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Jean-Georges' Matador Room Takes Charge of Its Lavish Surroundings

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Before it was a month old, Matador Room was named one of the best places to dine among celebrities in the United States by CNN.com. But star diners such as Linda Evangelista and David Schwimmer are just one of many reasons the restaurant has been generating so much buzz. It also shares real estate with an LED-lit indoor ice-skating rink, a bowling alley, and a popular nightclub (Basement). And it's located inside hotelier Ian Schrager's sleek Miami Beach Edition (formerly the Seville Beach Hotel). For those unfamiliar with his work, Schrager cofounded New York's Studio 54 and opened the Delano Hotel.

But when all is said and done, the restaurant is about the food. And Matador Room is almost as ambitious as the Edition hotel itself. After all, at the helm is Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Michelin-starred chef/entrepreneur whose empire includes nearly 30 restaurants from Chicago to Tokyo.

See also: Guy Fieri: Miami Is One of the Great Food Cities

Matador Room is JG's interpretation of Latin cuisine. It showcases his signature style of eschewing rich meat stocks and creams in favor of light broths, fruit essences, vegetable juices, and herbal vinaigrettes. Take, for instance, the spicy tuna tartare. Superfirm fish from Hawaii is tossed in a dressing of plum and red wine vinegars, lemon juice, garlic, chipotle, chilies, soy sauce, and Dijon mustard. It's then emulsified with sesame and sunflower oils.

The bowl arrives dotted with crunchy rice, oil-cured black olives, and cubed cucumber and avocado. Unlike similar versions, the fish's pristine flavor isn't masked by the sauce, which here tastes like a subtle spicy mayo -- only there's no actual mayonnaise. JG describes Latin food as "vibrant, fresh, and flavorful," and this starter ticks off all three.

Also listed under the menu's "light and bright" section is a generously portioned $12 crudo of local tilefish (the selection is usually snapper). To get the dressing just right, jalapeños that have been fermented overnight with orange and salt are chopped and slowly strained through a coffee filter. The resulting chili water is then mixed with equal parts lime juice and olive oil. This dish epitomizes the star chef's surgically precise techniques, but it begs for another flavor to balance out the concentrated acidity of the lime juice.

For his part, Matador executive chef Jeremy Ford says working with JG transformed his culinary approach. Before his arrival, the 29-year-old Florida native trained mostly in French kitchens and relied heavily on butter. Prior to his grueling two-hour audition in front of JG, Ford was running things at Eden Roc's now-defunct 15 Steps.

On a recent Friday night, both the 1950s-style dining room and the candlelit terrace were full. Inside, a bust wears a handsomely decorated bolero. The pièce de résistance is a massive white chandelier reminiscent of an octopus -- a restoration of the one from the Seville Hotel's original Matador Room, whose spherical layout has also remained intact. Meanwhile, the leafy outdoor area is a nod to the Tropicana nightclub in Havana. It's gorgeous.

There's an emphasis here on local ingredients, and the griddled Florida black grouper tacos with aioli, pickled cabbage, and habañero chilies sounds delicious. Having dined at the Alsatian chef's Nuevo Latino eatery ABC Cocina in Manhattan, I had high expectations. The soft, moist shells were spot on, yet there was a lack of cohesion and the fish simply lacked flavor. Also unremarkable were the overcooked scallops offered as an entrée.

With the exception of the chicken and rice, the expressive small plates stand out at this nearly 3-month-old place. Fortunately, there is plenty to choose from, such as fritters made with peekytoe crab and corn. The crab is sourced from a boutique fish purveyor in Maine and gets folded into a light pastry dough with local corn (if in season), bread crumbs, herbs, and aromatics. Dip the scrumptious orbs into the smoked-chili tartar sauce and allow them to warm your palate.

Jean-Georges says the biggest compliment for a restaurant is when customers book a return visit on their way out, and such happens frequently at Matador Room. This is hardly a surprise for an establishment that is glamorous without being overtly trendy and that serves haute cuisine at fair prices. That said, a larger selection of reasonably priced wines by the bottle would be appreciated.

Not every dish is a clear winner, but this is a restaurant determined to take charge of its surroundings and succeed beyond the initial hype. And the light cooking is perfect for a little postdinner ice-skating, bowling, or dancing. None of those your thing? Get the multilayered almond cake and call it a night.

  • Spicy tuna tartare $16
  • Raw shaved Florida tilefish $12
  • Peekytoe crab and corn fritters $14
  • Arroz con pollo $18
  • Scallops $33
  • Griddled Florida black grouper tacos $12
  • Soft and crunchy almond cake $8

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