Restaurant Reviews

With the Continental, Philly Restaurateur Stephen Starr Re-Creates His Earliest Success

There's something about the Don Draper-esque charm, the effortless chic of an outdated era, that attracts crowds. Red-and-blue banquettes abut similarly topped Formica tables. A high-set shelf of verdant faux foliage lines part of the 286-seat dining room, awash in a dim glow. Bringing the outside in was all the rage in the 1960s, and it's back. Then comes the Cadillac-pink menu offering fried bufala mozzarella, a build-your-own sushi box, and not a hint of stuffiness.

Nearly every table is littered with ceramic tiki mugs bearing sugary, drunk-giggle-inducing libations.

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Though it's situated steps from temples of simplicity such as Tom Colicchio's Beachcraft and Andrew Carmellini's the Dutch, the Continental is something very different. The 3-month-old Collins Avenue spot is a reincarnation of Philadelphia restaurant baron Stephen Starr's first hit. In 1995, the onetime concert promoter, now 58, took over a '60s-style diner a few blocks from the Liberty Bell with plans for a chic bar capitalizing on the martini's then-extraordinary popularity. Its success launched Starr's embryonic business into an empire that today spans more than 40 operations nationwide.

As his fiefdom grew, Miami became something of a second home. His company Starr Restaurants runs Makoto in the Bal Harbour Shops, where it's planning a French concept in the former La Goulue space. It also manages dining operations at Pérez Art Museum Miami and operated the now-closed Ted's at the National YoungArts Foundation.

But for years, Starr had an eye on Miami Beach's Motel Ankara, which recently received a $100 million face-lift. "It screamed 'Continental' at me," Starr said. "There's nothing else I could do here."

It's a risky play with no mention of local-farm sourcing or sophisticated technique. Instead, the kitchen, handled by Matthew Oetting, prepares smart renditions of kitschy, worldly pleasures. And everything is attentively served in a time-traveling cocktail party. Ceramic tiki mugs are filled with sugary, drunk-giggle-inducing libations. There's the Melolo Swizzle, layered in Rastafarian hues of red, yellow, and green thanks to house-made grenadine, Banane du Brésil, pineapple, and fresh basil crushed into ice. It tastes like a fistful of Pixy Stix dissolved into a tumbler of booze. More sensible is the Dominicana old-fashioned, which blends sweet rum with spicy cinnamon water for a cool snap that works particularly well for sitting outdoors.

Servers give each table time to down a few drinks and become inebriated enough to shed any hesitation to ravage the menu. But that's not their only skill. They show impressive knowledge of the menu, including explanations of the spice zaatar and the spicy tomato paste harissa, as well as shameless endorsement of fried mozzarella sticks. What's more, the entire waitstaff takes responsibility for the whole dining room. Other tables' servers were eager to check in, clear finished plates, and refill drinks. That's a rare phenomenon on South Beach.

A favorite is the Hong Kong Fooey, a crowd-pleasing version of chicken kung pao that swaps the Sichuan spice for a friendlier sweetness. This dish encapsulates all the memories of Chinese takeout, but with less grease and peanuts that maintain their just-out-of-the-fryer crunch. The same holds true for a five-pack of chicken pot stickers — little envelopes of savory, juicy goodness studded with garlic and green onion.

The seafood wor bar is another popular plate. A hissing cast-iron platter comes stacked with shellfish and a cornucopia of bite-size vegetables. Shrimp, along with hunks of lobster and scallops, are lathered in a cloying gravy of oyster sauce, Shaoxing wine, and sesame oil. Like its kung pao counterpart, it's sweet, but the vegetables maintain an almost raw snap, and a dearth of grease makes it easy to polish off.

Even cheesesteak repurposed into crisp fried egg rolls has earned fans. Rich, gooey melted American cheese holds together the fatty interiors. But it's the sriracha-spiked ketchup that binds it all. Without the spicy, acidic punch, each bite would amount to little more than a forgettable fat bomb.

Lettuce wraps often include a filling of ground industrial protein, but here they break the mold. Creekstone Farms skirt steak is marinated in Asian pear juice, the fermented Korean chili paste gochujang, and mirin before taking a hard sear. Daikon and cucumber are transmogrified into fiery, fizzy kimchee that works well wrapped up with the sweetened beef in Bibb lettuce.

Most dishes lean toward sweet. Korean fried chicken emerges as a half-bird frizzled bone-in and skin-on, then lacquered in a sugar-soy glaze, resulting in a shatteringly crisp exterior and succulent interior. The neurologist I was dining with didn't think twice about hastily scooping a fallen drumstick up off the floor. But beyond the basic allure is the small accompanying dish of pickled cauliflower florets and Fresno chilies that help round out each bite.

A yellowtail snapper on a wood board alongside a fan of tostones is a nod to Miami, even if it's pricier than what you might find at your favorite Cuban spot. Still, the fish's crunchy, fatty skin and tender meat make a perfect pair, especially when splashed with a touch of garlic-and-cilantro-spiked oil. A fat loin of branzino is also roasted to perfection, leaving flesh that slips onto the fork in buttery flakes. The bed of cauliflower is pleasantly spiced but cooked to the point where it would be better puréed into a silky emulsion rather than left as a pile of mushy florets.

To cap off the meal, old faithful Nutella is blended with Valrhona chocolate, eggs, brown sugar, and cream to form a wispy, ethereal mousse that's piped into a buttery pastry crust anchored to the plate with more of the chocolatey hazelnut spread.

Like most dishes here, the pie seizes on basic desires, and not the ones for seasonal vegetables charred over a wood fire. Instead, the Continental plays on cravings for indulgence that won't leave you in a grease- or sugar-induced coma. What sets it apart are the little things — the few pickles that help tame the sweet fried chicken, or the searing, fragrant chili concoction called ssamjang that heats up what would otherwise be a boring crudite appetizer. Yet with all of the out-of-date delights strewn across its menu, what the Continental does best is get out of its own way and let everyone in the room just have some shameless, tiki-fueled fun.

The Continental
2360 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-604-2000; Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight; midday meal Saturday and Sunday 3 to 5 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

  • Cheesesteak egg roll $16
  • Chicken pot stickers $11
  • Hong Kong Fooey $19
  • Sizzling seafood wor bar $28
  • Lettuce wraps $29
  • Crispy whole snapper $29
  • Mediterranean branzino $29
  • Nutella cream pie $11

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson