A short Mason jar of slightly warmed chicken liver spread arrives with planks of grilled country bread and an assortment of pickled vegetables. Gruyère-glazed popovers the color and size of baseball gloves come next (a BLT signature), accompanied by a petite ramekin of European butter thoughtfully protected on top by a round of parchment paper; the popover recipe is placed on the table as well. Water is poured, the menu articulated, sage wine pairing advice provided upon request by the sommelier.
BLT elicits a considerable wow factor before the first course even gets served.
The original Laurent Tourondel steak house and "New American bistro" debuted on New York City's 57th Street in 2004. This most recent branch at the Betsy Hotel, on the north end of Ocean Drive, is BLT Steak number eight (other sites stretch from Los Angeles to Scottsdale to San Juan). There are also two BLT Burgers, a BLT Prime, a BLT Market, a BLT Fish, and a BLT Fish Shack. Seems that wherever Tourondel plants a BLT, crowds grow, so we don't question the man's business savvy. Still, when considering the bounty of seafood in South Florida waters, the dearth of seafood restaurants in South Beach, and the absurd abundance of steak houses, it's surprising Tourondel didn't try a BLT Fish here.
BLT Steak: The Betsy Hotel, 1440 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; 305-673-0044; bltrestaurants.com. Daily for breakfast 7 to 11:30 a.m.; lunch noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7 p.m. to midnight.
The suede-swathed, taupe-toned, 88-seat restaurant occupies much of the Betsy's lobby and aesthetically fits the bill for a New American bistro: suave, understated, a somewhat supper club-ish arrangement of potted palms and black-top tables upon a terrazzo floor, with slotted blinds drawn over large windows. BLT evidently lives by the old saw about the best customer being one that is well informed, for descriptions of Kobe, Wagyu, Black Angus, and the like are neatly stenciled in chalk upon a blackboard running the length of one of the walls. Postcards at the entrance contain tips about the choosing, storing, and cooking of steaks; flip the page over and an Angus beef chart indicates precisely where the cut comes from. About the only info missing is the cow's name and pet peeves.
But before the steaks came, we received stalks of jumbo white French asparagus as pretty as a perfectly Photoshopped picture: thick, tender spears dappled with bright orange circles of candied kumquat, magenta-hued sections of seared blood orange, black and breakfast radishes, and Thai basil. Vivid smears of Meyer lemon purée and salsa verde visually dazzled, though the latter proved too gutsy for the gossamer ingredients.
Tomato salad brought juicy wedges of variously hued heirlooms tweaked Greek salad-style via thin slices of cucumber and red onion, black olives, fresh basil, shavings of ricotta salata, and sweet square snippets of golden watermelon. The tart vinaigrette dressing satisfied in a conventional way, but a splash of olive oil with a hint of acid might have proved less intrusive upon the true tomato tastes.
Appetizers comprise almost entirely cold dishes, including shrimp cocktail, tuna tartare, hamachi with yuzu vinaigrette, and raw bar selections such as clams, oysters, and stone crabs. Even the moist, lusciously herbed crab cake comes pooled in chilled dill-flecked Meyer lemon dressing and crowned with a refreshing salad of orange, seared watermelon, shaved fennel, and radish. Dishing cool starters seems logical as a means of preceding a hearty steak dinner. An absence of bacon on the menu of a place called BLT might appear to make little sense, but the acronym stands for Bistro Laurent Tourondel. The chef de cuisine is Samuel Gorenstein.
A nightly menu of supplementary "blackboard" specials (not listed on the blackboard) generally consists of a pair each of starters, entrées, sides, and desserts. The aforementioned asparagus dish was culled from this list, as was a main course of prime top cap. The sliced, crisply charred, handsomely marbled ten-ounce steak, which runs around the rib eye, packed a porterhouse's worth of beefy flavor. Cipollini onions braised softly in red wine came drizzled over the steak, and smoked sea salt was sparsely sprinkled upon it.
BLT steaks are USDA Prime, certified Black Angus, or Wagyu — dry-aged, broiled at 1,700 degrees, and finished with a brushing of herb butter. Our 16-ounce New York strip was apparently cut from an angst-filled Angus, whose meat was shockingly tough and juiceless — to the point that one imagines the same regrettable characteristics even had it not been overcooked to a medium/medium-well state. We could also have done without the herb-garlic mix on the meat, which detracts from the natural flavor. Who would have thought the low point of our meals at BLT Steak would be the steak? Diners get a choice of traditional side sauces such as peppercorn, chimichurri, mustard, and a terrific tarragon-tangy béarnaise.
The husky flavor of smoked paprika (the spice of the moment) is surprisingly compatible with crisply fried logs of yuca — a side also plucked from the specials list. À la carte vegetables and starches from the regular bill of fare include a tall stack of signature onion rings, crunchily battered and neatly piled atop one another in descending size; and puffy-light "Parmesan gnocchi" bobbing in marinara sauce with an overly high hat of shredded namesake cheese — and possessing a strangely un-gnocchi-like, Tater Tots texture.
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Nonsteak entrées are rosemary chicken, veal chop, rack of lamb, braised short ribs, and seven-spice duck breast with foie gras and mango mustard. The half-dozen seafood selections include Dover sole, honey-marinated Alaskan black cod, grilled spiny lobster in ginger scallion broth, and a plump, harissa-crusted swordfish steak succulently grilled and brightly profiled with olive oil and lemon.
If only musical notes drifting a bit too loudly through the room were as carefully composed as the cuisine. Sappy '70s rock was playing over the speakers when we arrived and rather quickly descended even further into ubiquitous restaurant thump-thump tunes that mar so many a meal (specifically, we went from "A Horse with No Name" to a song with no melody). It is something of a mystery as to why so many establishments treat the soundtrack to the dining experience as nothing but an afterthought.
Diners can choose three or five of eight all-American artisanal cheeses ($12/$17), with options encompassing the familiar Humboldt Fog goat's milk from Cypress Grove Dairy in California, to the less common Bayley Hazen Blue, a raw, Stilton-esque cow's milk from Greensboro, Vermont. Those who prefer a more sugary finale can find comfort in a round of blueberry-lemon meringue pie with a sweetly brittle pâte sucre crust, lemon curd, baked berries, and a cap of what appear to be roasted mini-marshmallows but are short cylinders of browned meringue. Nicely done, but a quenelle of lemon-verbena sorbet on the side stole the show — the citrus notes so intensely electrifying as to redefine scintillation. On our return, we savored a warm, exceptional disk of spiced carrot cake with rich ginger ice cream melting on top.
The waitstaff was sharp on one visit, dull on another. The latter meal ended with the cardinal sin of service: a ridiculously long wait for the check and then another delay before getting it picked up (our waiter was stretched thin; the manager was oblivious). Perhaps the highest praise we can afford BLT Steak is that the dining experience was strong enough to overwhelm this feeble final impression.