To begin a meal at Le Sirenuse, the elegant restaurant that opened March 23 in Surfside's Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club, a server wearing white gloves and a jacket with gold epaulets appears tableside holding a silver tray. On it sit two demitasses with rims powdered red by dehydrated tomato. Narrow crackers stacked with opaque red flesh balance on the cups' rims. "Tuna tartare," the server explains before pouring a cold lemon-and-tuna-infused broth into each cup.
The fish's essence and bright citrus jolt you awake like a bucket of ice water.
Soon he's back, this time holding a fist-size porcelain dish with two protruding sticks. The cover is lifted, and out come wisps of rosemary-and-thyme-scented smoke that flare nostrils and lend a pungent, woody aroma to two small butter-poached shrimp.
Such elegance befits the Surf Club, which is among South Florida's most iconic beachside properties.
The place was envisioned in the 1920s by tire tycoon Harvey Firestone as a glitzy refuge for the early 20th Century's 1 percenters. It opened New Year's Eve 1930 and soon became a favorite for celebrities and the global elite looking to hide from the prying eye of Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933. The duke and duchess of Windsor, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, and Frank Sinatra all strolled its yawning hallways.
In 2012, the property was sold for $116 million to a Turkish conglomerate that oversaw construction of a Four Seasons residence and hotel that mercifully preserved the original façade and structure.
The restaurant was built in the Surf Club's former banquet hall, a cavernous space with vaulted wood ceilings accented with intricate geometric designs painted in earth tones. A trio of soaring art deco chandeliers, each bearing three hexagonal columns of light, fills the space with a warm glow. Towering tropical plants are scattered about. It's all a pleasant distraction from the glass-and-steel structure that bears a reported $1 billion worth of condos.
The kitchen is overseen by Antonio Mermolia, a chef from the Southern Italian region of Calabria, who deploys a modest pantry of ingredients to produce simple Mediterranean plates with elegant touches and clever execution.
After the shrimp and tuna starters comes a perfect risotto of Carnaroli rice cooked al dente in a mozzarella water that infuses each grain with creamy richness. Eating it is like tearing into a warm, freshly pulled lobe of cheese. Dots of basil oil bring out the rice's starchy sweetness. A sweet, tangy tomato jam hiding beneath the risotto provides a vibrant visual while sharpening each bite with a spark of acidity.
There is also a block of lean tuna complemented by the fatty, fish-infused emulsion called tonnato, which here sprouts bits of fennel. The luscious sauce is cleverly cut with biting onion caviar and capers matched with a barely sweet red-wine reduction that adds a layer to beautifully contrasting flavors.
At first, a green salad seems too humble for its $20 price tag. But then the forest of vegetables is placed on the table, and amid the thin apple slices, skinned cucumber spears, and crisp greens soaked in ice water is an orb of lemon sorbet that does double duty as a palate cleanser and dressing. Just let it be for a few moments to defrost; then mash it and use it to coat the greens with chilly, piquant freshness.
Of course, there are concessions required of what is, ultimately, a hotel restaurant. A perfunctory chicken dish arrives on a manhole-size glass plate bearing the bird's flabby breast scaled with thin, flavorless coins of black truffle. Though the meat is cooked well and still juicy, its blandness is reinforced by a streak of gummy potato velouté lined up alongside. The menu also plies Chilean sea bass, which at this point ought to be ignored by any self-respecting chef because it has been so overfished.
But even some seemingly compromise dishes, such as a rich eggplant parmigiana, work well. Mermolia's version, a nod to his Southern Italian roots, is as comforting as any nonna's while boasting some enhancements. The thin disks of nightshade are crisp despite a deluge of tomato sauce that is perkier than usual and woven with a sweet, creamy mozzarella. No one would fault you for tucking some of it into the house-made focaccia that's offered shortly after you're seated.
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Simplicity, more than adherence to a particular style of Italian cuisine, seems to be Le Sirenuse's forte. This is evident across the menu. Consider the Wagyu skirt steak, with a thick, smoky char that has been obtained without sacrificing the cut's ribbons of fat. It's also there in the diamond-shaped purses of pasta called fagotello plumped with a beefy ragu and drizzled with a tomato-tinged mozzarella reduction to give each bite a luxurious coat.
Next year, Thomas Keller of Napa Valley's French Laundry is slated to open the property's second restaurant. It is planned as a glitzy celebration spot harking back to the Surf Club's heyday. Perhaps Keller will eschew chicken breasts and Chilean sea bass for more ambitious dishes, and some of that ambition will spill over to his neighbor.
9011 Collins Ave., Surfside; 786-482-2280; sirenusemiami.com. Breakfast daily 7 to 11 a.m.; lunch daily noon to 3 p.m.; dinner daily 7 to 11 p.m.
Eggplant parmigiana $24
Green salad $20
Risotto caprese $30
Fagotello Genovese $32
Wagyu skirt steak $60
Chicken with black truffle $36