Miami Spice 2011: The Good, the Great, and the Grudging (Miami Beach)

Miami Spice 2011 begins in five days. Each year, we look at the menus offered and share our take on them. Some restaurants, as most locals already know, embrace this annual $35, three-course promotion with more enthusiasm than others.

Certain dining establishments are absolutely generous with the choices and availability (great); some offer solid if uninspiring deals (good); and each year a few places throw together so piddly a bill of fare that one imagines the owners have done so at gunpoint (grudging). We'll try to sort them out, beginning with some of the South Beach menus that have been released (and a few from Mid-Beach).

Caveat: We haven't eaten these meals, so we cannot comment on portion size. Our assumption is that food quality will be fine because we're not including all the crummy restaurants that participate.

Unless otherwise noted, the Miami Spice deal is not available for dinner Friday or Saturday evenings. The number of restaurants offering these menus on weekends seems to have dwindled dramatically. This in itself implies a certain grudging "we'll do the deal to fill our seats on weekdays, but that's it" attitude.

That said, let's get started.

The Good

Asia de Cuba: This chic South Beach establishment offers many of its signature dishes on the Miami Spice menu. Choice of six starters includes the picadillo-style Tunapica tuna tartare; tropical calamari salad; lemongrass-skewered chicken; dumplings; Thai beef salad; and an Asian noodle box. Lamb, beef, short ribs, and crispy tofu constitute entrée picks. Desserts are a "chef's selection."

BLT Steak at the Betsy: Appetizer pick is from just one pair of selections: crispy Kurobuta pork belly with Thai chiles and maple syrup glaze; and heirloom tomato-watermelon salad with poblano and riccota salada. The trio of entrées is a ten-ounce Black Angus top sirloin cap; grilled local yellowtail snapper; and organic lemon-rosemary chicken. Extra points for letting diners select a side (charred shishito peppers, bok choy, or jalapeño mashed potatoes. Passion fruit crêpe soufflé or key lime pie with Greek yogurt sherbet are the dessert opportunities. Wonderful menu, but how about giving a couple of extra appetizer choices for those not in the mood to start their meal with pork belly or watermelon?

Blue Door Fish: Signature "Big Ravioli" of taro root mousseline with white truffle oil and mushroom cappuccino leads a trio of apps; tuna tartare and a Caprese-like salad compose the other two. Entrées are rainbow trout amandine; snapper à la plancha; and Kurobuta pork tenderloin au poivre. Fresh fruit sorbet, chocolate cappuccino with bittersweet chocolate mousse, and floating island are three tempting dessert choices.

Gotham Steak at the Fontainebleau: This Spice menu will shortly undergo revisions when new chef de cuisine Todd Miller adds his own signature touches. It's a solid menu as is. Appetizer selections are local heirloom tomato salad, yellowfin tuna tartare, and Florida rock shrimp risotto. Entrées bring choice of braised beef short rib and grilled prime spinella with bordelaise sauce; miso marinated black cod; and Berkshire pork ribs "Texas style" -- meaning with habanero barbecue sauce and corn bread. Key lime semifreddo with passion fruit sorbet or bittersweet chocolate mousse with vanilla ice cream are the dessert picks. Gotham will continue to offer its 50 wines for 50 percent off promotion every Wednesday in conjunction with Spice.

Hakkasan at the Fontainebleau: Not three courses, but five -- albeit three of those five are to be shared. Meaning: Each person gets his/her own starter from a trio of honey-glazed chicken thigh, vegetarian spring rolls, and vegetarian hot-and-sour soup. One of these entrées per two people: sweet-and-sour sea bass; stewed beef tenderloin with dried chili; prawn with crispy wheat flake stir-fried lotus root, asparagus, and lily bulb; or braised homemade tofu with dried shiitake and greens. One of these two veggies per duo: stir-fried vegetable in oyster sauce or braised eggplant with toban chili sauce. Also one rice or noodle for two: fried rice with minced beef, vegetable fried rice, or crispy noodles with seafood. Dessert is a dark chocolate mousse with vanilla ice cream. No choice there, which is disappointing, but otherwise a magnanimous menu. Hakkasan likewise proffers a Miami Spice dim sum menu during lunchtime.

The National Hotel: Primero: pear and Roquefort salad; watermelon and feta salad; tuna carpaccio; or gazpacho Andaluz. Segundo: angel hair arrabiata; grilled lamb souvlaki; grilled sirloin over harissa crayfish risotto; or paella del mar with chorizo and arborio rice. Tercero: berries and mango sorbet; chipotle chocolate "decadence" with strawberry salad; or key lime tart with flamed meringue.

Quinn's South Beach: Four starter choices are signature Bam! Bam! shrimp; lobster bisque; ceviche; and goat cheese soufflé. Grilled churrasco and grilled chicken breast don't race the pulse, but the plates come fully adorned with sides, as does crab-crusted mahi-mahi. Fourth entrée choice is lobster/king crab ravioli. A quartet of desserts is offered as well.

Rosa Mexicano (Lincoln Road): Famed guacamole (for two or more), tortilla soup, or ceviche to start. Chicken enchiladas, mixed grill brochette, or salmon with fruits doused with mole are the main courses. Dessert: cheesecake or espresso flan. Not a very extensive array of dishes, but Rosa makes it into the "good" category on account of it offering the discounted menu on weekends as well -- a nice gesture for a Lincoln Road locale that could likely fill up without the deal.

Continue to the next page for the Greats. 

The Great:

1500 Degrees at Eden Roc: A thoughtful, alluring, locally based menu. Appetizers: pork belly tacos, grilled Florida peach salad, and ceviche of Florida wahoo. Main courses: half rotisserie chicken with rice grits, black bean purée, and mustard greens; ten-ounce prime top sirloin picanha with whipped potatoes and asparagus; and coriander-roasted cobia with forbidden black rice, Paradise Farms mushrooms, and peach curry sauce. A pair of dessert choices: local mango tart tatin with mango lassi and mango sorbet; and espresso crème brûlée with alfajores.

Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau: Primi piatti: Japanese mackerel with cucumber, black olive, and tomato; heirloom tomato and burrata cheese salad; braised beef short ribs with vegetable and farro risotto; or creamy polenta with a fricasse of truffled mushrooms. Piatti: branzino with razor clams and rock shrimp; oven-roasted chicken with spaetzle, riesling mustard jus and fegato (liver); sirloin steak with bone marrow, maitake mushrooms, and red wine jus; or Scott Conant's signature spaghetti with tomato and basil. Dolce: Amedei chocolate cake with toasted almond gelato and salted caramel sauce; coconut panna cotta; or polenta-crusted cheesecake with strawberry, rhubarb, and lemon-thyme sorbet. Buon appetito!

SushiSamba Dromo: Four starter choices and entrées to choose from -- and a convenient way to sample new executive chef Michael Bloise's always-delicious food. Those starters -- many of which I cannot pronounce: xinxim de galinha, or rock shrimp with tobanjan cashew-coconut sauce, cilantro, and orange-glazed tomato; takoyaki, or Japanese dumplings; yellowtail tiradito; and shrimp seviche. Entrées sound fantastic: duck confit with spicy seared watermelon, green beans, and black sesame sauce; Florida black grouper escabeche with local corn-truffle crema; curry-dusted picanha steak with bacon-tomato jam; and a sushi assortment. Sesame ice cream with cachaça-soy caramel; sweet corn dorayaki with white chocolate-coconut filling; and milk chocolate-Japanese whiskey mousse with coffee ice cream for dessert. Count me in.

Tudor House Restaurant: Perhaps Geoffrey Zakarian and company are out to lure first-timers to their new establishment, but for whatever reason, this is a very fetching menu with loads of creativity -- and five options to choose from in all three course categories. Starters include Greek salad panzanella; English pea soup with lime "marsh mellows"; and steak tartare with chanterelles and crème fraîche. Entrées include grilled branzino with baby fennel, fava beans, and cerignola olives; fresh spaghetti with meatballs; organic buttermilk fried chicken with gingered slaw. Granted, not all that high-end ingredient-wise, but desserts compensate: from popcorn milkshake with chocolate hazelnut crisps to key lime ice-cream sandwich with malaga-oatmeal crust and Italian meringue, to strawberry shortcake with strawberries, strawberry sherbet, and mascarpone cream. Available weekend nights too, so you can take your mate here for a Friday or Saturday Spice night, which ain't bad.

Continue to the next page for the Grudging. 

The Grudging:

Ago Restaurant at the Shore Club: A "piccala" eggplant Parmesan, Caprese salad, or house salad are the choices to start. Gnocchi, half-chicken, or grilled salmon are the main-course pickings. Tiramisu is the dessert, so you'd better like that one, buddy! This wonderful offer is not available Saturday evenings, but a tip of the cap for giving it up on Fridays.

Blade at the Fontainebleau: We won't be so grudging as to not at least compliment the folks at Blade for coming up with the simplest, most straightforward Miami Spice menu of all. Here it is in its entirety: Share: edamame. Appetizer: green salad or miso soup. Middle: tuna tataki or octopus carpaccio. Sushi: sushi/sashimi platter or specialty roll. Dessert: mochi.

China Grill: A wide range of options is offered, and the deal is available every night of the week. That's the good part. But there are mathematics involved in this Miami Spice translation: A foursome selects from three apps, three entrées, and two sides, which probably works out OK. But a couple dining here gets to choose two apps, one main course, and one side -- that's a boring dinner. Would it kill CGM to offer smaller portions of two main courses and two sides?

Eden South Beach: Very much like China Grill, Eden stingily tenders just one entrée per two people --- and the choices in this category aren't exactly magnanimous: potato ravioli; chicken breast; Scottish salmon; and "market fish." Desserts, too, are one per couple: chocolate cake or apple tart. If you look up boring in the dictionary, it will be more exciting than reading this menu. Offered every night of the week.

The Forge Restaurant/Wine Bar: This appraisal comes from the preview Spice menu from last week; let's hope Dewey LoSasso beefs it up a bit -- literally and figuratively -- when he debuts the real deal. Appetizer duo is gazpacho or pomegranate barbecue lamb spare ribs. Entrée trio: roasted Bell & Evans chicken with warm Homestead tomato salad and purple potatoes; grilled salmon (zzzzz) with basil mashed potatoes and palm hearts salad; and steamed local snapper "in a bag." I know the Forge is no longer technically a steak house, but not a single red-meat entrée? Dessert twosome is lemon panna cotta or chocolate pistachio layer cake.

OLA at Sanctuary Hotel: Fluke ceviche, octopus, or palm hearts salad to start. Sea bass, "A-1 filet," or quinoa tacu tacu as entrée considerations. Leche frita (fried custard) or fruit salad are the sole desserts.

Quattro Gastronomia Italiana: We don't doubt that the Miami Spice meals here will taste just fine. But antipasti offerings are beef carpaccio, baked mussels, and house salad. Main courses are tomato gnocchi; lobster ravioli; and grilled lamb T-bone. Lemon tart with raspberry sorbet or warm chocolate molten cake with gelato are two pleasant dessert choices, but the place isn't exactly rolling out the red carpet with these selections.

Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante: Soup du jour, octopus, or Caprese salad. Pasta with ragu of lamb, free-range cornish hen alla diavola, or pan-seared diver scallops. Chef's prerogative for dessert.

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