Victorious Victuals

Having once been stung by a man-of-war, I was less than excited to be seated with my back to a tall, narrow tank filled with gracefully flowing jellyfish, glowing translucently in blue neon light. The waiter's chatter about chef James Wierzelewski's concept of global cuisine and how the kitchen crew resembles a veritable United Nations' worth of ethnicities didn't sway me much either; I've suffered at the hands of more ambitiously fusionesque chefs than I care to count, partaken of one too many Mexican meat loaves and Balinese borschts to begin salivating at the prospect of worldly concoctions. Not until I perused the menu, a triptych of tantalizingly described plates, did any excitement kick in (poseurs don't create such audaciously smart combinations as these). Actually, to be more precise, not until I took out my trusty little key-ring flashlight and was able to read the menu did my senses awake. If they're going to keep the dining room so dim, they seriously ought to hand out reading lights.

Vix opened this past February in the resplendently renovated Hotel Victor -- which I've taken to calling "the quiet Hyatt," because the corporate ownership keeps a very low profile. A spacious open kitchen is staffed by numerous workers who perform a multitude of tasks seemingly in silence. This quietude suggests an efficient, well-oiled crew, but then again, the sous-chef is French, other cooks herald from Japan, Thailand, Africa, and so on -- so maybe nobody says a word because they don't speak the same language. In any case, you can watch them close-up from one of a half-dozen seats at the chef's table, which fronts the kitchen.

My expectations heightened after the arrival of a basket brimming with fresh-from-the-tandoor-oven nan bread -- buttery, airy, crisped, yet soft. Of four accompanying spreads, I preferred the unobtrusive yogurt, flecked with just a bit of coriander, though a sweet cashew-raisin purée proved too scintillating to resist; come to think of it, the warm dips were pretty good too, one with cumin-spiced beans, the other curried potatoes.



Hotel Victor, 1144 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach

305-779-8888. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily 7:00 to 11:00 a.m., noon to 3:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m. to midnight.

Chef Wierzelewski has cooked in exotic locations (Thailand, Malaysia, Belgium, France) for about twenty years, gathering gastronomic ideas from places the way tourists collect T-shirts. The menu at Vix, however, is no hodgepodge homage to his travels but rather a short, sensible compilation of mostly Mediterranean and Asian dishes, with a few tips of the toque toward Central and South America. At least that's true of the winter version; a revised summer edition is expected soon.

What was quickly established as a signature dish, and one likely to survive the seasonal menu cuts, is the hot-and-sour rock shrimp -- the curved craters of an escargot skillet filled with six almost invisible crustaceans nestled in plump lumps of crabmeat and a hot sriracha-spiked sweet-and-sour glaze. Even hotter were two grilled grape leaf-encased sausages made from minced Moroccan-spiced Merguez lamb -- delectable and not too piquant for my taste, but surely fiery enough to warrant mention by menu or waiter. A cumin-and-lemon-infused mash of fava beans shared the plate, as did a savory tomato relish and a stingy pinch of roasted peppers. The no-show status of promised "goat's milk feta cheese" was quite a letdown. Did they just run out? If so, they might have considered substituting one of the other sheep or goat cheeses from their exceptional postdinner cheese board, which also features creamy Reblochon, a limited-edition Vermont cheddar, and America's premier Parmesan (from Wisconsin).

Chilled oysters du jour with a bloody mary chaser, sashimi tuna "salad," and a quartet of ceviche constitute the "raw selection" appetizers. A ceviche sampler enables you to choose three of four offerings; if you don't consider cold smoked beef tenderloin with mojito marinade a real ceviche, then it's three of three. We went with one: tequila-and-lime-soaked sections of saltwater prawns tossed with tomato seed jelly (bearing a light tomatoey flavor), avocado, and sea salt. Pristine, pretty, and pricey, this ceviche was served in a stemless conical glass inserted into a small fishbowl with a live black betta cramped within -- more disquieting than titillating. Jellyfish as décor, betta as garnish -- anyone know the phone number for PETA?

Four buttery-soft cuts of tuna sashimi came folded on the plate, as if bowing before the bowl of accompaniments: sweet/salty soy sauce stocked with snippets of onion, and a quenelle of potent sesame oil sorbet. A smidgen of the sesame ice provided a nice cooling contrast to the fish, but the soy mix overpowered what was the most smoothly toothsome tuna I've had in some time. Just wondering: How is this a salad?

Vix borrows a page from Spain's famous El Bulli restaurant, concerning its avant-garde intermezzo: a mini plastic tube filled with lemon-infused buttermilk, half a blackberry (on another occasion a raspberry), and a teeny teaspoon of sage-speckled sugar crystals. Squeeze tube onto tongue (sour), bite berry (sweet/tart), swallow sugar (sweet/savory). The palate is invigorated. Onto entrées.

More sharp contrasts are displayed in the Basque-style loup de mer -- a firm, white-fleshed fish fillet seared and dressed with chorizo-fortified tomato bouillon; fresh, meaty artichoke hearts; and a sweet red pimiento polenta. Also exemplary was the risotto, bringing forth creamy, mushroom-flavored grains, capped with softly melted Asiago and Parmesan cheeses; on the side was a generous helping of creminis (baby portobellos) in a deep, lustrous brown sauce. No such luster brightened a dull "chow mein" of Hong Kong barbecued duck and lobster. Coriander noodles exuded hints of sweet soyu and kaffir lime for a pleasant enough flavor, and a chubby lobster claw was succulent, but only one fleck of duck was detected; gotta give more bird than that for $37.

A trio of lamb treatments was successful two out of three ways, a more enviable percentage when applied to baseball batters than dinner. A casserole of braised shoulder was sensational, punched up with pungent black mustard seeds and so tender as to be like a chunky snowflake of meat upon the tongue. Slender slices of the spit-roasted lamb's leg were richly flavored but less spectacular, and two thin chops possessed an unpleasant taste. After we finished our meal and the waiter inquired how things were, I tactfully noted the chops didn't taste right (they remained uneaten on the plate). I expected him to return from the kitchen with reassuring words, such as "the chef says the chops are from New Zealand, which have a stronger flavor than the American lamb to which you may be more accustomed." Any vaguely credible excuse would have done. The waitstaff here has just the right no-attitude attitude and is as sharp as a tack in providing proper service, but somebody should have addressed my dissatisfaction, as mildly expressed as it was.

For a refreshing finish try a sampling of four housemade sorbets and creams, each topped with a matching taste treat -- blueberry sorbet with lemon curd was especially appealing. A crme brùlée bottomed with strawberry jam boasted a crisp golden crust and velvety interior, while a separate bowl on the same plate presented sparkling strawberry granité topped with a dollop of anise-scented tarragon cream. Both components were luscious, but I'm not sure what one had to do with the other. A dozen types of exceedingly fresh tea leaves, pods, and flowers are brewed in press pots and prove to be as aromatically satisfying as any in town. Don't forget the aforementioned cheese selection (a rarity). Finally, complimentary cream-filled soft chocolate "lollipops" are handed out.

The cost of dinner here is enough to make a jellyfish go belly-up, but, notwithstanding a gastronomic gaffe or two, Vix's bewitching victuals combined with an allegiance to quality and detail warrant its consideration as one of the finest dining destinations on the Beach.

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