Miami Spice 2012: The Good, the Great, and the Grudging, Part One

Over the next three days, in the runup to the August 1 rollout of Miami Spice, I will rate the deals of some 50-plus menus as either good, great, or grudging.

There has been a split in price categories this year, meaning there is now a "fine dining" grouping as well as a "luxury" grouping. The fine-dining price point drops $2 from the prior Spice price to $19 for lunch and $33 for dinner. The "luxury" spots -- meaning most of the places you'll want to go to for Spice -- have hiked the price $4: $23 for lunch, $39 for dinner. Both restaurant groupings are appraised separately in each good, great, and grudging list.

I'll start today with the good deals -- 22 of 'em.

The Good

$39 Spice Menu:

1500 at Eden Roc
Available nightly, the three-course sample menu looks awfully tempting: Charred mixed spring asparagus with crispy farm egg, Benton's ham, and truffle vinaigrette for first course; roasted Alaskan halibut with Swank Farms vegetables as the entrée, and banana cream tart with dulce de leche ice cream for dessert. Great menu, but in the "good" category because there is no choice.

Asia de Cuba
Jeffrey Chodorow's Spice menus are always the most complex. This year brings the same convoluted formula: Parties of two get a choice of two starters, two entrées, and one side. Parties of three also get two entrées, but an additional starter and side. And on it goes, up to parties of six, which get six starters, five entrées, and three sides. Still, the choices in each category are many, and the items include Asia de Cuba specialties such as "ropa vieja" of duck confit, honey-rum glazed Kurobuta pork belly, tuna tartare picadillo-style, pan-seared ahi tuna, Cuban barbecue chicken, char siu beef short ribs, crispy tofu for vegetarians, and lots more. If you dine here with people of similar tastes, this could work out to be a great meal. The deal is not available Fridays or Saturdays.

First-course selections are big eye tuna crudo; zucchini flowers filled with ricotta/lobster; and truffle fonduta with grilled country bread. Entrees lead off with spaghetti pomodoro, then segue into veal ravioli; chicken with olives and capers; osso bucco with roasted bone marrow and goat cheese polenta; and hanger steak. Dessert brings no choice, but gelato cones with shaved seasonal truffles sounds good enough for me. Not available Friday, Saturday, or Sunday dinner.

The Capital Grille
This is being listed as "good," but if portions are plentiful and you choose wisely, it could turn into a great meal. Starters are clam chowder, Caesar salad, or field green salad. A bit on the boring side, but this is, after all, a traditional steak house. Four entree selections are sliced filet mignon, seared scallops, ancho-rubbed sirloin and cedar-planked salmon. Mashed potatoes or fresh creamed spinach comes as an accompaniment, and dessert choices are créme brulee, flourless chocolate-espresso cake, ice cream or sorbet.

The Dining Room
Appetizers are fetching: shrimp ceviche with citrus-tomato water; pork belly with blue potato puree; and heirloom tomato salad with feta cheese. Main courses bring corvina with squid, clams and shrimp; sweet potato gnocchi with goat cheese foam; and lamb Milanese with lemon-goat cheese vinaigrette. No choice for dessert: Brazo gitano, or sponge cake with milk caramel, mango ceviche, and green apple granita. It's all good. Not available Saturday dinner.

Essensia Restaurant at the Palms Hotel & Spa
Very creative menu, starting with starters: cauliflower/leek bisque with shaved truffle and crab; grilled stone fruit and local burrata salad with pistachio oil and fig balsamic dressing; and seared diver scallop with orange-miso reduction. That's great. Main course is a choice between Amazone paiche (seabass), herb-crusted Ashley Farms chicken breast, and six-ounce sirloin filet, each with innovative and generous accompaniments (lots of vegetables). Dessert is either chocolate-chile mousse with strawberry cayenne frozen yogurt, cheesecake with drunken cherries, or housemade ice creams and sorbets.

The Forge
Like many of these menus, The Forge will be changing selections on a regular basis. The opening bill of fare is solid, if short on selections. First course is either Caesar salad or lobster corn chowder. Dessert is turron nougat cheesecake. Period. Entrees bring a choice of steamed local snapper en papillote; spice rubbed duck; grilled Creekstone filet mignon with gorgonzola beet salad; and three mushroom risotto (including porcini) and white truffle oil. Not available Saturday dinner.

