Birth of a Notion

It's tough giving birth to two babies at the same time, especially when they're not twins. Just ask Andrea Curto-Randazzo and Frank Randazzo, who have been in precisely that uncomfortable position for the past eighteen months or so. The former executive chefs of Wish and the Gaucho Room, respectively, became partners in both romance and business when they married more than a year ago. They had planned to open Talula, a restaurant name inspired by Curto's childhood nickname, Tallulah Bankhead (apparently she was a particularly dramatic youngster), soon after the ceremony. Instead they found themselves strapped into stirrups they hadn't anticipated: The restaurant scheme was delayed for a variety of reasons -- problems with banks, backers, and landlords -- and Curto unexpectedly became pregnant with the couple's first child.

Two major projects in gestational stages? Talk about growing pains. Yet little Isabella arrived in a timely manner, and while Talula has been slow to arrive, it looks as if the chefs-owned restaurant is finally in its last trimester.

"Everything that had fallen apart came back together when Isabella was born," Curto says. "She closed all our deals with us."

"Yeah, but the bank deal took so long she pooped on it," Randazzo chimes in.

Nevertheless Talula is finally committed to a location, albeit its third one. Originally it was slated to open in the Mama Viejo restaurant space on 23rd Street in Miami Beach. Then the proposed venue moved down the block to the Palm Court building, whose business space has been vacant since its renovation several years ago. When that fell through, the chefs toured the nearby former home of Divina (then Chow, then Divina again). The place needed a good deal of work, but as Randazzo says, "It wasn't more than anywhere else. The renovation here is actually less than what was needed at the other locations."

Thus the chefs will be staying in the area, just off Collins Avenue at the north end of South Beach, directly across the newly widened and repaved 23rd Street from where they first had envisioned themselves. Interior and exterior construction on Talula has not only commenced but is proceeding at a rapid clip.

It might be more accurate, however, to call the work deconstruction. The day I visited for a walk-through, the toilet fixtures were on the back patio, sponge-painted drywall was falling in sheets, and debris stretched from the front door to the kitchen. The only elements of the dining space that will remain, it seemed clear, are the basic dimensions of the high-ceilinged room, which includes an open kitchen where the chefs will position about five barstools for curious or heat-tolerant diners.

Everything else, from the dilapidated oven to the knotted ficus trees that currently grace the restaurant, will be replaced by more professionally functional -- not to mention aesthetically pleasing -- goods. Eventually the décor highlights of Talula will include a stone floor, a Chicago brick wall, and patterned banquette covers done in shades of maroon. The urban feel will be completed by what the couple describes as a "New York bar, where you can have a drink and a conversation." Expensive remodel? Yes. But Randazzo admits, "I've worked for this all my life. I don't want to screw it up just to save a little money."

For the time being Randazzo not only oversees the renovation but does much of the physical stuff himself, while Curto keeps four-month-old Isabella out of the dust. "I have to keep ahead of the contractors," he says. "If I'm not involved 100 percent, this project will go on for months." The chefs aim to open mid-April, but Randazzo cautiously notes that nothing is definite.

Other fundamentals are setting almost as firmly as wet cement. The hours, for instance, have been determined, but only in terms of what the debut will sustain. "Right now we'll be open six nights. Business will dictate the seventh day," Randazzo calculates. "Lunch scares me -- you either hit it big or not at all. But if we do it, it'll probably be something like Wednesday through Saturday."

Most important, though, price points have been determined and the menu written and tested. Main courses will range from $18 to $30 in order to accommodate regulars on the low end of the scale and attract tourists on the higher end. "We want to be an option to Lincoln Road," Curto says.

With its location adjacent to the Beach's blossoming "cultural campus" (a new regional library under construction, the modernized Bass Museum, and shiny Miami City Ballet building), Talula has a solid chance of becoming just that option. But its biggest attraction, aside from the baby who seems destined to be reared quite literally in the business, is how these two top chefs will interact -- and the fare that will result.

Naturally each has kept on the list the one or two recipes that proved immensely popular at their previous haunts. Randazzo, for instance, will be offering his foie gras with caramelized figs, blue corn cakes, and chili syrup that I've always enjoyed at the Gaucho Room; and Curto will be featuring the salmon recipe that made her one of Food & Wine magazine's top ten chefs while she was at the helm of Wish.

For the most part, however, the cuisine will be a blend of their two unique styles. "Very few dishes are all Frank's or all mine," Curto explains. "One comes up with an idea and we finish it together. If there's one element missing, the other can supply it." The pair will also handle their own desserts and keep about five cheese selections from small French and Italian producers on hand to make a board. In fact each menu category will have only five to ten offerings, a streamlined way of keeping the ingredients fresh and prices on the lee side of outrageous.

"Basically our goal is to be reputable in our business practices," Randazzo adds, partly because their combined prior experiences, which include working at Tribeca Grill in New York City and Pacific Heights in Coral Gables together, make the chefs both earnest and sincere. And partly, it should be noted, because their next venture, a 12,000-square-foot project in Coral Gables funded by the same sources as Talula, depends on it. But if the proof is in the pudding, then the product of their first collaboration -- pink-and-white Isabella, big blue eyes, tiny pointed chin -- hints that not only Talula but future endeavors will be the equivalent of an unqualified success.

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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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