Nemo Is Still Swimming on South Beach

Change might carry a lot of currency these days, but Nemo is having none of it. When co-owners Myles Chefetz and Michael Schwartz opened the artsy neighborhood café in 1995, it was the hottest haunt in town (and Esquire magazine's pick for one of America's best new restaurants). It looks pretty much the same today — maybe a bit worse for wear, but like an old Parisian bistro, the patina produced by patrons lends a certain comfort and credibility.

A petite, full-service, hammered-copper bar centers the various indoor/outdoor dining spaces. Ostrich skin-patterned walls and a wide-open kitchen dominate the main room, whose soft glow comes courtesy of ostrich-egg lights at the bar and small but very low-hanging fixtures dangling over each table. There are two intimate back rooms (one with a view of a swimming pool) and a quaint cobblestone patio shaded by a pigeon plum tree old enough to have served the same function in 1925 — when this property was the brand-new Nemo Hotel.

Since Schwartz split from Chefetz in 2002, the bill of fare has seen only mild tinkering from succeeding chefs — of which there have been but a handful. Some served their stints better than others, but each did a creditable job of keeping Nemo's contemporary, Asian-influenced fare constant. The latest is Larry LaValley, who should know a thing or two about carrying on another culinarian's concept: He expertly executed Mark Militello's menu at Mark's South Beach for its entire eight-year run.


Nemo Restaurant

Nemo Restaurant: 100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-532-4550. Lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 6 p.m. to midnight, Friday through Sunday 6 to 11 p.m.; brunch Sunday noon to 3 p.m.

Some menu items are the same as those on opening day, from an appetizer of garlic-and-ginger-cured salmon wrapped around alfalfa sprouts to a grilled Indian-spiced pork chop entrée I sampled on a past visit. This chop seemed thicker and juicier than not only the former version but also most others I've had in the interim. Sticky black rice with caramelized onions lends an earthy appeal to the pork; cubes of ripe papaya splashed with cilantro and lime juice contribute a cool tropical contrast. We're gonna party like it's 1995!

A crisp-skinned fillet of sautéed yellowtail snapper is still a winner as well. The fish, garnished with delicate little oven-dried tomatoes, floats on a hash-brown raft of golden fried potatoes, peppers, onions, and succulent nuggets of lobster, all atop a pool of creamy arugula sauce swirled with lobster oil. Comforting, complementary flavors such as these never go out of style; in fact I had similar words for the same dish when I last reviewed Nemo in 2001.

Half-bulbs of bok choy bookended a nightly special featuring fat, flaky, white-fleshed cobia in soy-accented butter sauce. Fried won ton noodles are scattered across the fish, a gimmicky garnish that definitely has gone out of style — or, more accurately, has been appropriated by places such as The Cheesecake Factory. For less than $36.

A $19 appetizer special of baby-back ribs glazed in Asian sauce is more T.G.I.Friday's in concept — a lukewarm quartet of fleshy bones served with jicama slaw and three greasy but crackly-crusted onion rings piled high atop one another. A superior starter choice is duck confit: a moist, meaty leg and thigh, with skin brittle as a cracker, set upon warm, mildly curried French lentils. Chilled applesauce and soft squares of grilled pineapple perimeter the plate.

We also enjoyed calamari "stir-fry," whose rings and tentacles were greened with spinach, scallions, and French green beans in a bowl of broth flavorfully lifted by Thai basil and lemongrass. There was a gentle piquancy to the dish, but not nearly enough to warrant our waiter's warning of it being "very spicy."

Other appetizer options come by way of limited raw bar selections, including shrimp or lobster cocktail and a couple of respected varieties each of oysters and caviar. Vodka, sake, and champagne are on hand for pairing, as is a smart selection of wines, many of which represent small, highly regarded West Coast vintners.

For more than a decade, when gifted pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith crafted Nemo's desserts, they were hands down the best in town. Robert Gonzalez is in charge now; his short list of offerings consists of five well-chosen selections — chosen, that is, from the old dessert menu.

We skipped Symphony of Chocolate (one of Goldsmith's signatures) in favor of peach pie and a "s'more ice-cream sandwich." The latter is the same as it ever was: a puck of vanilla bean-speckled ice cream topped with marshmallow meringue, with one fresh chocolate chunk cookie below the ice cream and one on the side, along with a dollop of whipped cream. A squirted sauce on the plate is supposed to be "graham caramel," but this dessert still seems a lot more like a chocolate chip cookie ice-cream sandwich than a s'more. That said, it hit the spot. Peach pie missed, but not by much. The fruit was fresh enough, served in an oval casserole dish with latticed pastry crust, but there was no oomph; it could have used a spark of some sort, be it vanilla, cinnamon, almond paste, whatever. I suppose lemon gelato and fresh blackberries on the side serve this purpose to some extent.

Nemo's brunch is the Beach's longest running, and with the exception of a few large hotels, its most renowned. The exalted reputation has been based at least partly on the strength of the extensive and dazzling display of desserts by Hedy — who, as noted, has left the building. The pastries remain, and are good enough that most folks won't notice if they lack the golden Goldsmith touch. The rest of the buffet spread covers classic breakfast/brunch favorites (smoked salmon, sausages, sushi, and so on), an array of creative salads, a carving station, an omelet station, coffee, and juice. The meal costs $34 — not including cocktails, tax, or tip.

The French use the term rapport to describe the ideal relationship between price and quality. Nemo has never posted the sort of neighborly prices one would hope for from a neighborhood restaurant: Appetizers run $13 to $19, most entrées are $32 to $37, and non-Symphony desserts cost $11. The quality of service, while generally competent in an informal, café way, isn't of the level one would expect at a pricey establishment. At times it wasn't even competent, such as during a visit when long, weighty copper-backed menus remained on the table until a busperson finally came by, late in the meal, and picked them up.

Neither does the caliber of cuisine confirm standards implied by the tab at meal's end. It is tasty, yes, and certainly fresh. But Nemo used to charge more because it was serving in-the-moment food not easily found elsewhere. In fact, in 1995, the place was promoted as "Miami's first holistic organic restaurant." Although the menu never attained all-organic status, these days there is no pretense of even trying. The motto has morphed from "change you can believe in" to "consistency you can count on." Nemo, once ahead of the times, is now behind them.

Chefetz no longer banks on such concerns. His ventures may be quite distinct in genre from one another (Shoji Sushi, Big Pink, Prime One Twelve, Nemo), but each is based on a specific vision and a formula that has proven extremely successful. If it ain't broke ...

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