Restaurant Reviews

The Pelican Briefly

The Pelican Hotel on Ocean Drive has 25 uniquely themed rooms, from the safari-designed "Me Tarzan, You Vain," to the sparser "Jesus Christ Megastar," which, if nothing else, is the only hotel room to ever advertise with the slogan "A man's life consist not in the abundance of the things which he possessed." Pelican is a hep name for an oceanfront hotel, or, for that matter, a bird with a large pouch under its bill, but it is not a particularly apt appellation for an Italian restaurant, even one located in its namesake building. Then again since opening in 1994, Pelican has been touting its cuisine as World Basic, not Italian. This is a ploy to distinguish itself from neighboring Mezzaluna and Caffe Milano, an excuse to sell margaritas, a case of getting carried away with themes, or, perhaps, just a simple identity crisis. Whatever the rationale, it's too bad Pelican doesn't plug its real roots more, because this happens to be one of the better moderately priced Italian eateries on the Beach.

Admittedly some confusion might be caused by the inclusion of main courses such as grilled mahi-mahi with pineapple sauce, seafood kebob with Caribbean papaya mustard, sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes, and an appetizer of jumbo shrimp cooked in coconut milk and curry sauce. The rest of the menu, however, is stocked with focaccias, carpaccios, pizzas, and pastas. You'd expect nothing less from the Italy-based Diesel clothing company that owns the hotel, nor from restaurant partner Michela Merlo, who hails from the Italian town of Bassano del Grappa. Chef Stefano Zen, from Padova, Italy, exhibits a light touch and is able to coax strong flavors from the mostly Mediterranean ingredients without resorting to heavy-handed doses of garlic. Matter of fact, the lunch menu says the dishes are cooked without any garlic at all (though it can be added upon request). Try the wide, thin strips of homemade pappardelle with Bolognese sauce ($10.90), and you'll see that the pasta, tomatoes, chopped beef, onions, seasonings, and herbs define themselves admirably without the help of that usually omnipresent bulb. So do ravioli circles stuffed with ricotta ($11.50), which are smothered in a fire-engine-red tomato sauce as fresh and vibrant as those red-lipsticked gals in the Diesel ads.

Pizzas are good, too: crisp, charred crusts with puffy perimeters, and mostly sane toppings, such as wild mushroom, pepperoni, or prosciutto. The exception would be a Hawaiian combo of ham, tomatoes, pineapple, mozzarella, and basil. Although this combination has become an acceptable American pizza garnish, it still seems to me like something a navy cook in Pearl Harbor might have concocted when challenged with creating an absurdly offensive food to force-feed Japanese prisoners of war.

Salads are sizable, their ampleness best expressed by paraphrasing the poet Ogden Nash: A wonderful place is the Pelican -- its plates hold more food than your belly can. Seafood salad ($12.90), for instance, is grandly composed of crabmeat, shrimp, calamari, avocado, corn, hearts of palm, and field greens tossed in a tart lime vinaigrette. The Mediterranean ($10.90) contains shrimp, arugula, radicchio, corn, hearts of palm, carrot, celery, and fresh mozzarella dressed in extra-virgin olive oil. Grab a seat on the outdoor patio and indulge in one of these overflowing salads, with a basket of warm rolls and a glass of wine from an impressively wide selection, and you'll be privy to as rewarding a meal as you're likely to find on the Drive. Be forewarned, though: Once you dine at Pelican, future sightings of this bird may cause Pavlovian cravings for Italian food. Or at least food that looks, smells, and tastes Italian.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein