At the SLS South Beach, a red carpet leads upstairs to the entrance of the Bazaar by José Andrés, where a pair of models costumed as Las Vegas showgirls stand by to greet guests.
Two showgirls for a doubly auspicious occasion.
On this last Wednesday in May — the day restaurants across Miami and Miami Beach are reopening their dining rooms after a two-month hiatus ordered by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — the Bazaar is hosting a media preview of its Miami Spice menu.
Fittingly, the showgirls sport a new accessory to their accent their red-feathered headdresses and fishnet stockings: black facemasks.
A friendly host points the way to the newly installed hand-sanitizing station, where a sign bearing the hashtag #safelittlespace and a picture of a monkey holding a wine glass reminds diners to wear a mask and maintain social distancing. In the main dining room, every other table is occupied by large teddy bears and stuffed toy monkeys, a cheery method of enforcing the mandate that restaurants must operate at 50 percent capacity.
Welcome to the "New Normal."
"Our reopening focus is on safety," SLS South Beach general manager Dimitris Cosvogiannis tells New Times. "We sanitize every night, but no one is around to see that. What people do see are the sanitization stations and that everyone is wearing masks. The black masks are now issued as part of their uniforms."
Statewide reopening protocols require that patrons wear masks while on the property unless they're seated at their table. Cosvogiannis says the hotel keeps a stock of black SLS masks, individually sealed, in reserve. "Just yesterday, someone left their mask in the car," he says. "We provided him with a mask. We have them in abundance."
The hotel executive points out the additional mandated precautions — taking staff members' temperature and requiring food handlers to wear gloves. "This is for the well-being of staff as well as guests," he says. "Without our team, we have nothing."
And the teddy bears and monkeys?
"The chimpanzee is part of the SLS culture," Cosvogiannis explains. "You can see him printed on our tapestries. We couldn't find large monkeys, so we added teddy bears. Some restaurants are using mannequins, but I thought they looked a little spooky. We thought the bears would bring a level of coziness while reminding people of social distancing."
Masked showgirls and stuffed monkeys notwithstanding, Cosvogiannis says that for now, the property is striving to downplay its sexy, whimsical playground reputation.
"We are trying to walk a line between having our guests have a wonderful experience while being respectful to the tremendous loss that so many of our fellow Americans have suffered. We want to pay homage to that, so our entertainment is secondary. Right now, our focus is on the culinary experience. It's a blend of our desire to bring back South Beach and the SLS coupled with the fact that we are not in the clear yet. We have to be mindful of that."
Small placards on each table contain a QR code that, when scanned on one's phone, generates the menu. Though most restaurants are still scrambling to get their Miami Spice menus approved before the recently announced June 1 start date, both the Bazaar and Katsuya, its sister restaurant at the SLS, are all set, and are offering a three-course prix-fixe dinner for $39 in addition to their full menus.
The Bazaar's focus is on Andrés' small plates, so its Miami Spice dinner consists of five courses as opposed to the standard three. "Gazpacho Patricia" arrived with multiple spoons, as did all the dishes, so that parties can share without fear of contamination. Diners can also opt for plastic utensils — another way COVID-19 is altering the foundation of fine dining.
The gazpacho, served with crusty, buttery bread slices, is cool and piquant — a fine reintroduction to dining out in Miami Beach.
Andres' other offerings on this year's Miami Spice menu might be familiar to veterans of Spices past: a composed Caprese salad with spheres of liquid mozzarella, Cuban coffee-rubbed churrasco, patatas bravas, and a deconstructed key lime pie, all make comebacks. Yet each dish, however familiar, somehow seems brighter, more flavorful, and handled with more care. So too the other dishes brought forth for the assembled media: shaved Brussels sprouts pop with a combination of acid and sweetness from lemon purée and dried apricots, and salmon en papillote is baked to perfection. Could it be that when limited to half as many customers to serve in the dining room, the kitchen can put a little more time into each dish? Is that why each little dot of meringue atop the key lime pie plate is torched to perfection?
Cosvogiannis concedes that it could be that the staff is more attentive. "The kitchen has more time to prepare. It's a very personalized experience," he says.
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The downside, of course, is that dining rooms are liable to be operating at far below 50 percent for some time to come. Some people will rush to the newly reopened restaurants, but many remain uncomfortable with the notion of sticking a fork into this unfamiliar new world. No restaurant can survive without reservations in the books.
Cosvogiannis hopes the potent combination of precise food overseen by a famed chef and elaborate safety precautions will lure diners back to Miami Beach.
"Are these levels of safety worth it? Absolutely," he says. "But other questions arise, like, 'Is this a permanent state of affairs?'
"Can we sustain these levels forever? Right now, our first concern is how can we be safe and serve food? The priority right now is on safety. Everything adapts to that."