The new signature restaurant in The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne -- Cioppino -- boasts an elegant 126-seat dining room, with an additional 60 chairs on an outdoor tiki-lit terrace. The classic Ritz design is in place: plush appointments, rich wood accents, soft lighting, and arched Palladian windows. Tablecloths, toned in burnt orange and yellow, convey the colors of an autumnal Tuscan landscape, which correspond to Italian chef Carlos Sernaglia's specialty: what the menu describes as "beautifully simple and authentic Tuscan cuisine." Can't argue with the food being beautiful and simple, but in the house that Escoffier and Ritz built, one expects simply delectable, simply exquisite, simply out of this world.
Diners begin with a basket brimming with bread sticks, bread crisps, slices of baguette, and focaccia. Stylish glass vials of peppery virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar are placed on the table, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano plunked upon the plates. An extensive and pricey wine list showcases some of Italy's best, featuring impressive Chianti selections from Rufina and Castellina.
Appetizers are not nearly as expansive: creamy burrata mozzarella with green beans; beef carpaccio; and antipasto di mare, a dainty and diminutive arrangement of shellfish served warm atop a few frizzled leaves of frisée. Although the pair of mussels were puny, the two littleneck clams, a few soft strips of calamari, and one very fat shrimp cut into half a dozen nuggets were moistly poached and pooled in an effectively quiet vinaigrette.
During one visit, I skipped the saladlike starters and began with one of the "primi piatti," namely spaghetti and clams, followed by the tuna from the "secondi piatti." The menu is set this way because Italians, known to possess potent appetites, traditionally begin with a "first plate" of pasta and then segue to a "second plate" of meat or seafood. I have a fairly healthy appetite as well, but for some reason the waiter assumed otherwise and brought me a half-portion at half price -- no doubt meant as a thoughtful gesture, but since that's not what I ordered (half-portions are not listed on the menu), he really should have checked with me first.
It was the teeniest serving of pasta I have ever seen. At first I thought he brought me an amuse-bouchée; then I checked around the room to see if I was on MTV's Punk'd. A shallow bowl the size of a bread plate bore two sweetly saline manila clams in their shells, a few more without shells, and about four forkfuls of firm spaghetti coated with a clam sauce tinged with white wine. It was tasty enough that I wanted more. Next time around I made certain to specify a full order of pappardelle, the fresh noodles fulsomely yellowed with egg, tossed with a subtly seasoned ragout of softly stewed duck meat in a light tomato sauce. The three remaining pastas are fettuccine Alfredo, penne with tomato sauce and basil, and spinach-ricotta ravioli with butter and sage. None bespeaks distinction.
Service was sluggish on that initial trip (a bread basket brought without olive oil, an entrée without flatware, et cetera), but on a return visit the waitstaff was plugged in -- knowledgeable, personable, and alert to every detail.
Italian immigrants who moved to San Francisco in the Thirties invented cioppino when they re-created the shellfish stews of their native country using the Bay Area's bounty of crab; some versions were stocked with nothing but. So it's a bit disconcerting that a restaurant named after this dish would present such a crabless and tenuous rendition. No complaints about the basil-perfumed tomato-and-seafood-based broth, nor the small pasta-pearls of Israeli couscous that proved a pleasant surprise at the bottom of the crock. I do take issue with the pale, stale crostini on the side, but the main components -- littleneck clams, jumbo shrimp, strips of calamari, and nubs of grouper -- were adeptly prepared. Mussels unfortunately marked a return of the anorexic specimens encountered in the seafood salad -- in fact, excepting grouper, the fish in these two courses are exactly alike. This wouldn't be problematic if there were a wider selection of appetizers, but those who choose a starter followed by the signature cioppino (highlighted on the menu) stand a one-in-three chance of having to endure a redundant dinner.
The restaurant's opening press release pledged that specialty items such as branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) would be flown in twice a week from Italy, but the only fish proffered were salmon (with green vegetables and caper pesto), grouper (with roasted tomatoes), and yellowfin tuna, diagonally sliced in half and angled over "artichoke ragout." The tender tuna was seared to an appetizing burgundy-rare, the ragout not a stew at all but sautéed spinach tossed with black olives, grape tomatoes, and crunchy slices of fresh artichoke hearts. Roll over, Auguste (and tell César the news).
Filet mignon, rack of lamb, veal chop, Black Angus rib eye, chicken paillard, and bistecca alla Fiorentina comprise the grilled meat entrées. The last, a formidable 22-ounce T-bone steak, was well marbled and fully flavored, accompanied by roasted fingerling potatoes and perfectly cooked haricots verts. Still, a $39 steak at The Ritz-Carlton might be expected to boast a truffle-scented jus, chanterelles, or maitre d'hotel butter. And if Cioppino is intent on worshipping the deity of extreme simplicity, how about organic, grass-fed beef with coarse sea salt and a wedge of lemon?
Pastry chef Frederic Monnet's desserts exhibit far more latitude than anything on the main menu. I conducted a study in chocolate and almond textures by ordering a chocolate almond soufflé and chocolate amaretti torte. The latter was cupcake-shaped and a tad dry, though enlivened by bright pistachio sauce and a refreshing raspberry sorbet shot with cheery notes of sour cherry. The soufflé was perfectly executed -- decadently dark and wet with deep chocolate and spiked with slivers of almond. Other fetching treats include zabaglione with strawberry balsamic sorbet, toasted almond panna cotta with orange anise sorbet, and a cinnamon-spiked pear with mascarpone and pistachio ice cream. Desserts effectively capture what the cuisine does not -- the spirit of simple Tuscan fare elevated to Ritz status via compelling, contemporary interpretation.