It was mere weeks, not the usual months or years, after becoming Wish's executive chef in 1999 that Andrea Curto began garnering national awards and great reviews as the hottest food thing in South Florida since Scotch bonnet peppers. And the very first national rave, a pick of Wish in Condé Nast Traveler as one of the world's top 50 new restaurants, is one I know well, since I wrote it -- on the basis of a visit to Wish only days after Curto took over the kitchen.
For those readers who may wonder how highly trained professional food journalists glom on to hot chefs so quickly, here's how I did it: dumb luck. I'd actually gone expecting the much-touted, revolutionary, vegetarian-but-full-of-flavor fusion cuisine with which Wish's original cuisine guru, Gary Farmer, had opened the restaurant in late 1998. But that concept had failed spectacularly in fish-loving, and not hugely food-savvy, South Beach; superstar chef Gary Robbins had abruptly fled back to the safety of sophisticated Manhattan after only three months; and Robbins's unknown 27-year-old sous chef had taken over in the emergency, retaining many vegetarian dishes but adding fish and meat.
That first night I was skeptical: Curto had never run a kitchen before. But one bite of the cloud-light corn flan accompanying my rare tuna entrée convinced me that she was a rare talent. Many other national accolades followed, as did tables packed nightly with the likes of the Rolling Stones. They may have come originally because of Wish's connection with celeb fashion designer Todd Oldham (who gave both the eatery and the Deco dream hotel housing it a complete makeover) but came back for Curto's cooking.
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Obviously this is a hard act to follow. But Wish fans who dine with an open mind are likely to find that once again a star is born, in new chef E. Michael Reidt. The former chef and co-owner of Boston's new Latin-flavored Bomboa took over at Wish earlier this summer, after Curto decided to take a break to get married, breathe, and do other stuff she's had no time for in the past three years.
Reidt and Curto actually share some similarities. Both are young, around 30 years old; both have racked up numerous "hottest young chef awards" (in fact Reidt's most recent, a pick as one of Food and Wine's top ten newcomers nationally for 2001, is an honor Curto scored last year); both are Culinary Institute of America grads; and both favor many of the same main ingredients. But when it comes to style, similarities end. Curto's was the broadest sort of international fusion (Italian, French, Asian, Southern, Southwestern, Northeastern, and Latin American, you name it), with an emphasis on big bold-flavored accessibility. Reidt's more innovative and complex dishes apply the subtlety of French technique to the ingredients and other influences of Brazil, from its old Portuguese past to its New Latin passion. That's not to say one chef's stuff is better or worse; they're equally satisfying but different.
Take a pan-seared scallop appetizer. Whereas Curto's scallops came atop a hearty adzuki bean purée, with easily understandable sides of Thai sticky rice, blackened corn, and pecans, Reidt's accompaniments were nearly impossible to analyze. The two huge but tender shellfish were served over brandade de morue, in its original old-world incarnation a homey -- and especially in versions incorporating potatoes -- usually heavy dried salt-cod purée. Reidt's whipped-to-air-lightness brandade substituted fresh halibut for the salt cod and tasted like mashed potatoes gone to Heaven. Baby corn broth, which I skeptically envisioned as either creamed corn glop or thin overly healthy stuff like formerly fashionable tomato water, was slightly sweet and subtly sumptuous -- great gravy. Brandied onions added a touch of texture and sophistication.
Bolino de bacalhau proved to be a much updated and upgraded take on the traditional fried salt-cod patties one finds everywhere in Portugal and its former South American outpost. Those who miss old-style smooth crabcakes will find these bolinos ideal comfort food. Offsetting the richness were a mizuna greens bed, a salad of tomatoes and plantains (an unlikely combination that worked), and, instead of tartar sauce, a tropically exotic ginger aioli.
Reidt's avocado vichyssoise, as solidly satisfying but less solid (and much more refreshing) than the traditional preparation, makes one wonder why more chefs haven't thought of substituting avocados for potatoes. The chilled soup's silkiness and natural sweetness were emphasized by contrasting ingredients (too plentiful to be considered a garnish): crunchy diced sweet peppers, salty caviar, and a huge heap of smoked shrimp. I'd have preferred a higher proportion of liquid to solids, but that's a judgment call; hearty eaters no doubt will adore all the accouterments.
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A fine feel for contrast also was key to the success of a goat cheese starter, the rich, tangy, soft cheese complemented by savory roasted garlic, spiced walnuts, and crunchy jicama (a tropical root vegetable that should be used more here; imagine intensified water chestnuts). Unfortunately the dish was marred by heirloom tomatoes that, while doubtless very expensive, were as mushy and tasteless as typical nonpedigreed supermarket mongrels.
One entrée exemplified the chef's skilled New Brazilian treatment. Rare tuna is ubiquitous in every restaurant but not accompanied by absolutely mind-blowing charred watermelon, smoky and spicy yet somehow as juicy as raw melon; not topped with avocado hollandaise; and especially not flavored with grown-up sophistication by a marinade of cachaça liqueur. You like caipirinhas? You'll love this tuna.
Desserts by pastry chef Katya Batlle cap dinner with similarly creative complement-by-contrast style. Sweet-and-sour plums and icy coconut sorbet individualize what would otherwise be a dead ringer for Pacific Time's famous chocolate bombe, and the extreme caramel sweetness of a dulce de leche mille-feuille is beautifully countered with a ball of bracing balsamic ice cream.
What's particularly rewarding about Wish's new cuisine, for those who are pretty darned good amateur cooks, is that it's definitely "don't try this at home!" fare; one could not begin to imagine how to duplicate most dishes in home kitchens. Fortunately Wish's physical space, especially the tropically lush outdoor fountain court, remains so stylishly South Florida that one couldn't imagine wanting to try.