A Rumi Rumination

They always say, be careful what you wish for. Who are "they"? Who the hell knows -- but screw 'em. Because I may be about to get what I've always wanted.

Almost exactly a year ago, I publicly entreated our native (or close enough to it) chefs to get out there and open their own upmarket places instead of relying on Mango-Gang mentors, cushy corporations, or acclaimed out-of-towners for media-ready jobs and near-guaranteed kudos. At the time I only had Kris Wessel, chef-proprietor of the brand-new Liaison, and Michelle Bernstein, erstwhile operator of The Strand, to applaud. We were about to lose our budding identity as a homegrown food city, due to the drought of local, ambitious talent -- a fire danger that only increased when Bernstein was wooed to debut Azul at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

By next season, however, I might be happily munching on my own words. Though I don't see folks enjoying Liaison's sophisticated southeastern cuisine as much as they should, Wessel has hung on to celebrate his first-year anniversary and, with a little support from the dining community, should make it to his second. Pascal Oudin, a veteran of the South Beach and Coconut Grove hotel dining room scene, finally launched Pascal's on Ponce and is enjoying mucho success. Michael Schwartz has let loose with Shoji Sushi, his third venture; former China Grill Management's Ephraim Kadish has struck out on his own with Breez and Parallel in Billboard Live.

Culinary life not looking good enough to eat yet? The fall should also bring the rise of former Wish executive chef Andrea Curto's venture, said to be planned in conjunction with fiancé and Gaucho Room executive chef Frank Randazzo. Carmen Gonzalez of Clowns and then Tamarind has hinted that she will be returning to the gastronomic public life after a long catering stint. And then there are the risk-takers behind soon-to-be-unveiled Rumi: twentysomething nightlife promoters Alan Roth and Sean Saladino, along with co-chefs Scott Fredel and J.D. Harris. Four South Beach-savvy boy joys running an eatery named after a mystical Persian poet from the Thirteenth Century, who penned lines such as "This day is a lover, bread, and gentleness/more manifest than saying can say?" Allow one word to do more saying than I can say: Yum.

Okay, I'm not really that shallow to be so easily won over by a group of guys who haven't yet heard of crow's-feet, love handles, and hair loss. (Sure I am, but that's another story.) I've actually been teasing the Rumi boys. According to who's been writing about it, the restaurant-slash-nightclub was supposed to have hit the Miami scene a blue moon or two ago. In fact the Miami Herald and South Florida Gourmet reported that the restaurant would hang its shingle in mid-March; Black Book claimed it would debut in April; and Ocean Drive and Ego Trip thought May was more like it.

Indeed those publications were circumspect. In February Street reported about Rumi in the present tense, saying that the restaurant "comes complete with a Murphy bed that pulls out from the wall to accommodate the throngs of lizardlike scenesters who make the nightly migration from their own tattered couches to those in clubland." Also in February, Harper's Bazaar claimed that Rumi "is replete with dark wood, plush fabrics, and undulating Plexiglas." The March issue of Meetings & Conventions, a trade journal, announced in March: "Open less than a month, supper club Rumi is across the street from the Art Deco Albion Hotel." American Way, the in-flight magazine for American Airlines, notes in its May issue that "very-now designer Nancy Mah marries vintage-'40s simplicity with luxury fabrics and sci-fi lighting at this new SoBe nightspot. Go for the fresh, chef-caught fish.... Order a kumquat martini and linger postmeal in the restaurant-turned-drinkery when the music amps up, queen-size Murphy beds snap down, and the place is transformed for serious lounging. Ooh la la."

More like oh no no. Yes, Rumi was done by New Yorker-in-demand Nancy Mah, the designer dominatrix of the supper-club scene. (She's responsible for Manhattan's Sushi Samba and Lotus.) Oui, Rumi is located across from the Albion (and next to the former Bar Room). And , the chefs, who are South Florida natives, really will serve the fish they catch in Scott Fredel's 32-foot Contender (though really only as a gimmick to supplement their regular purveyor-provided supply).

