Not your mother's tuna casserole: Chef Thomas Connell deconstructs old favorites
Not your mother's tuna casserole: Chef Thomas Connell deconstructs old favorites
Jonathan Postal

Very Ritzy Comfort Food

Arranged on a white plate, the slender four-ounce medallion of American Kobe beef tenderloin and the dwarfish five-ounce standing rectangle of American Kobe meat loaf, with an insubstantial squirt of white potato purée in between, looked to me like a domed sports stadium and an office building side by side, with nothing else around. As seen from the window of a jetliner. This precious, toylike entrée and its precise placement on the plate, in fact, provided just the sort of stereotypical image of highfalutin' food that I imagine would elicit hoots of derisive laughter if served to, say, a group of hungry ranchers from Montana.

I'm hardly as hearty as a rancher, and so don't have qualms with such petite portions, even a $38 meat-and-potatoes combo -- if it's special. Was there altogether enough on this plate to sate one's appetite? Yes. Should there have been something more interesting than mashed potatoes (and a roasted tomato)? Probably. Was it good enough to warrant the money? I'll get back to you on that. Did the other pricey plates of "restyled American" classics at Americana, at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, warrant the money? I didn't say that. Did Donald Rumsfeld help me write this review? No, he did not.

We could have gotten a better deal with the Miami Spice promotion in which the Americana participates -- had they let us know they were taking part in it. Turns out the Ritz-Carlton doesn't allow promotional material to be displayed, and the Spice menu is only served to those who request it "because it's really not something conducive to our restaurant," according to one of the managers. So why get involved at all?



Ritz-Carlton South Beach, 1 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach

786-276-4000. Open for breakfast Monday through Saturday 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., brunch Sunday noon to 3:00 p.m.; lunch Monday through Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:00 p.m. to midnight.

Well, it's true you don't go to the Ritz-Carlton looking for discount deals, but you probably expect linens that don't appear as though they've been set by a little kid who's been told the table must be covered before ice cream gets served. Emphatically crooked tablecloths aside, the curvaceous, candlelit dining room is warmly dressed in Fifties supper-club style, the retro décor reinforced Thursdays through Saturdays with a jazz singer, pianist, and bassist smoothly performing what might be called "restyled American" classics. More than a few diners take advantage of a dance floor at the front of the room.

Retooling the foods of our childhood is trickier than tinkering with jazz standards. The problem is that we enjoyed meals featuring meat loaf and tuna casserole not because they scaled any great culinary heights but because we felt comforted by their homespun simplicity. The Ritz reputation and prices, however, dictate the cutting-edge contemporary approach to cooking that represents the very antithesis of comfort food. The result yields a breakdown of tuna casserole into minimalist components of seared fresh tuna, crispy noodle cake, snow peas, and ginger aioli -- a deconstruction so far from the original that any nostalgic link is lost. This wouldn't matter much if executive chef Thomas Connell's New Old American Cuisine (my tag, not theirs) was truly blissful. After all, who cares if a mind-bogglingly good tuna entrée conjures up memories of tuna casserole? Unfortunately, while the food here is fresh, prettily plated, and often out-of-the-ordinary, it is rarely extraordinary.

Appetizers don't play the retro game at all; at least I don't recall growing up eating yellowtail snapper ceviche with cucumber-cilantro foam. The ceviche possessed a pleasant lime-juice sparkle, the snippets of snapper tossed with a teeny dice of red pepper and onion and a few kernels of popcorn. Across the wide divide of the rectangular plate was a diminutive dollop of the "foam," which had the taste and texture of softened cucumber-cilantro butter. Buttering the ceviche only blunted the sharp flavor of the yellowtail, and seemed an awkward thing to do, but it did provide me with a flavoring idea the next time I make popcorn.

A duo of delicate sea scallops crusted with dried porcini dust was better. Tiny slivers of crisply fried prosciutto, creamy dabs of cauliflower purée, and a minuscule pool of basil oil blended with the sweet ocean notes of the bivalves in very comforting fashion.

Back to the meat and potatoes: Although I believe that using Kobe meat for meat loaf is like turning a bottle of Opus One into a spritzer, it's also true that no matter how you dice it, tasty beef is tasty beef. The moist loaf bloomed with the essence of meatiness, subtly sweetened with a carrot glaze on top. The filet was cleanly and keenly flavorful; all tenderloin is tender, but Kobe's high fat content yields a texture that is singularly soft, never mushy. Cabernet demi-glace on the plate possessed proper sheen and full richness, and the roasted, peeled, heirloom tomato was such a delectable specimen that I didn't make a big deal of the menu claiming it was "tomato fondue." Mashed potatoes likely got a pass on being dense, not airy, because the amount of butter and cream whipped into them was so admirably abundant. This was one dish that succeeded in summoning the past while at the same time improving upon it.

Not all is small here. A seared Niman Ranch pork chop was rather sizable, served in a bowl with navy beans, Swiss chard, hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, and fetchingly smoky bacon broth. All were right on target in terms of taste, but the beans were undercooked, as was the pork chop itself. Worse, it was tougher than Dick Cheney's rear end.

Salmon with smoked watercress sauce and "warm potato and haricot vert salad" sounded good on paper, but the sauce wasn't particularly smoky, and a bland potato-green bean medley was smothered in the bowl below the salmon and sauce. At least the fish was impressively pan-seared, moist and well-seasoned enough that you didn't need to use the beautiful stainless steel salt shaker. Good thing, because I couldn't help but notice a nearby diner frantically and futilely trying to get salt out of his. This led me to try our shaker, with the same saltless result (owing to clumping and small holes). Someone at my table commented that looks do count for something, but I think he was being sarcastic.

Desserts follow the Americana theme more closely than the rest of the menu, with twists on kiddy favorites like banana split (chocolate and banana spring roll with vanilla ice cream), Rice Krispie treats (rice tuile, coconut cream, and sorbet), and "s'mores" (warm, liquid-centered chocolate cake with graham cracker and toasted, port wine-sauced marshmallow). S'mores never taste right without a campfire, and this prissy rendition made the taste even less right.

Coffee "tart" was more satisfying, once again graham cracker used as the base, this time capped with a square of coffee-and-cream flavored crme brùlée, and a quenelle of delicious whiskey ice cream. Also on the plate were two tasty mini beignets dotted inside with chocolate. At first I didn't know what beignets had to do with the tart, but later realized that they were meant to represent the "donuts" that we all know go so well with coffee. Clever.

Grasshopper pie jumped far ahead of the other sweets, a thin bottom crust of chocolate cake topped by soft mint cream alternating with crispy, wispy wafers of dark chocolate; a scoop of deep bittersweet chocolate sorbet on the side refreshed like a super Fudgsicle. This dessert was fantastic, which is the sort of adjective I'd have expected to use more frequently in describing the Ritz-Carlton's cuisine. I'm likewise surprised that service here can't be defined by any stronger words than "adept," "friendly," and "stylishly attired." The only thing really special about Americana is the supper-club aspect, this likely being the only place, and certainly the most elegant, at which to dine and dance to sultry standards. Otherwise, for all this restaurant's frills, there are very few thrills.


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