Restaurant Reviews

Space Saver

Before Hurricane Wilma blew out all the windows of the Conrad Hotel's 25th-floor lobby/restaurant, the space consisted of intimate 80-seat formal restaurant Atrio; Bar Noir, a dark corner lounge whose vibe was more Hernando's Hideaway than happy hour; and a huge, high-ceilinged atrium comprising a couple of sofas and a few chairs.

Described kindly, the area was an amorphous lobby extension. More accurately, it was a humongous waste of space with no purpose except, perhaps, intimidation; it made visitors feel as if they'd wandered into somewhere they didn't belong.

Fortunately, though, the hotel's management took the storm damage as an opportunity to redesign. Bar Noir is gone, and Atrio flows almost seamlessly into the extensively and expensively renovated central space that houses the hotel's new lounge, which is far more than a watering hole. Now an inviting — rather than intimidating — ultramodern urban hangout, The Bar at Level 25 (the official name, though almost everyone calls it simply Level 25) has two main focal points: panoramic water/city views on one side, and, atop the bar on the opposite side, an equally spectacular display of coldwater oysters and several other seasonal shellfish.

If it's stone crab season, diners are in luck. Chef Michael Gilligan serves the cracked crustaceans with an assertive wasabi/ginger aioli that provides the zing of standard mustard-mayo sauce without the culinary cliché.

But the chef's fusion cuisine (which he calls "Lasian," for Latin-Asian, although it wades through the Mediterranean too) is more thoroughly showcased in The Bar's main specialty: pintxos — Basque for tapas. The 13 "small plates," however, are fairly substantial servings. About three make a meal — two if one of them is duck confit cazuelita, elegantly earthy-rich comfort food.

Especially recommended are codfish esqueixada, a refreshing vinaigrette-dressed classic Catalan salad featuring properly reconstituted (not overly salty) bacalao; tender-crisp, assertively chili-spiked Spanish artichokes sautéed with saffron; a Nuevo Latino-style flash-marinated sea scallop tiradito; sinfully satisfying empanadas stuffed with goat cheese and foie gras; and tempura-battered soft-shell-crab pieces served with delectable, tongue-tingling chipotle aioli. The sole disappointment: a "chef's sushi selection," which was a simple tuna maki roll comprising mostly rice.

For heartier appetites, there's Sunday brunch, where $55 ($25 for children) brings unlimited fare from tables spread throughout the sunny space. This includes the raw bar plus — on the bar top — sushi makis, sashimi slices, and several hot tidbits: shrimp shumai, pork gyoza, and, most notably, the crunchy soft-shell-crab claw pintxo. It's easy to scarf down more than your money's worth at this station alone.

But there's also a carving cart boasting both beef and pork roasts; a salad station with prepared creations like Caprese-style mozzarella-stuffed tomatoes, plus a DIY salad bar featuring local and organic produce; a custom pasta/risotto station; an intriguing international cheese/charcuterie station; a dessert station; and several stations serving breakfast foods such as made-to-order pancakes, omelets and other egg dishes, plus a full array of breakfasty carbs and proteins, including intensely smoky smoked salmon with light whipped cream cheese and minibagels. In addition, three chef's special entrées (which change weekly but are Atrio-quality creations, such as lavender-crusted rack of lamb) can be ordered at the table. And all-you-can-drink brunch cocktails are also included in the price — as are fresh fruit juices from the festive "Hangover Station."

Adding to the user-friendly feel is Level 25's parking policy: Get your ticket stamped, and the valet is free. Our town could use more neighborhood bars like The Bar.

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Pamela Robin Brandt