Estiatorio Milos rolled into South Beach with a roar of pre-opening buzz this past May. Costas Spiliadis, who has four other Estiatorio locations in his global den, spared no expense in creating a splashy restaurant elegantly clad in white marble, rich woods, and pressed white linens. Glass windows fronting the room soar to a lofty ceiling, a blue-tiled open kitchen tracks along the back, and gauzy white curtains help to divide the restaurant into two sections (one of which includes a boldly backlit bar).
To the left of the dining arena is a 20-seat communal table in a gleaming "Marketa" of imported charcuterie, prepared foods, and Greek delicacies. Taking up the rear is a lovely library-style private dining room (where even the books on the shelves have been shipped from Greece).
If Estiatorio's loudly trumpeted entrance into the SoFi neighborhood created a stir, so did the sudden departure of head chef Sean Bernal after the establishment had been open only two weeks. Milos, it turns out, is full of surprises.
The first minor one comes when the waiter brings a small potted oregano plant and a pair of shears to the table and proceeds to snip the herb into a dish of Greek olive oil, which is meant to accompany slices of grilled, crusty country bread.
Diners are then encouraged to take part in the "Milos experience," as our waiter put it. This means getting escorted to an area in front of the kitchen where a bevy of iced Mediterranean seafood is displayed; guests may select their dinner fish at this time if they choose.
We're not talking about just familiar items such as Dover sole and branzino, but lesser-known species like skorpina, fagri, milokopina, and tsipoura. Waiters are very well versed in the catches on hand, giving crisp descriptions of taste, texture, and origin.
It's stunning not only to see such seafood in Miami, but also to read the price tags for each: Most cost more than $50 per pound. For optimum freshness, the fish is delivered daily from airport to restaurant in a refrigerated Mercedes van.
We wanted to start with some grilled sardines, but the kitchen was out. So we switched to two barbounia, better known as red mullet. The duo arrived quite a bit later, deftly fried and dappled with herbs. The mullet is a bottom-feeder, which isn't exactly exotic, but the big flakes fairly burst with moist, richly luscious shellfish flavor.
The fish was listed on the menu as "market price," but I didn't ask the waiter what it might be. I thought, Surprise me. It was $57 per pound. Each fish weighed a third of a pound, so the total came to $19 each, or $38.
Skorpina is a red, fierce-looking fish with venomous spikes; the name translates to "scorpion." Because of this fact, many people believe that if it's not prepared properly, eating it can be dangerous. Not true. Just avoid stepping on one while barefoot.
What is true is that the skorpina ($57 per pound) was delicious. It is the Aegean equivalent of the Atlantic rockfish — possessing firm white flesh and arriving garnished, as most fish here are, with Greek olive oil, lemon, and sea salt. I'd requested the smallest specimen in the ice display for a main course. When the check arrived, I saw it was 1.6 pounds with head and bones — or $91.77.
"Who can afford to pay these prices?" my dinner companion asked. At that very moment, as if on cue, a ten-top of diners took their seats — Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, and Alonzo Mourning among them, perhaps pitching a free agent or two over extravagantly priced dinners.
But notwithstanding such a circumstance: Can a fish be worth $92? I'll just say it was exemplary.
Thing is, you can get off the hook for a lot less. For instance, we asked for the most petite skorpina because it was to be for a single person; most diners order a larger fish and split it. So had we paid $110 to share a heftier specimen, it would have been $55 apiece — not exactly cheap, but less extreme than $91 for one meal. Plus there are other set seafood items on the menu, such as charbroiled halibut, swordfish, and tuna loin, each with an accompaniment, for $42 to $49.
There are meats too: grilled, dry-aged, certified USDA Prime, with all the beef from Creekstone Farms. Among the cuts is a bone-in New York strip, bone-in rib eye, and Tomahawk rib eye.
The best money-saver is a four-course, $49 prix fixe menu, offered Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 5 p.m. to close (a similar three-course menu is available at lunch for $20.12). It's a wonderful meal, although it might have been even better if the kitchen had not been out of charred octopus and fried calamari — two of the three first-course choices.
Maryland crabcake it was then, and a good one at that: almost exclusively herbed lump crabmeat. An oniony piazzi bean purée and skordalia sparkled on the side.
For the second course, I selected an heirloom "tomato" salad — really a cucumberless horiatiki of barrel-aged feta cheese, kalamata olives, red onion, olive oil, and tomatoes (which were not as sweet as one would hope).
The prix fixe continues with a choice of Mediterranean sea bass lavraki (branzino) from the protected waters of Cephalonia, or a long-stemmed Colorado USDA Prime lamb chop. The latter was as tender as could be (but cooked a shade under the requested state), imbued with charbroiled flavor, and dappled with accents of lemon and oregano. Steamed broccoli and cauliflower were well seasoned and boldly buttered, and roasted Greek fries arrived as moist, lemony spears.
Baklava or walnut cake completes the prix fixe and are also offered on the regular menu. The cake is fresh, if heavy on allspice aromatics; mastic ice cream alongside is similarly spiced but boasts a richly dense texture (mastic is a resin used in chewing gum, pastries, sweets, and in the Greek liqueur mastichato).
Returning to the regular menu: Raw bar selections are few, with only avgotaraho (bottarga) being a bit out of the ordinary. It's the roe of Mediterranean gray mullet "cured in the handpicked sea salt of the Aitoliko."
Mezze spreads such as taramosalata and skordalia (the latter an almond, garlic, and oil emulsion) are smoother and more refined than most renditions. The "Milos special," a tower of cleanly fried zucchini and eggplant with kefalograviera cheese and a pool of tzatziki, is also prepared with uncommon aplomb. Charred octopus, speckled with oregano and Santorini capers and lightly splashed with red-wine vinegar and olive oil, is likewise a solidly satisfying take.
Vegetarians (and diners who appreciate vegetables) are catered to via a half-dozen preparations, such as baby beets with roasted garlic and mint yogurt, grilled vegetables with haloumi cheese, and a trio of wild mushrooms grilled with thyme.
A majority of the 300 wines on hand come from Greece. There are some extravagant vintages, but bottles start at a reasonable $30, and wines by the glass range from $12 to $23.
Our waiter was more than proficient, but as dinner progressed, we were intermittently attended to by others who weren't as focused. A couple at the table adjacent to ours, who had requested their whole fish be served headless, were certainly taken aback when the fish arrived with head attached. The woman was literally repulsed, which is likely why they'd made the request to begin with.
There is surprise, and then there is shock — my reaction to seeing the 200-seat room packed to the gills. Evidently the recession hasn't yet trickled up to the top. Regardless, Estiatorio Milos offers exquisite seafood and Hellenic opulence for those who can afford it.