"A chimp in a suit" – two half-dinners in Miami Beach
One of my favorite idioms is the old "lipstick on a pig" line. It's perhaps put best, however, in one of my very favorite tunes from the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, "Chimp in a suit," during which one of the Frenchmen in the employ of a spectacularly wealthy, successful con artist, who has been blackmailed into grooming a boorish, loathsome wannabe American conman to become just as magnificently classy and successful as he is, tells his boss he is doomed to fail:
So you've shaved off his fur,
Decked him out in couture
And endowed him with pure savoir faire
You dressed him up fancy
And trained him to dance, he
Remains a chimpan-zee,
He's no Fred Astaire!
Give him a dandy little topper,
Tie on a natty cravat
Buy him a castle,
He'll still be an asshole
And nothing you do will change that.
He's still just a stinky little minkey
In a dinky little suit
And a cheap little hat!
This, to me, is a particularly elegant way to think of America's sparkliest tourist destinations––the Las Vegas Strip, Times Square, Bourbon Street, and, it seems, Miami Beach.
Don't get me wrong––there are many hidden gems in places like these, and I am having a wonderful time being a lizard in the Miami sun, but by-and-large, these destinations look really lovely, but once you strip away the outrageously overpriced hotels and mediocre restaurants, and see the grime beneath, that Rolls Royce parked prominently by the valet in the driveway of that Miami Beach hotel looks rather silly.
A great example––I am staying at the beautiful EDITION in Miami Beach for one night before moving to my much more modestly-priced boutique hotel down the street, and paid a heavy premium for it, because it was the only hotel I found in the area that would let my exhausted ass check in at 6:30am after my overnight flight from Chile. The hotel is beautifully appointed, and loaded with domestic and international guests of disgusting wealth––but also, the white wall around the elevator buttons is stained with years' worth of dirty fingerprints and has never been cleaned or repainted; the floor under the lounge chair you moved in your room hasn't been swept in months; the carpet in the hallways smells vaguely of both Chanel no. 5 and a frat house; the $19 frozen daiquiri at the pool has all the appeal (and rum) of a slightly-melted lime Slurpee.
And so it was with my dinner during my first night in Miami Beach, which may qualify as the most overwhelmingly disappointing meal in the Maestro's tenure as a food snob. I am usually loathe to shred a restaurant after just one visit, but the consistency (and price tag) of the terribleness that evening has eviscerated my desire to be forgiving.
Facing the prospect of returning to Iowa for ten days for Christmas and hence being hundreds of miles from any serviceable raw fish, I was craving good sushi, and made my way up to the very north end of Miami Beach to Bal Harbour, a neighborhood that takes itself so seriously that it actually consciously included the "u" in a word the rest of us trashy Americans spell "harbor." Within the walls of a pedestrian mall (I should have known), perched between construction fences and a dilapidated "Oscar de la Renta" sign, is the Japanese restaurant Makoto, which is supposedly one of the best sushi restaurants in Miami and, in fact, one of the best restaurants in the city, period.
"Makeshift" is one word that comes to mind when observing the hastily-assembled outdoor dining space, just steps from a dining room that would be right at home at the Ritz Carlton in Tokyo or Hong Kong. "Shabby" is another. Between a stucco wall decorated with a cobweb and a screaming table for eight with four children and their iPads (no headphones), I ask my server for the raw salmon appetizer dressed with ponzu, truffle "salsa," kombu powder, and a scant helping of Perigords. I am expecting a delightful assembly of freshly-cut king salmon expertly donned with all these flavorful ingredients and served with pride; what my $23 gets me is a dish that looks and tastes exactly like what it is––something they assembled hours (days?) before and stacked in the 'fridge for their guests. The ponzu-saturated salmon has the freshness of lox from Walmart; the wilted, flavorless nasturtium leaf is a sad reminder of what this dish could have been; even the truffles, normally a mark of luxury and excellence, look flaccid and depressing. But I'm hungry, and quietly finish the dish, and afterward the plate, still loaded with a soup of ponzu, sits for a good 15 minutes before it anyone notices it needs to be removed, as I sip a glass of bubbly that costs the same as a bottle would at the big box liquor store around the corner.
