Dewey LoSasso likes to have fun.
At AQ by Acqualina, the stylish restaurant that opened in a towering, Venetian-style Sunny Isles Beach hotel-condo this past April, the mustached chef plays with dishes such as green eggs and ham. A 20-minute wait precedes a bubbling martini glass layered with sweet mascarpone cheese tinted emerald green thanks to tiny chopped chives and an egg baked until the white is solid but still jiggly. The luxurious twin slices of fatty, salty jamón ibérico round out the Seuss-inspired starter.
Then there's the quartet of small falafels. Spheres of lightly fried, curry-infused chickpea fritters are presented like modern art, rolled freely onto a wide white platter amid dabs of rich ricotta cheese, a sprinkling of crisped prosciutto slivers, and small matchsticks of black olives.
Serving light, playful bites in a lavish setting is the perfect fit for LoSasso, who until recently helmed the kitchen at the Forge, Shareef Malnik's iconic Miami Beach steak house. There LoSasso earned wide praise for reviving the dishes of a bygone era while expanding the menu with whimsical plates like lobster peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. At AQ, the two-page menu is constantly being adjusted as LoSasso finds his bearings. Surprisingly, few items on the seafood-centric bill of fare crest the $30 mark. There's the clever Spaghetti "O" With a Kick -- small pasta hoops with mushroom crema and charred serrano chilies -- and grilled salmon with horseradish mashed potatoes and pickled vegetable spears.
Nevertheless, it is a hotel restaurant menu, with the compulsory caesar salad, hamburger, and steak.
Still, Acqualina is unlike any hotel you've ever experienced. Rolls-Royces line up out front, and after you hand your car to a valet indifferent to any vehicle worth less than $100,000, a white-gloved doorman greets you. He swings open the glass barrier to a grandiose lobby with intricately patterned marble floors and sprawling red-and-gold oriental rugs. A concierge motions you toward the restaurant, which lies beyond a pair of towering white Venetian columns and a black marble tunnel with a gently gurgling waterfall.
The dining room is set in an opulent space that could easily double as a cocktail lounge or an extension of the ritzy entryway. But the space is rather generic, and an adjacent bar loudly interferes with AQ's fine-dining atmosphere. This was especially evident one night when a group of parents eager for cocktails and World Cup action corralled their dozen or so screaming, pizza-chomping children at a raised counter overlooking AQ's dining room.
A massive tasseled chandelier floods the room in a yellow glow. It hangs from a soaring ceiling, where intricate flower patterns carved into the wood fan out in all directions. Stunning bouquets of ivory orchids surround ashen marble-topped tables sitting on sumptuous cherry-wood flooring. Couples wearing matching Gucci shoes sip wine while relaxing on oversize pink-and-green floral sofas.
Despite the magnificence, service leaves much to be desired, especially the basics. A troupe of waiters that seems to outnumber diners two to one struggles to keep water glasses full. On two separate nights, a painfully slow stagger of dishes from the kitchen, at least a half-hour between appetizers and entrées, arrived without an apology from a server, who at one point hid his eyes from our dismay.
For all of LoSasso's inventiveness, the French onion soup looked as if it came from your grandfather's musty-smelling country club. Though pleasantly bubbly, the Gruyère cheese crust covered a broth that was too heavily seasoned with salt and thyme and lacked the luscious, buttery onions that should accompany each bite. A soggy piece of bread inside the soup could have been served on the side or as a long stick half in and half out, providing at least some measure of contrast and creativity.
A vibrant, multicolored bowl of lobster and mushroom gnudi arrived with oversize ricotta dumplings that were rich, well-seasoned, and tender without being overcooked. An intoxicating tomato broth lent an element of umami to the dish while striking the perfect balance of seasoning missed in the first course. However, it was difficult to get past the rubbery, dry nubs of lobster meat that were the centerpiece and justification for a $26 price tag. Each bite had to be chewed vigorously for fear of choking on what should have been buttery and tender.
Pan-seared black grouper was also overcooked, though the portion was thick and generously sized. The lone sweet, mild, juicy bite at the center of the fillet offered a glimpse of the delight that might have been. Bland dots of carrot-pomegranate reduction were only a touch sweet and sloppily dabbed around the fish in a vain attempt at haute-cuisine precision. The accompanying celery-apple root cake was a thin, greasy, flavorless disk that could have been turnip, parsnip, or any root vegetable after being boiled into submission.
A hanger steak requested medium-rare came out medium-well, with a sooty-tasting char that seemed to indicate the kitchen's grill was in need of cleaning. The bit of foie gras tucked into a disk of smashed sweet plantain was flavorful, but its subtle tang was lost when combined with the starchy-sweet fruit.
Simpler dishes offered more satisfying bites with a balance of flavors. Four bite-size chicken meatballs in a peppy orange marinara sauce could have easily been mistaken for a mixture of beef and pork. Fatty and juicy, they were not at all dry -- a fine start to a meal. A risotto of peas -- cutely named Peas, Peas, Peas Me... Baby -- was a bit too stiff but well seasoned, with the snap of sweet summer peas contrasting well with the rich, aggressively seasoned rice.
LoSasso sits atop a massive operation, so he doesn't deserve all the blame for AQ's misses. Under his direction, dozens of employees turn out dishes for guests and residents enjoying ocean views on Acqualina's Alice in Wonderland-inspired terrace, where blood-red-cushioned chairs rest atop a marble checkerboard and extend onto a grassy knoll manicured with golf-course-like precision.
"I've never been a big believer of just cleaning house," LoSasso says, adding that he took some staff from the Forge along with him to have "more quality people when it comes to cooking." More are needed.
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Given the opulent appointments and top ratings the hotel boasts, one would think it would've placed a skilled team behind the chef, who has both a following and name recognition.
The best bite of the night was a ginger flan served in a two-inch-wide cast-iron dish. The spicy ginger proved the perfect complement to the sweet custard. Not only was it light and refreshing, but it was also the sign that our two-and-a-half-hour ordeal was finally at its end.