Restaurant Reviews

Them's Good Eden!

Before my visit earlier this month, the last dinner I'd ingested in one of the musty restaurants in Miami Beach's landmark Eden Roc Resort & Spa was Glatt kosher Chinese. No pork or shellfish in any of the dishes, just a plethora of garlicky, peppered cabbage. An ughly experience I vowed never to repeat, in a Morris Lapidus-designed fantasyland (built in 1956) that was in need of a face-lift.

The hotel's restaurants have been revamped along with its lobby, guest rooms, banquet facilities, and gym, in a stunning $28 million renovation now in its final stages. Jimmy Johnson's Three Rings Bar & Grill (an oceanfront eatery that pays as much homage to sports as it does to food) came first, followed in late April by Fresco Mediterranean Cafe.

And what a cafe it is: Chef Stefano LaCava's menu manages to both work in and unify influences from every nation that touches the Mediterranean Sea. In its execution, the fare outshines every trattoria, cafe, and bistro I've reviewed this year.

Upholstered armchairs and love seats add living-room appeal, tamping down the stuffy elegance of white-linen tablecloths. Floor-to-ceiling louvered wooden blinds, painted white, dress the windows. This virginal territory is dominated by a Matisse-like mural of Mediterranean foodstuffs and an iron filigree gate at the entranceway that compete for attention with the brick-oven island/tapas bar at the far end of the dining room.

A basket of homemade bread was brought to the table with dishes containing pools of olive oil, one flavored with nutty, roasted cloves of garlic, the other with a sun-dried tomato sofrito (a saute of onions, pepper, garlic, and tomato). The flavors proved ideal companions to a marinated mushroom salad A plump caps and sliced pimientos smothered in a peppy vinaigrette -- we selected from a list of hot and cold tapas. (Tapas change from day to day but tend to hold their form. An omelet is always offered, for example, but its filling differs daily.) Half the attraction of ordering a series of tapas is watching the chef, who mans the brick-oven area, dish out the delicacies in full view. And, as the season gets more oppressive with each steamy day, these small saucers of food are wonderful to consume in lazy succession.

A small six-slice pizza was next, Gorgonzola adding a subtle pungency to mild mozzarella, chopped plum tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, garlic, and zesty marinara sauce. And red pepper rocketed to top-quality status a gigantic crock of cioppino, a vibrant fish broth accented with a rainbow of seafood: scallops, shrimp, crawfish, and green-lipped New Zealand mussels.

Choosing a single appetizer from Fresco's inviting assortment was agonizing; We ended up asking our server which he'd recommend -- coastal langostino cake on sun-ripe yellow tomato puree, or beggar's purse filled with goat cheese, pistachios, and sun-dried figs on black pepper oil. He demurred at both, suggesting grilled Corsican free-range quail instead. He said it was fantastic. And it was, its tender, savory meat falling away from delicate bones to mingle with a candied kumquat "nectar." The distinct orange-rind flavor of the kumquat made a nice match for the garlic-strong, pan-fried orzo (rice-shaped pasta) that cushioned the bird.

But here's the sad truth. At Fresco you don't need tapas, or pizza, or spicy soup, or even free-range quail. The main courses are so monstrously big they could figure in nightmares.

We were astonished, for instance, by the size of potato-encrusted salmon fillet, two huge pieces enveloped in crisp, light, fritterlike potato matchsticks. Shredded sauteed vegetables (including yellow squash, zucchini, peppers, and onions) blossomed atop the pile, while a coriander-enhanced merlot "essence" underneath provided rich, ripe impetus to the succulent fish.

Rubbed with Greek spices, a roasted chicken half contrasted crisp, lemony skin with slick, juicy meat. One of the less dressy menu choices, this entree featured clean flavors in its side dish as well: a compote of grilled artichokes, pencil-slim asparagus, and kalamata olives mixed with firm white couscous to relax the palate.

A more adventurous -- and even larger -- poultry main course featured pheasant. A special that evening, pretty black-and-white-striped farfalle colored with squid ink alternated in a huge bowl with regular egg bow ties. Slices of the smoky-tasting pheasant were generous, a little dry but not stringy, while julienned squash, onions, carrots, and fennel wrapped around the pasta, which was just a bit too mushy. Perfectly cooked navy beans contributed some texture to a brothy, olive oil-thickened sauce.

A double center-cut pork chop marinated with pepper, then grilled to an ideal medium-rareness, was a better option, the flavorful pork sandwiched by sauteed leaf spinach and balsamic-marinated, grilled portobello mushrooms. The same buttery orzo that cradled the quail dish soaked up the juices here, too. The only thing missing was a knife sharp enough to effectively cut it.

We overheard some moans of delight over homemade key lime pie, but the most we could manage was a dish of creamy chocolate ice cream, beautifully presented in a cut-glass bowl with a slanted lip. One of chef LaCava's strengths is his food design, which is enticing without being common or pretentious. Even the mundane herbal garnishes on the main courses were reinvented -- he plunged them into the deep fryer. But herbs aren't the only thing on fire here. Fresco is the new Eden Roc's consummate match.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick