Note: No animals were harmed in the writing of this article. But a helluva lot of plants went down screaming.
You see, Wish, the new, high-end eatery located in the Tony Goldman-owned property known simply as the Hotel (the refurbished Tiffany Hotel) on Collins Avenue in South Beach, doesn't serve meat, poultry, or fish. But don't call it a vegetarian restaurant. The management and staff there like to describe Wish's cuisine with terms such as "animal-friendly" or, as our server put it, "nothing living on your plate." But that last definition will rile plants-rights advocates, who insist cellulose-based life forms can feel pain. Good thing we had a neurologist at the table. He suggested we characterize the cuisine as "nothing with a central nervous system." Works for me.
Works for Wish too. Of course some of this nice-nellyism is plain nonsense. Yet avoiding the vegetarian pigeonhole is probably a wise move, because Wish's fusion fare is about as comparable to health-nutty rabbit food as South Beach is to Staten Island.
In short, Gary Farmer, the restaurant's food and beverage director (and the first owner of the Strand), and executive chef Gary Robins, a James Beard Rising Star Award nominee who has cooked at Aja and Match Uptown in Manhattan, subvert two primary misconceptions about vegetarian cuisine: (1) Vegetarianism is for granola-crunching freaks and (2) it is tasty like a scoop of dirt is tasty. And while it specializes in vegetables, Wish ignores tofu and seitan, two soybean-based meat substitutes often associated with nonmeat-eaters.
Yes, unadorned vegetables and grains contain much-needed nutrients, and, yes, they contain fewer artery-hardening agents than other foods, but frankly if you order the roasted baby artichoke appetizer here, you can ingest just as much cholesterol and just as many calories as you would from a modest hunk of beef. Buttery and almost tart, the roasted artichokes were served with a variety of garnishes: lovely little corn blinis; chopped red onions; quartered, hard-boiled quail eggs; basil-sour cream; and pomegranate seeds that were plump and delicious on their own. But really, this combination of ingredients was just plain weird.
That dish was the meal's only misstep. Another delightfully fattening starter, the Yukon gold potato ravioli, was tantalizing. Three square ravioli were stuffed with a puree of the potatoes then dressed with a creamed corn broth. On top of the ravioli were shreds of "melted" carrots (melting is a cooking process Robins uses to soften and deepen the flavor of a vegetable) augmented by the earthiness of black truffles -- harvested in early fall -- and slivers of Parmesan cheese. Follow this with the sweet corn flan entree, and you've got a memorable meal no model would touch. The delicate flan, fluffy as a souffle, was topped with braised chanterelle mushrooms and creme frache. Haricots verts and confit tomatoes added color and fresh flavor to the white-on-white dish.
For his so-called carpaccio appetizer, Robins uses roasted beets. He dabs them with vinegar, sprinkles them with oranges and toasted walnuts, and garnishes them with a frilly herb salad of basil, baby watercress, and fennel tops; this starter included a terrine of goat cheese dusted with black pepper, which provided pungent counterpoint. Robins stays with the Italian influence for a masterful main course of artichoke risotto. Pale green as the first spring leaves, the creamy grains of arborio rice were infused with a mushroom jus and sweet onions. Aged Asiago cheese and shaved black truffles strengthened the mushroom flavor but didn't obscure the taste of artichoke.
Many meat-eaters claim you can't fill up on vegetables. Robins's rigatoni challenges that notion. A super-large serving, the broad noodles, just slightly overcooked, were tossed with chunks of roasted eggplant, melted tomatoes, and hearty cranberry beans. A garlic rosemary jus tasted less like herbs than it did like butter -- sinful.
One thing vegetarians can't refute is that it's difficult to find sufficient protein in the plant world. Which is why I admire the chef's creativity with beans, a good source of nonmeat protein. While the cranberry beans that accompanied the rigatoni were a nice touch, the white runner beans -- long and curved like miniature scimitars -- that complemented a main course of roasted Italian fennel were ideal and, in this country anyway, unusual. I'm not a big fan of fennel -- its licorice flavor reminds me of one too many nights with a bottle of Sambuca -- but this root was beautifully prepared, fork-tender. And I couldn't argue with the soft wedge of polenta and grilled porcini mushrooms that enhanced the dish.
If it sounds as if the menu is wild with wild mushrooms, that's because it is. In addition to the numerous mushroom garnishes, it also includes a grilled portobello entree and a wild mushroom salad appetizer. It's easy to overdose on the woodsy stuff, especially if you order the wild mushroom spring rolls. Minced 'shrooms and a variety of shredded greens were sealed in crisp, deep-fried tubes, and a tangy apricot dipping sauce with a slight ginger undertone provided a welcome fruity note.
If you require more proof that this animal-friendly cuisine is not the equivalent of much-maligned health food, order the warm chocolate souffle with a pudding center, or try the pistachio terrine. I didn't care for the black pepper-flecked tuile that was wrapped around the latter, but the chilled, nut-rich terrine itself was exceptional.
The wine list offered some good choices from California and Italy, but they seemed pricey to me; only two of the reds, for instance, were less than $30.
Created by fashion designer Todd Oldham, whose boutique is right across the street, Wish's decor reminds me of its desserts: sophisticated, a little spicy, yet soothing at the same time. Oldham's 40-seat raised dining room has a vintage feel with its red velvet banquettes, gorgeous terrazzo floor, and gazillion frosted light fixtures hanging in multicolored rows from the ceiling. Eighty additional outdoor seats surround a fountain on the patio at the rear of the hotel.
I don't work to improve conditions for animals or save the rain forests or heal the ozone layer or blahblahblah. I've got a hard heart and a wide-ranging appetite: I occasionally indulge in milk-fed veal and force-fed goose liver and shark fin soup, all manner of politically incorrect dishes. I've also got a passion for leather shoes; I've carried crocodile and alligator purses; I've worn snakeskin belts; and I wouldn't turn down that ivory cribbage board I saw at an antique show a couple years back. (I draw the line at furs, though, which remind me of my pets.) But left to my own devices, I'd probably become a vegetarian, simply because I love to consume any and all plants (except fennel) in any and all forms. So when I stay home for dinner I usually forgo meat, poultry, and fish in favor of, say, creamed spinach or stir-fried broccoli. But now that Wish is on my list, it looks as if I'll spend more nights dining out.
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Wish (in the Hotel) 801 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-531-2222. Breakfast daily from 7:00 a.m. till noon. Dinner nightly from 6:00 p.m. till midnight.
Wild mushroom spring rolls $6.50
Yukon gold potato ravioli $10.50
Sweet corn flan $15.50
Artichoke risotto $16.50
Pistachio terrine $7.