A leggy, tan woman wearing a white halter top struts along a worn wooden dock overlooking the Miami River. Her lips curl to smile as she passes a glistening champagne bucket dripping with condensation and tables piled with cracked stone crab claws. A doe-eyed hostess escorts the woman and her husband, sporting white linen shorts and a rose gold Audemars Piguet, to a thick wooden table surrounded by heavy leather-and-wood chairs.
In the distance, a sleek, 60-foot pleasure cruiser lazes up the river. Deck hands scurry to tie up lines as a pastel-clad family gathers on the stern. As the boat docks, a deckhand's head begins bobbing to the beat of the restaurant's thumping techno. It doesn't take long, however, for the growl of the massive engines to overpower the nightclub anthem.
Diners furrow their brows. Is this a fine restaurant or a boatyard?
Compared to its far less glitzy neighbors -- Garcia's Seafood Grille and Casablanca Fish Market -- the airy, 250-seat Seasalt and Pepper looks like an effort at gentrification. When it was barely a month old, Jay Z and Beyoncé, as well as Gloria and Emilio Estefan, showed up the same night. DJ Bob Sinclar, actor Ryan Phillippe, and Khloé Kardashian have been spotted at its nearly impossible-to-reserve tables.
Perhaps it was co-owner Carlos Miranda's longstanding friendship with the Estefans and a handful of ladies from The Real Housewives of Miami that helped attract the glitz. Miranda, a real estate developer who has worked for Starwood, Hilton, and the Mandarin Oriental, partnered with Stephane Dupoux, designer of Nikki Beach and Paris' legendary Buddha Bar, to create a chic and expensive-looking space that's also effortlessly casual.
Seasalt's stark-white entryway is framed by glistening marble tile, white wood slats, and an oversize black-and-white photo of nude, reclining women. During an early Saturday brunch, when dozens of the oak-topped tables sat empty on the riverside patio, guests were asked to wait "just a moment" by a hostess standing behind a long mahogany table decorated with a vase of white tiger lilies. "Feel free to grab a drink at the bar," said another hostess, tall and slender with pouty lips.
See also: Photos of Seasalt and Pepper
A mere hour later, a phalanx of men wearing gold-framed aviator sunglasses and white linen shirts unbuttoned down to their stomachs stood at the shaded, stone-topped bar. Some seemed to relish the wait, as though a lengthier impasse would lead to a better meal.
Others were less enthusiastic, and multiple guests harangued sharply dressed managers about waits that stretched more than an hour past the appointed time.
Still, a warm glow and an excited din drift out of the luxuriously redecorated warehouses rumored to have once been owned by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. The lure is hard to resist. Zipping about the room, waiters carry massive charcoal-colored stone bowls filled with everything from creamy, meaty Prince Edward Island mussels in a pungent green garlic sauce to Maine lobster Thermidor. The impressive presentation is part of a brief, Mediterranean-themed menu with shortlists of appetizers, salads, pastas, and entrées. Then there's a freestanding raw bar with lobster, Kumamoto oysters, and angulas -- a traditional Spanish dish of fresh baby eels that are spaghetti-thin and less than two inches long. It's all overseen by Venezuelan-born Alfredo Alvarez, who's well known for running Giacosa in Coral Gables and doing stints at Trattoria Dopo Teatro in New York and Alfredo's in Rome.
Miranda says he and three partners spent "in excess of $7 million" transforming the former Jet Ski repair shop into a chic, airy restaurant with towering glass garage doors that can be lifted to reveal stunning views of the river and downtown Miami.
A blue-and-yellow mosaic-wrapped bar with a cherry-red backdrop battles a hanging steel sculpture by Carlos Betancourt for diners' attention. While most patrons gather under the wooden lamps twinkling above the bar, all eyes are drawn toward the exploding sprawl of paddles, fish, and bird cages hanging above them.
Despite the intoxication brought on by the unbeatable scenery and allure of dining among beautiful people, some of the dishes emerging from Seasalt's kitchen are a harsh reality check.
Small shrimp tucked inside a roasted sweet Vidalia onion were rubbery and tasted too fishy. In fact, every element of the dish, aside from the creamy tomato sauce that was the base of the stew-stuffed onion, could have been left off without complaint.
A $17 baby-back rib appetizer brought only four mostly fat-covered bones glazed in a bland, sticky, sauce that tasted and smelled too sharply of raw apple cider vinegar. The crushed peanuts atop the slab provided a desperately needed texture contrast, though there were too few.
Tender, sweet-as-candy poached pears in a spinach salad mingled flawlessly with tangy feta cheese and roasted tomatoes. But at times, the delicate balance was overpowered by too much of what otherwise would have been a perfectly tangy mustard vinaigrette.
A generously portioned trio of tentacles in octopus a la plancha was a happy respite. They were tender enough to cut with a fork and endowed with a satisfying contrast of richness and acidity after a hit of juice from a grilled lemon.
But gloppy, overcooked noodles in a wide-rimmed bowl of house-made spaghettini clung together in a messy clump with greasy olive oil and garlic sauce. Plump porcini mushrooms were beyond overcooked and lacked any measure of texture or seasoning.
No one, not even one of the frazzled-looking managers, stopped to inquire about the meal.
As my guest and I ate, it soon became clear that amid the Thursday-night rush, our waiter, who visited the table only four times, wasn't interested in a measly couple who weren't fattening the check with several rounds of cocktails. Seasalt automatically tacks an 18 percent "mandatory" gratuity onto the bill, regardless of the number of diners, leaving little incentive for attentiveness or courtesy.
A different waiter during weekend brunch failed to mention that the prawns offered in lieu of the raw bar's unavailable shrimp were twice as expensive and half the size. The unbelievably vibrant red-and-white meat was every bit as tender and briny as it should have been, but the unexpected up-charge dashed what was otherwise a rare highlight.
For others, perhaps an extra 15 bucks isn't a big deal. "We're getting the Miami Beach Piaggia crowd," Miranda says. "We have a lot of Latin Americans, Venezuelans, Brazilians, who I would say are the biggest spenders."
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Indeed, according to legal filings, the restaurant is earning nearly $300,000 per week. But a nasty lawsuit among some investors and management has garnered some bad PR.
The legal wrangling will likely take months or years before it's resolved. In any case, it's a disappointment that Seasalt and Pepper offers impeccable design and incomparable scenery without serving food on par with its far less glamorous neighbors.