To enter Bianca, the Delano Hotel restaurant that arrived at January's end, is to step back in time to South Beach during the heady '90s. In those days, fine-dining establishments could charge what they wanted for whatever fussed-up fusion cuisine they felt like serving. They could provide negligent service and give off the sort of pretentious, condescending attitude for which SoBe came to be known. Blue Door at the Delano was one such place, but to compare that Claude Troisgros conception to Bianca is unfair — not just because the Las Vegas-based Light Group took over the Delano's eatery from China Grill Management last year, but also because Blue Door had great cuisine.
Somebody forgot to slip Bianca the news that dining in SoBe — and the rest of Miami-Dade — isn't the same as it used to be. We're over the overpricing, overhyping, and overbearing snootiness. We now have not only quality high-end establishments that care about locals, but also a stable of affordable neighborhood restaurants that dole out delectable chef-driven fare. In other words, we don't have to take it anymore.
At least Bianca's space is welcoming. The walk to the restaurant, through the updated but still sexily stylized Delano lobby, has always been an eye-opening treat. The lounge that buffers indoor and outdoor seating sections has been comfortably remodeled; the dining room interior, warmly dressed in cream and taupe, is likewise cozier. The outdoor veranda, generally the preferred seating area, remains as breezily inviting as ever.
Bianca's executive chef is Brian Massie, but the menu appears to have been written by a focus group — worse, a focus group of conservative diners who haven't been out of the house much lately. Starters are salmon carpaccio; burrata and prosciutto; "12 hour" meatballs; and grilled langoustine, octopus, or sardines. The last dish comes garnished with shaved fennel, apple, and Sicilian olives, one of the few creative matchups.
Our waiter could barely conceal his contempt at my decision to split the grilled octopus as a light bite before our second course of pasta. "It's very little," he curtly informed, which is not necessarily what one wants to hear when ordering a $26 appetizer. The slender tentacle arrived sliced into one-inch sections, coated with a sweet balsamic glaze atop seven warmed, shallot-dappled petite tomato halves. The sweetness is unconventional, and perhaps too unsavory for some palates, but it plays well enough against the aggressive char of the octopus.
Salmon carpaccio brings papery rounds of the coral-colored fish centered by lightly dressed petite frisée leaves, with thin baguette slices brushed with olive oil on the side. Capers dot the salmon, but the descriptive promise of "preserved lemon" evidently refers to a regular lemon half in a gauze wrap. It's a pretty standard presentation, though it was served ice-cold (instead of room temperature) and could have used a drizzle of quality olive oil.
Spaghetti pomodoro, pappardelle Bolognese, linguine with clams, and rustic spaghetti carbonara run $27 to $37; truffle tagliatelle with truffles and cream goes for $58. Pomodoro is emblematic of elemental Italian cooking that relies on just a few ingredients. The version created by Scott Conant, executive chef of Scarpetta in New York City and Miami Beach, is one of this town's most talked-about dishes; Conant understands that the simpler the composition, the more vital the execution becomes. Bianca's rendition, with "San Marzano tomatoes, basil, and pecorino cheese," contained too much heat from red pepper, too strong a tomato-paste taste, and so jarring an amount of salt as to render the other criticisms irrelevant. The staff couldn't fill our water glasses fast enough — so they didn't try.
Roast chicken is another basic food, and one that quite a few chefs are trying their hand at these days. Again, elevating this comfort item to exquisiteness depends on doing it just right — something a diner might expect when shelling out $36 for half a chicken. Bianca produced a fresh, moist bird with agreeable flavor (and preserved lemon), and escarole beneath was adeptly sautéed with garlic. The skin, however, was not close to crisp, and though rosemary appeared in the menu description, it did not show up on the chicken. Still, this would be a very satisfying plate of food at half the price.
The other four entrées (there are no specials) are veal chop with parsnip purée, pancetta, and Brussels sprouts ($58); steamed snapper with (another) cherry tomato salad ($39); salt-roasted branzino with Tuscan potatoes ($56); and sirloin bistecca with "crispy truffle potatoes" ($46, but only $44 if you get it at lunch). The steak was a thick, well-marbled, off-the-bone strip — darkly seared, assertively seasoned, juicy medium-rare, and very tasty. The truffle potatoes were neatly hand-cut french fries, greasy rather than crisp — partly from truffle oil, partly from the frying process.
The wine list, incidentally, is short and mundane, but whatever it lacks in evocative labels is compensated for by vigorous markups.
Some of the à la carte vegetable sides are culled from local farms, including heirloom carrots with raisins and pine nuts; organic spinach with black truffle cream; and spaghetti squash with garlic, tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese ($11 each).
We waited for main course plates to be removed from the table. We waited some more, and then some more. It wasn't as though there weren't enough staff. On the contrary: At one point, while our empty dishes sat, five workers chatted at a nearby station and two others, perhaps managers, stood near the same spot and surveyed the room — except their gazes were grazing beyond the tables, as if scanning the horizon for someone who mattered, someone like Donald Trump.
Perusing the dessert selection elicits a feeling that the Bianca team isn't even trying. It's not just that tiramisu, vanilla panna cotta, New York cheesecake, and gelato/sorbet ($12 each) are choices one sees at a routine restaurant, but they're so pedestrian as to likewise resemble items in the refrigerated section at Walgreens.
A plate of dolcetti misti, however, turned out to be a highlight of the meal. The large board of mini-Italian pastries takes up much of the table and includes a trio of fresh beignet spheres with chocolate dipping sauce; a duo of cannoli; a decadent dome of chocolate ganache; almond cake topped with fruit; a couple of chocolate-coated biscotti; and a white-chocolate-coated profiterole. It's a $14 dessert that is obviously portioned for at least two people, which makes it one of the better deals here — although it would help if the waiter would mention it's meant to be shared.
Our dinner began well too, with crisp-crusted minibaguettes and soft, wheaty slices of crusty country bread. What it did not begin with was an amuse-bouche, and at evening's end there were no petits fours, nor a goodbye or any other acknowledgment that we'd just plunked down hundreds of dollars. The staff, perhaps, was too busy resetting our table for the next suckers.