If the comprehensive story of hotel dining is ever written, it should be titled Upstairs, Downstairs, Downstairs. Upscale restaurants are generally located upstairs, often on the top floor. (If it's a Hyatt, the room might even rotate.) Informal eateries tend to be situated at street level, thus easily accessible from the lobby. And all the way down in the basement is usually the employee cafeteria. There is a noticeable difference in quality between cuisine at the three tiers, but the advantage does not always lie at the top. My wife and I once finished a rugged trip through the Yucatan with a night at the InterContinental Hotel in Cozumel, which featured a sunny open-air buffet by the ocean. The fare was predictably geared for gringo tourists, so we decided to head down to the employee dining hall to see if the native workers were privy to something a little more indigenous. They were, although I should note we were far more enthusiastic about the tamales and chicken stew than were our perplexed basement hosts, who could not quite figure out why we had chosen to eat with them.
The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne's high-end dining spot, Cioppino, is an exception to the upstairs-downstairs rule: It is located on the hotel's ground floor. Still, it's more elevated than the casual Cantina Beach, which sits adjacent to the water and is set up much like that hotel restaurant in Cozumel or any coastal tourist spot south of the border. It's a lovely, breezy space, an open-air dining room with a thatched roof, cushioned wicker chairs, and colorful cloths and appointments on faux limestone tables. Around the perimeter of the palapa (which is what they call thatched bungalows such as this), are a separate bar, lounge chairs, fire pit, and swimming pool. The service staff is congenial. A musician plays Spanish guitar. The Atlantic Ocean stretches as far as the eye can see. I can't think of a more pleasant spot to sit and sip an ice-cold beer, glass of Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay (from a short but sweet list), frozen margarita, or premium tequila. If you choose to imbibe the last, Tiberio Lobo Navia a professional "tequilier" can help navigate the more than 50 spirited offerings, assuming you can get him to your table. When we asked for him, we were told he was upstairs, but he would be down to talk tequila with us in a few moments. He never made it. Maybe it was a supply/demand sort of thing; according to a Ritz-Carlton press release, he is Miami's only tequilier.
The fare here is better than at other restaurants that serve Mexican food, like Señor Frog's, but not by nearly as much as you would hope. Things started off inauspiciously, with our waitress apologizing that the house specialty, guacamole for two prepared tableside (with Haas avocados), was not available: "The cart isn't ready yet and won't be for quite a while." Granted, this is the Ritz-Carlton's informal restaurant and we were not hotel guests, but the vast majority of diners here are and they pay lofty prices, in part, to be pampered. And the Ritz predicates its prestigious name on an unflinching devotion to service, so it is surprising that staff could not or would not put a couple of avocados, a lime, and a ramekin of chopped cilantro onto a cart. To paraphrase an old automobile tagline: This is not your father's Ritz.
Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, 455 Grand Bay Dr, Key Biscayne; 305-365-4286
Open Sunday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
We made do with a trio of dips that accompanied a basket of crisply fried corn chips: mellow salsa verde, smoky chipotle, and spicy serrano. A lobster quesadilla appetizer arrived quickly thereafter, three flat, triangular wedges of dry-griddled tortillas filled with cheddar and pepper-Jack cheeses that swamped the small shrivels of lobster as well as any hint of that crustacean's flavor. We did enjoy ripe mango relish on the side, spiked with tart key lime juice and a shot of heat. Come to think of it, they served quesadillas in that Cozumel employee cafeteria too. But those were made with traditional onions, which work much better with cheese and can be folded into a tortilla for less than $18.
Another Mex-based starter, chicken flautas, brought a trio of fried tortillas rolled around ground, achiote-orange chicken and topped with a properly moderate amount of melted white cheese. Ceviche presents a lighter alternative. A sampler of three is available, but we went with two individual orders instead: tender knobs of grouper marinated in sour orange juice, cilantro, and nary a whisper of serrano chili; and a livelier, more piquant octopus with lime juice, onions, and guajillo pepper oil.
We returned to Cantina Beach a week later, hoping the guacamole cart would be ready; this time our waitress blamed the lack of ripe avocados. Then she recommended a guacamole made in the kitchen. She said, "It's really fresh," which was difficult to fathom considering those unripe avocados. As we guessed, it was made from frozen avocado pulp. Blech. Incidentally, anyone notice how expensive Haas avocados are these days?
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Entrée options are limited to chicken enchilada; hamburger; churrasco-style skirt steak; shrimp braised in casserole; grilled grouper, sea bass, or catch of the day (usually salmon); and a few different tacos. Chewy calamari rings, medium-size shrimp, and nuggets of grouper compose the tacos de mariscos main ingredients, the seafoods braised together with tomatoes, a hint of garlic, and two hints of chipotle peppers. Pliable flour tortillas were served on the side, with ramekins of shredded lettuce, crumbles of white cheese, fresh tomato salsa, serrano chili dip, and rice tastily greened with cilantro. The idea is to fold whatever you please into your tacos. Same concept, same accompaniments with tacos al carbón, lukewarm strips of grilled skirt steak overcooked to a pink-less interior, with a few green pepper strips mingled in. Better off getting the grilled hamburger, thick and juicy, with ripe tomato slices, red onion, lettuce, and pickle. It was supposed to come with chipotle sauce, but that never materialized.
A skinny fillet of fresh sea bass arrived grilled to a moist consistency, pooled in tangy citrus butter sauce, and propped against a swirl of mashed purple Peruvian potatoes. The three taste components melded well together, though for the same $28 price, one can walk up the pathway to the posher Cioppino and enjoy that restaurant's eponymous specialty and also be privy to substantially better service. Cantina Beach won't put you over your credit card limit, but by the time you pay $12 for a chicken flautas appetizer, $18 for a main course of seafood tacos, $9 for dessert, $3.50 for a cup of coffee, tax, and tip, well ... let's just say it will likely be the most expensive cantina you'll ever visit.
Perhaps the best treat of the night was that pricey dessert two cubes of toasted coconut-crusted coconut ice cream lollipopped on a pair of sugarcane sticks, with a bowl of rum-infused caramel dipping sauce on the side. The other three desserts are the same old boring key lime pie, molten chocolate cake, and tres leches.
By all means, go to Cantina Beach for oceanside drinks and Mexican snacks. A great time to do this would be any "Cantina Sunday" between 5:00 and 9:00 p.m.; chips, salsas, and guacamole are served compliments of the house, and a group of musicians supplies a spunky soundtrack for the frolicking poolside fiesta. As far as dinner goes, you are better off asking the Ritz-Carlton concierge what the employee cafeteria is serving.