Fortunately, this is the worst dish of the night; unfortunately, that's not a very high bar to clear. Better are the shishito peppers, dressed in a tasty but almost-too-sweet sesame condiment and topped with glorious, smoky bonito flakes; but there are exactly as many peppers as the dish costs in dollars, and they range from woefully undercooked to soggy, without any of the wonderful blistering that happens when shishitos are properly seared at high heat.
The highlight of the meal is a king crab dish grilled robata-style, the sweet, slightly smoky meat shining with a slight squeeze of lime juice. But the legs are smeared with a vague sauce evocative of Miracle Whip, and the meat in the (spiny) shells is so difficult to remove with just the disposable bamboo chopsticks they provide that the few bites of crab are almost not worth the work and mayo-covered fingers required to get to them. Fortunately, the shells take the brunt of the saucing, and the most glorious bites of succulent king crab (almost) make the price tag worth it.
Given the track record so far, rather than order a bunch of sushi all at once, I decide to dip my toe in the water and order a few pieces as a test balloon. Once my congenial but overworked server decided to stop by for the first time in about 30 minutes, I ordered nigiri of ono, kinmedai, and "live" scallop, as well as a carafe of sake, and waited patiently, all the while observing a man dressed for the gym carry his French bulldog into the dining room like an infant and place it on the table in front of him, at least three sets of Lacoste-clad high school students on dates, and a pair of fake blonde influencer types at the sushi bar engaged in scintillating conversations with their iPhones. If the food didn't make things clear, the clientele was starting to.
The plate of nigiri arrives 20 minutes later, and it is hot (??), almost like it had sat under one of those red lamps for a while. The (hot) ono tastes as if it's been smoked and has the texture of an overripe pear; the kinmedai doesn't seem to actually be goldeneye snapper but one of its cheaper cousins, and the (actually decent) scallop was almost certainly not live when they cut it. But what was most vexing is that the sushi rice was dramatically over-seasoned to the point of being downright salty, like the way I preferred my rice at Chinese restaurants as a six year-old. It is, without question, the most disgusting sushi rice I've ever encountered, prompting me to quickly drain my sake and spend 15 minutes searching for my server so I could pay my absurdly high bill and cart my (still hungry) ass to a proper restaurant.
Still grumbling internally about the absolute scam being perpetrated at Makoto, and more importantly about how it could possibly appear on SO MANY normally trustworthy "best restaurants" lists, things brightened a bit when I remembered that that night was my conducting "debut" at Davidson––they had released the first video of the Davidson College Chorale's work from the fall, a wonderful Christmas piece near-and-dear to me called Carol of joy. Figuring I had something to celebrate, and feeling a bit lighter under the glimmer of palms decorated with Christmas lights, I perked up my step a bit and strolled several blocks down the main drag to another of the "best restaurants in Miami," Thomas Keller's Surf Club.
Now, this is not the type of place where I would normally plop down and have a full meal. The concept of the restaurant in the first place––"Continental cuisine interpreted for today’s contemporary guests"––reads to me as "spiceless, strictly European food that white Americans in pastel polos at country clubs like to eat, except made by an internationally-recognized chef and therefore insanely expensive." Indeed, Keller took the soulless concept to the equally soulless Hudson Yards development in Manhattan, where it was widely lampooned by critics and foundered less than two years after opening. Here in Miami, however, it works, and the menu ranges from the absurd to the sublime. A plate of fettucine alfredo (yes folks, fettucine alfredo) costs $46 with black truffles; a wagyu-cross New York strip "for one or two people" is a breathtaking $160, with the added insult that, steakhouse-style, you still have to pay for a sauce and sides.
However, this IS Thomas Keller, and there are real gems to be found on the menu.
The space is so beautiful, too, though the mission-style trappings of the Four Seasons in which the restaurant sits look more like they belong in Laguna, rather than Miami, Beach. The lounge, with well-spaced tables and an open door to the breezy outdoor terrace just feet away, houses the only seat available for a nomadic, reservationless single diner, so I settle into the dimly-lit, perfectly decorated bar-lounge space oozing with midcentury Miami glamor and order a dry martini. By this point I am pretty well-versed on the menu, having perused it online and also read (multiple times) Eater critic Ryan Sutton's spectacular piece shredding its carbon copy in Manhattan, but the server surprises me with some specials that sound magnificent. Not feeling as hungry as I was when I left Makoto, I decided I would be satisfied with just a couple of bites and a larger number of cocktails, and ordered two of the specials to round out my evening.
Before my first dish arrived, another server surprised me with veggie crudités and ranch (yes, ranch, but the best ranch you'll ever eat) and the ever-rarer bread service, featuring the most absurd butter-delivery system I've ever witnessed.
The dish that appealed most to me was sort of poetic in its composition and ingredients given my recent experiences––the stars of the dish were tiny, perfect pieces of Hokkaido uni, the thing I would have finished with at Makato but for the catastrophe that preceded; moreover, the dish was ceviche, and I'd just come from the land of ceviche! Here, morsels of urchin rested on a bed of thinly-sliced avocado. Beneath were minced peppers and a tangy, slightly spicy traditional leche de tigre. This was maybe the best thing I have eaten all year. The urchin was rich, complex, and pristine, the flavors enhanced by the perfect amount of flaky sea salt, and the creamy avocado was a perfect foil to the pucker of the leche de tigre.
It was so good that I ordered another. And then came back two nights later for a third helping. My martini glass was dry, so the server suggested I include a glass of wine to pair with the second round of uni, bringing me a delightful and remarkably complex Sancerre, the tang of which spoke perfectly to the flavors of the ceviche. Despite all that came before, I was starting to feel pretty great.
You know how when you go looking for something it's never as great as you wanted it to be? If either of my loyal readers remember my review of Macchialina from last week, you may recall that I went in search of white truffles, but was disappointed with the sort of strange meal overall. And yet, when things find you and you aren't expecting them, they can be even more wonderful, right? Such was the case with the next dish.
I found more white truffles. I should have guessed that Surf Club had them, and when the special was announced to me, I couldn't have been happier. Keller's team soft-poaches an egg, adding a creamy parmesan espuma over some creamed spinach. My server and a companion appeared with the box of alba truffles, and he generously grated them over the dish. To pair, he brought me a glass of Barolo, also from where these truffles grow, saying "what grows together pairs together" before leaving me to enjoy. He even accidentally (?) let a little bulky corner of the truffle which broke off while shaving remain on my plate when he left, which I promptly pocketed and crumbled over my eggs the next morning.
The dish was gloriously rich and decadent, and all sort of came together in a soupy mélange of magnificence. Meanwhile, the Barolo, though still young, had none of the tannic grip that nebbiolo can impart, and was lively, red fruit-driven, and earthy, speaking beautifully to the truffle dish. My god. The evening had been resurrected. Certainly not cheaply, but resurrected nonetheless.
Liquid dessert sounded ideal, so I had the bar make me one of their añejo rum old fashioneds, which quickly turned into two añejo rum old fashioneds before I called an Uber to take me back to the EDITION, arriving several hours later than I anticipated when heading out for my 5pm meal at Makoto.
I got my decadent Miami experience. It's time to settle in at a hotel I can actually afford and eat some food that's more in my price range. My dear friend Jake, who has been tending my apartment in Charlotte, is making his way down to Miami (and more importantly has a car), so who knows what sort of things we might discover!
Keep your eyes out for the hidden gems, folks, and don't let hype fool you, lest you spend two hours and way too much money on a meal that was once-in-a-decade-level bad. Remember, it's all still just lipstick on a pig, or a chimp in a suit, if you will.