Remember nouvelle cuisine? It was born from a group of brashly innovative chefs that included Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, Alain Chapel, and Jean and Pierre Troisgros. The idea was to modernize classical French cooking and present it in a lighter, fresher, more exciting and elegant fashion. That was back in the early '70s, but like many a great notion, it was hijacked over time by chefs less deft than the originators. Either owing to lack of knowledge, or at times lack of scruples, nouvelle cuisine was turned into a caricature of itself: small portions of unexceptional but beautiful food for large amounts of money.
The children of nouvelle cuisine — chefs such as David Bouley and Daniel Boulud — modified the concept. They retained the clean, bright, creative aspects but added personal interpretations and stirred Asian and other global ingredients into the mix. Chef Geoffrey Zakarian of the new Tudor House Restaurant has a classical French culinary background and seems to have some nouvelle blood in him too. Yet he and executive chef Jamie DeRosa aren't deconstructing escargots, but rather putting together ethereal renditions of contemporary American (and Mediterranean) fare.
The dining room is situated in the former lobby of the Dream South Beach Hotel. The space shares a stylistic camaraderie with the cuisine in retaining its deco heritage from the '30s: terrazzo floors, dramatic archways, concentric ceiling design — but now updated by the new Dream team with leather banquette seating, sleek teak screens, and a liquor-backed bar where the check-in counter used to be (it's such an ideal fit that one might wonder why all check-in counters can't also serve in this capacity). Diners can likewise opt for comfortable teak seating on the patio.
Zakarian is a familiar local name from his time opening the Delano Hotel's Blue Door restaurant in the '90s. Since then, the chef has made a bigger name for himself in New York via heralded establishments such as 44 at the Royalton, Town, and most recently, the Lambs Club — and bigger still from numerous appearances on the Food Network. DeRosa — the person actually manning the kitchen — has worked with the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group and at the former local landmark Chef Allen's, and also turned in a stint at the renowned Michelin-starred Fat Duck in England. If DeRosa can keep the cuisine at Tudor House at its current level, his name will likely increase in stature too.
Diners are started with hot spherical puffs of pretzel roll, the type you can still find on the streets of American cities — but much fresher. Plus sidewalk vendors don't hand out accompanying ramekins of burgundy-colored red-wine mustard that will clear your sinuses faster than an inspector can clear an alley filled with illegal food carts.
A wide array of bar snacks — olives, Marcona almonds, bruschetta variations, and the like — comes in handy for munching with predinner drinks. The seafood plates among them — raw, pickled, and cured — can just as aptly serve as appetizers. They include chilled octopus, West Coast oysters, Alaskan king crab, and a stunning hiramasa (yellowtail kingfish) crudo with a bit of heat from aji amarillo pepper and a lot of cool from yuzu sorbet. The sweet pale-pink slices of fish are slightly similar to hamachi, but richer.
Another option, either for starting a meal or pairing with wine, is to select three or five of some dozen-plus cheeses and charcuterie selections. Choices include Serrano ham, Finocchiona salumi, Pont-l'Évêque cow's milk cheese from France, and Rogue Blue Cow from Oregon. Plates are accompanied by olive-oil-brushed grilled bread, a piece of honeycomb, and raisins still on the vine.
Wines from the vine are mostly of the New World variety, with an especially strong contribution from California. Low-range bottles go for around $35 and midrange from $50 to $60; you can also nab a $300 label if you desire. Glasses range from $8 to $25.
Pea soup exemplifies the Tudor cuisine: delicate, full-flavored, and portioned in a more-than-modest manner. The warm vibrant-green purée is poured into a wide, shallow bowl buoyed by lime marshmallows, fresh English peas, and crackly coriander seeds. The marshmallows melt into the flow of pea essence while the brittle seeds snap with aromatics. It makes for an intoxicating sip, but the soup cools too quickly due to being spread so thin; a smaller, deeper bowl would retain the heat, if at the sacrifice of presentation.
