.
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