If there could be such a thing as an upside to war, it would be the exchange of culinary ideas that takes place between clashing nations. Had our soldiers not developed a taste for pizza while they were stationed in Naples during World War II, who knows if those Italian pies would have caught on in the States? And although France did Vietnam no favors with colonization, at least it left behind an appreciation for relaxing at a sidewalk table over café au lait and finely flaked pastries. Sometimes, as with the current conflict in Iraq, there are not even gastronomic victories. All we're likely to end up with are an excess of kebab stands, and many years from now, when Iraqis finally emerge from this mess, they'll find themselves stuck in a quagmire of McDonald's restaurants.
There is an easier way to inherit a multicultural culinary awareness: genetics. Like, say, being sired by a Vietnamese mother and an Italian-American father. That's how Michael Bloise began life in a town north of Tampa. The meals whipped up by his mom and Italian grandmother instilled an appreciation for good food, which young Michael carried with him when he settled on the east coast of Florida to pursue a career in cooking: schooled at Johnson & Wales, executive sous chef with Frank Randazzo at the Gaucho Room in the Loews Hotel, and in November 2001 named to the same position under E. Michael Reidt at Wish (in the Todd Oldham-designed The Hotel on South Beach). Two years later Bloise replaced Reidt, and he has been there ever since.
Warm olive-walnut bread, sesame-seed-studded flatbreads, and a dish of cilantro-spiked black bean dip ignited the meal in proficient fashion. The most petite of amuse-bouchées — three fragile fingerling potato chips and a dab of aioli — kept things rolling along nicely. A starter of Croatian bluefin toro put on the brakes. I had never thought of this country, situated by the warm Adriatic Sea, as a source for tuna, but in 1996 a savvy Croatian entrepreneur set up a bluefin ranch there (where captive fish are fattened for the lucrative sashimi market). Thin, heartily salted slices of pale beige flesh came shingled in the center of a rectangular glass plate and were propped up by a tangle of bland Asian noodles. The tuna's texture was grainy, and the fishy taste unpleasantly akin to that of sardines, though skinny rounds of spicy watermelon coolly countered it. On the other hand, I had never thought of this fruit as being much of a match with noodles. I still don't.
An appetizer combo that did click was "cake and steak," a rock-shrimp-studded patty (similar to a thick Chinese scallion pancake) atop a plush, juicy round of grilled deckle steak (the flavorful cap covered the shoulder end of a prime rib), both enlivened by an arugula emulsion and chopped black olives. Clean, vibrant contrasts likewise defined a pristine main course fillet of crisply seared snapper bookended by two airy dollops of Vietnamese green tea foam — which did for the fish what whipped cream does for strawberries. Also sassing up the seafood was jasmine rice with grilled shrimp and smoky cubes of hard Chinese sausage. These dishes show Bloise at his whimsical and delectable best. The distinctive tastes are a testament to his rightful status as one of Miami's star chefs.
A fat Kurobuta pork chop proved lip-smacking as well, somehow retaining its succulence despite being overcooked to medium/medium-well. Substantial accompaniments included sautéed broccolini, a smudge of spicy Thai mustard, and a chubby puck of breaded, fried macaroni and cheese. The last was savorily upgraded with spaetzle, aged cheddar, and herbs, but like so many modern takes on this classic, it lacked the luscious ooziness of melted cheese that even frozen brands deliver.
It is the Vietnamese side of Bloise's family that informs Wish's mostly Asian-influenced contemporary American cuisine. Judging by the pheasant cacciatore, I think this is probably a good thing. The thin red sauce floated aromatic notes of garlic and wine; the leg with thigh attached was pleasantly accented with fresh thyme — the subtle effect of which, however, was shattered by a smattering of chopped cilantro on top. The first bite of the bird's breast had me wondering how they braised it so softly, but a few chews more got me thinking it might be partially raw. With the candlelight drawn near, I took a closer look at the remainder on my plate, and shiny pink meat confirmed my suspicions. Rounding out the dish were shavings of provolone cheese, and lackluster "noodles" of salsify that created a little crunch but not much punch.
The menu is limited enough in scope that if a one-week vacationer were to dine here every evening and choose a different starter, entrée, and dessert each time, all dishes could be sampled before check-out. When presenting so few options, one has to design the courses with care, or risk having diners scan the menu in panic — there's nothing here to eat! Bloise manages this deftly, and even within his limited canvas, paints a "vegetarian five" into the picture.
The idea is for the quintet to be "crafted as you wish," but when I asked if I could suggest vegetables, the waiter said, "No, the chef does that." A platter arrived bearing three cups, the center one filled with French onion soup capped by melted Gruyère cheese. The others contained, respectively, roasted corn and red peppers tossed with balsamic vinegar, as well as piquant, beet-soaked cubes of tofu. A cool cucumber-yogurt salad and roasted potato slices swathed in garlic aioli were arranged on either side of the cups. All vegetable variations vaguely satisfied, but small portions and lukewarm temperatures made it seem more relish tray than entrée. And strangely there were no greens. Why not serve the beautiful broccolini that accompanied the pork chop? I surely would have "crafted" things differently, but at least an attempt is being made to sate herbivores in a more ambitious manner than usual.
"Wish salad" brought a bright mingling of mint leaves, field greens, local baby bean sprouts, cashews, nubs of fresh pink litchi, and a sprinkling of litchi-mint vinaigrette. It was quite refreshing, and would have been absolutely sensational if tart green mango, the first item listed in the salad description, had been part of the equation. Instead there were three meager strips of the fruit in its ripe stage. It is incumbent upon the waiter to inform guests when the main component of their order isn't on hand.
Service was otherwise well executed, if not well tutored. Asked what came on a tropical fruit dessert plate, our server replied, "Bananas, strawberries ... melon ... and lots of others." For $16, those "others" better be more impressive than bananas. Let me add that I've never been a fan of the faded tie-dye uniforms the staff wears. Though I'm no stickler for formality, when paying $100 per dinner, I'd prefer the person serving me not be dressed like Joe Cocker at Woodstock.
It was a fairly humid evening, yet we asked to be seated outdoors. Wish's lushly foliated dining garden — canopied by tilted white canvas umbrellas and aglow with little lights wrapped around trees, an illuminated fountain, and cocktails concocted with electric ice cubes — is too seductive to resist. Plus the indoor portion of the restaurant, although nattily decorated, has always felt like a makeshift hotel lobby lounge — probably because it is situated in a hotel lobby, albeit partitioned off.
Fans are placed beside each outside table, which helps keep things breezy, but we were drinking lots of liquid just the same. We began with tap water served with ice cubes and then switched to bottled water served without. I kept drinking the regular stuff because it was so much colder. On my Wish list, for here and elsewhere, is that customers who order pricey bottles of water are shown the same respect as those who order a bottle of white wine — which means placing both in ice buckets. Maybe we should have stuck to the latter; the global but Napa-heavy list was chock full of respected labels at a predictable markup.
A mini loaf of pineapple-carrot cake could have been moister, but the flavor was there, and a transparent cream cheese glaze along with vanilla-infused crème fraîche on top made for a light, luscious frosting. Molten Valrhona chocolate cake, with a pistachio center, spiced berry compote, and pistachio ice cream, was the same old outfit newly accessorized. Peanut butter pie was more of a big candy bar than dessert. It sported dark chocolate on top and a pastry crust underneath a layer of puréed nut, with a pool of raspberry jam making a clever play on PB&J. Surprisingly a scoop of peanut butter gelato was of such poor texture that it crumbled on impact with a spoon.
"Surprisingly" partly because the pie costs $12; other desserts run $9 to $14, appetizers $17 to $24, nonveggie entrées $34 to $42. But the numerous shortcomings shocked more because of reputation: Wish is on just about everybody's short list of the Beach's best restaurants. As such, one doesn't expect crackly ice cream, overcooked pork, undercooked pheasant, green-mango-less mango salad, warm water, and uninformed waiters. Maybe it is a matter of resting on laurels, or perhaps the summer doldrums. Either way, it just goes to show that when you wish upon a star, or a restaurant, or a war, your dreams might not always come true.
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