Ricotta gnudi is the only dish we sampled that is simply too skimpy — especially because it is listed under main plates. Six pearly-white spheres of poached ricotta, slightly smaller than little mozzarella bocconcini, are each orbited by English peas and teeny vegetables such as petite turnips and carrots and even tinier icicle radishes. Quartered heirloom beets, little basil leaves, and a reduced cream sauce sprinkled with pecorino cheese complete the clean sweep of flavors.
Tuna conserva served in a mason jar was touted as one of Tudor's early titans, but it has already been taken off the menu — or, more accurately, reconfigured into soft morsels of olive-oil-poached tuna that grace a faultless salade niçoise. The composition, anchored by greens such as frisée, mizuna, and lolla rossa, also boasts white Spanish anchovy fillets, a soft-boiled quail egg, peeled cherry tomatoes, haricots verts, and the namesake olives — a seamless melding of ingredients that traditionally are served as isolated components on a plate.
A more basic bibb lettuce salad brings only the pale namesake greens effused by peeled, juicy mini heirloom tomatoes of various festive colors (yellow, purple, red) and shapes (cherry, grape). "Tarragon and green goddess dressing" is perhaps translated a bit too loosely, because no cream or even yogurt base is evident. Instead, a toss of tarragon, dill, and chives with olive oil and a whisper of lemon lightly wets the leaves. That's not what most folks think of as green goddess, but it's nonetheless a refreshing summer course.
Inhabitants of the Mediterranean have always indulged in a nonfatty, nouvelle-style diet, so a trio of main-course seafood dishes based on that region's bounty fit right in. Four fleshy black grouper cheeks intermingle on the plate with petite green onions and an array of multicolored baby cauliflower (purple, green, yellow), although the red-pepper-based romesco sauce beneath the cheeks is pasty. Fava beans, slivers of Cerignola olives, baby fennel, and baby heirloom spinach leaves supply two crisply seared branzino fillets with an effervescent liftoff, and an appetizer order of three whole langoustines "Provençal style" wows. The sweet shellfish come coated with anchovy-anchored bagna cauda breading steeped in escargot butter; the plate is garnished with sauce vierge (a blend of olive oil with chopped basil, tomato brunoise, and lemon zest).
The aforementioned fish entrées bring enough food on the plate to satisfy the average appetite. So does a main course of assertively spiced lamb belly, but that's not to say I couldn't have downed another thin square or two to go along with the pair offered. The gamey lamb flavor of the braised meat bursts through the seasoned crust; a wispy flank of fat within serves as an internal sprinkler system of moisture. English peas, miniature carrots, and a "salsa verde" of herbs (marjoram, parsley), lemon zest, and chili flakes offer diners dabs of complementary tastes.
À la carte side dishes encompass a slew of creatively plated vegetables. Unfortunately, we went with one of the starches, a potato gratin with "pork belly" and "goat cheese" that was overcooked and lacked pork belly and goat cheese. We politely asked the waiter if the two ingredients might have melted in; he explained the potatoes should have contained a thin layer of pork and subsequently removed the item from our tab. Service here is solid and accommodating, although some waiters are more polished than others.
Pastry chef Natalia Arevalo (Nobu) puts out whimsical desserts that pay homage to nostalgic American flavors. Homemade Kit Kat bars accompany a brown-butter "popcorn" milkshake. Hazelnut milk is matched with a trio of homemade Oreo cookies that tasted as though served to us just after cooling from the Nabisco ovens. An optional glass of Johnnie Walker Black is proffered with the cookies and milk (!) for an extra $7. Three petite squares of naked carrot cake come with airy puffs of cream cheese foam, a perky quenelle of carrot sorbet, bits of pineapple-ginger purée, and crushed peanuts. The cake itself is unexceptional, but a mouthful of all ingredients yields a gratifying and distinctive carrot-cake kick.
Some patrons will question portion sizes, but few will gripe about pricing alone. Snacks are $7 to $14, starters $11 to $15, most mains $23 to $29, and sides $8. Rising from the table feeling sated instead of bloated is a holdover from the nouvelle movement, but it remains a tough sell in America. Dainty dining is not for everyone. Still, those who emphasize quality over quantity will feel right at home in this House.