Gotham Steak at Fontainebleu
Ingredients are quality, but there's still a holding back of sorts with this menu. Apps are heirloom tomato salad with watermelon and French feta; yellow fin tuna tartar; or beef stroganoff with black truffles. Trio of entrees encompasses braised short rib, garlic-roasted chicken breast, or pan-seared black bass. Eh. Dessert is dark chocolate mousse or a passion fruit cremeaux. Not available for Saturday night dinner.

Hakkasan at Fontainebleau
I somehow remember Hakkasan's menu being more impressive in past years. Still, it's a five-course menu, which is more than generous. Appetizers are a choice between charcoal grilled honey-glazed chicken, crispy prawn, or stuffed tofu puff. Next comes choice of soup, then choice of main course (crispy sea bass or braised chicken/tofu clay pot). Spring roll or fried rice is next, followed by mango custard or white chocolate bavarois for dessert. That's a full dinner for $39.

The Restaurant at The Setai
A creative selection of dishes, starting with branzino carpaccio; scallop dumplings with port wine-truffle emulsion; or warm Thai beef salad. Main courses bring beef hor fun noodles, yellowtail snapper, or Nasi goreng. These items reflect the span of Asian cuisine that the Setai specializes in. Dessert is Meyer lemon tart with meringue and strawberry sorbet, or pineapple velouté with herb sorbet. Intriguing.

The River Seafood & Oyster Bar
I would like to see a wider selection of fish ;as main course -- it's currently bacon-wrapped swordfish, gnocchi and blue crab with shaved black truffles, or cioppino as entree choice. Still, that ain't bad. Fire-roasted oyster, scallop tiradito with Scotch bonnet jam, and kale salad with roasted beets, apple, candied pecans, slab bacon and blue cheese vinaigrette comprise cool first course selections. It's blueberry crisp, guava cheesecake or coconut flan for dessert. Not available Fri.or Sat dinner.

Sardinia Enoteca
This is a very simple selection of dishes, but it offers a diverse choice. Diners can start with soup of the day, or burrata cheese with roasted tomato and string beans, or veal sweetbreads with aged pancetta, brown butter, sage, and brussels sprouts. Main course is either fish of the day baked in the wood-burning oven, veal scaloppine with wild mushrooms, or goat cheese/spinach ravioli. Dessert is the "chef's selection." Not a menu to get excited over, but it would seem to promise a very good meal.

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill
Diversity and creativity pull this otherwise less-than-stellar menu from grudging to good. First category is a choice between watercress/plum salad; corn/clam chowder; rabbit rillettes; or shellfish orzo. As I say, it's creative. Next course is either pan-seared duck breast with peach puree and butter-glazed brussels sprout leaves; roasted fish (doesn't say what kind) with moromi miso; or porchetta with smoked melon and farro. Desserts are strawberry shortcake parfait; cocoa nib profiteroles with milk chocolate gelato, or mini torrejas. Not available Fri. or Sat. dinner.

SushiSamba Dromo
Like at sister Sugarcane, the Spice menu here impresses with highly innovative dishes. Openers encompass a corn tamale; quinoa teriyaki with sweet potato tempura; or chilled somen noodles with barbecue salmon and lime-garlic granita (which sounds pretty damn tasty). Main course brings sushi assortment, or seared bigeye tuna, or lamb shank, or paella with chicken and foie gras. Dessert is pineapple flan with curry foam and irigoma brittle, or chocolate-cashew mochi with mango curd and chocolate sorbet. Not available Sat. or Sun. lunch or Fri. or Sat. dinner.

Villa Azur
I appreciate that this menu is a bit different than others. It starts with an amuse buche (melon velouté), and then an appetizer of tuna/watermelon tartare. No choice? That's sort of stingy. Entrees, however, compensate: Option 1 brings rack of lamb or roasted sea bream back. Option 2, for sharing, is whole roasted branzino or a côte de boeuf (32 ounces) with béarnaise. That's very very generous. Dessert goes back to the lesser side: Nutella mousse or macaroon plate. Bottom line: Great main course bookended by grudging start and finish.

$33 Spice Menu

Canyon Ranch
Four courses rather than three is just one draw for this Spice deal. Another is the healthul aspect to a thoughtful assemblage of dishes. Diners start with choice of melon gazpacho or soup of the day. Second course is either mixed greens or heirloom tomato salad. Next comes seared chicken roulade with spinach, goat cheese, parnsip puree, corn salsa and guava guajillo glaze. Or red curried vegetables with pistachios. Or local mahi with artichoke barigoule, tomato-mint quinoa and micro Swiss chard. Each item is listed on the menu with numbers written below. For instance, the line on mahi is: 295, 20, 30, 7, 5 and 513. We'll assume these are linked to some sort of nutritional values. Dessert is between crema Catalana with Kahlua ice cream or lucuma cheesecake mousse.

Cascata Grille at Turnberry Isle
Lots of choice for starters (six), including heirloom tomato gazpacho, smoked salmon toasts, spicy calamari popcorn and Caesar salad. Second course is less than extravagant, but the plates contain generous sides. Bronzed salmon comes with spinach, Israeli cous cous, grilled pineapple and mango chutney. Pasta is dressed with roast duck, mushrooms, Madeira mascarpone and veal glace. Short ribs are rubbed with coffee/chili and served with goat cheese-laced polenta. Lemon-thyme roasted chicken is the fourth option, with herbed mashed potatoes and carrots. Mini cheesecake sampler is the less-than-inspiring dessert.

Cibo Wine Bar
The Spice menu here is short and sweet. Primi course brings a decision between shrimp diavola, meatballs with tomato sauce, or a prosciutto and arugula salad. Secondi is branzino, chianti-braised short ribs, or fettuccine with porcini mushrooms in cream sauce. Dolci delivers semi freddo with Frangelico zabaglione, chocolate Baci bombe, or a dessert pizza. Nice breadth of options within the concise framework.

Jean Paul's House
Prices here are reasonable enough that the Spice deal doesn't represent anything major. Still, snapper tiradito, one of the Spice starter choices, is usually $12; lomo saltado is $24; add apple tart tatin with ice cream and salted caramel or suspiro de Limeña with Peruvian dulce de leche and Port wine meringue and it's a good deal -- especially in context of the cuisine here being worth trying. Not available for dinner on Saturdays and Sundays.

Rosa Mexicano South Beach
Anytime a restaurant adds a choice of alcoholic beverage to its Spice mix, it's got to be a good deal. Diners can choose from two types of margarita (including the signature pomegranate version), two beers or two wines -- although with the caveat that those who do so are using up one of their course options. Still, I don't mind sacrificing an espresso flan or cheesecake dessert for a cocktail. Plus the menu looks tempting, starting with guacamole, queso fundido, chicken tacos or tortilla soup. Entrees bring vegetable enchiladas; chicken tortilla pie; shrimp brochettes; or grilled skirt steak marinated in guajillo and pasilla chiles, with red bean-chorizo chili, corn esquites, salsa and tortillas. Not available for dinner on Saturdays.

Seasons 52
This four-course menu encompasses about any main course you may be in the mood for: cedar-plank salmon, charred filet mignon, sea scallops, wood-roasted pork tenderloin and Springer Mountain Farms all-natural chicken. First course is tomato flatbread, tuna-avocado roll, or seafood-stuffed mushrooms. Diners also select soup of the day or salad. Dessert is a "mini-indulgence." If you're lucky, there'll be a live pianist playing during dinner. Not available for Saturday or Sunday dinner.

Wynwood Kitchen & Bar
This Spice menu is nothing to do cartwheels over, but the selections are solid enough and a fourth course is thrown in. First choice: gazpacho or black bean soup. Next: ropa vieja empanadas, pork belly, or bok choy salteado. Mains: grilled chicken with quinoa; vaca frita; pan-seared Florida "filet of fish"; or a vegetarian plate. White chocolate bread pudding and sorbet, from The Frieze, constitute the dessert choice. Not available for dinner Saturday or Sunday.

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