But let's be truthful, not to mention specific. There ain't no lounge lizards, because there ain't no lounge. There ain't no queen-size Murphy bed -- singular -- or, for that matter, any queens to loll around on it. And nothing so far is replete and undulating but the construction workers' bellies as they guzzle beverages in front of the papered windows. Why? Because (and I swear, I've been repeating myself a lot lately, so listen carefully) Rumi isn't open yet.

Of course the key word is yet. Roth and Saladino insist "definitely July 16" is the target date for opening, and to tell the truth, I believe them. No, I'm not gullible. (Sure I am, but that's another story.) But unlike the other journalists who merely swallowed the press release at face value, I was, by virtue of my skepticism, granted a tour of the premises. And while certain design elements like the mirrors (weighing about a ton) and the 26-piece chandelier (about 2600 pounds), had not yet been installed in the 37-foot-high ceiling at press time, at least I could see that they were about to be. In other words there were enough people wielding hammers, saws, and other objects capable of cementing the Moroccan brickwork and parquet floors, imported in planks from South America, that I could assume work was being done. Which is about two tons more than I can say for the suspiciously quiet Cafeteria space I passed on the way to Rumi.

And perhaps I shouldn't have been ribbing Rumi quite so hard. The restaurant has only been in development for a year. During that time Roth and Saladino, who have been partners in promoting club operations like the Magic Garden at the Albion, solicited senior partner Eric Levin and investor Carlos Garcia, the Mexican club lord who would front the three million dollars (I did say three million). They found the location, a narrow seventeen-foot wide slot that had been vacant for 30 years on the unfashionable part of Lincoln Road, a strip of the mall about which Saladino says with a touch of hero worship: "Chris Paciello was a pioneer in this area. When the Bar Room opened, everyone was blown away." They interviewed for an executive chef and wound up with a pair of chefs who have been friends since childhood, who in turn got a "freestyle Floribbean" menu together fast enough to have a dish photographed for the misleading American Way piece. In Miami time? Twelve months means, damn, Rumi was built fast.

Still, I can't be quite so cavalier about the eatery's prospects as Manhattan File, which claims that Rumi is "destined for A-list greatness." And not only because Saladino's choice of role model Paciello is suspect (make that guilty as charged). While the Bar Room made it -- however briefly and notoriously -- Mayya, located in the Albion, didn't. The Rumi spot is clearly a 50-50 gamble.

Plus the current market is glutted with supper clubs like Touch, Tantra, and yadda yadda. Even so, I am going to allow myself to be convinced of one more thing. No, I'm not easily swayed (I am, but ...). I do think these young men are veterans in their own way. Fredel and Harris have trained under some of the best celebrity chefs in the world, including The French Laundry's Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, and our own Norman Van Aken. They're insisting on keeping the dining room to a comfortable 75 seats, and will not allow cocktail tables to be mixed into the dining area. "You'll never be having dinner with a bunch of people next to you ordering just a bottle of champagne," Fredel promises. "We spent $85,000 on banquettes alone. We've even thought about table height. There won't be a bad seat in the room."

Harris, the more reflective personality of the pair, nods in agreement and adds, "Everything will be done to order. The menu is simple but the fare [think conch and corn chowder with coconut and curried popcorn, or wahoo poached in olive oil with marinated lentils and hearts of palm] will be the absolute best."

Then there's the management team to consider. Having hung around promoting parties for half a dozen years now, Roth and Saladino have what they call "collective experience." Saladino puts it simply: "We've seen the mistakes others have made. We've seen the rise and falls, why people have been to the top and been to the bottom. We never want to be compared to Pearl and Opium." No doubt the Murphy bed eventually will inspire B.E.D. references, but to avoid other such collating, Roth and Saladino have taken supper-club dining to a more sophisticated level. Lighting will be controlled by a computer, so parts of the dining room can be more brightly lit than others. Music also will be zoned, so diners won't be overcome by acid beats from the lounges and DJ booth upstairs. Spoken-word performances by celebrity guests like actor Michael Madsen will be part of the agenda.

The question remains about whether a supper club will stay part of our artistic collective consciousness -- or make that unconsciousness -- for long. But at least Rumi, by virtue of its name if nothing else, has a shot at becoming poetry in motion.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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