Departing a cocktail party at the Fontainebleau Hotel in South Beach, and feeling peckish, my friend and I made the awkward discovery that we were too short on time to visit any of the inconveniently distant restaurants on my carefully prepared list. So we crossed the vast, glimmering main lobby, and put our problem to the fetching young woman ensconced
behind the concierge desk, who was radiating cheerful, all-American goodwill. We fancied something Italian.
"Great! You have to try Scarpetta!" she said, beaming at the very mention of her hotel's Scott Tenant outpost.
"We've got one of those back home," I said.
"What about Cecconi's, next door?" she asked, meaning the local branch of the 1980s Mayfair hot spot that now belongs to the Soho House group, and anchors their local members-only Soho Beach House. But then I was staying there, and had eaten at Cecconi's already.
"Maybe Chinese then?" she asked. "Hakkasan is a-may-zing!"
Alan Yao's original in Fitzrovia might well be. At least one can only hope it was back in 2003, when it became the first Chinese restaurant in London to collect a Michelin star. But Yao has long since sold his majority stake in this chain that the Miami branch in the Fontainebleau made five strong - and that is exactly how it had tasted to me the night before. Losing interest, my friend and I repaired to the bar to wait for my wife to return from her dinner meeting at Mr. Chow at the W - yes, another London restaurant, with a branch in L.A., a pair in New York and another due in Las Vegas later this year.
The apparently insatiable American desire for culinary sameness - to eat the exact same thing, chosen from the exact same menu, in a restaurant that looks almost exactly the same as the last one - is hardly new. What has changed over the past decade or so is its focus. Americans are evidently no longer content to eat the same burger or French fry everywhere they go. They want to eat the same high-end food everywhere too.
To my mind, this accelerating trend risks doing even more damage to haute cuisine as did, say, the recession, and chef Marco Pierre White's Knorr ads. I could easily have returned from Miami with an account of the 10 most expensive meals in town, and reading it, no one would be able to tell whether I had been there, or to Los Angeles, New York or Las Vegas.
Fortunately, what afflicts the high end has not yet impacted mid-range dining, and in the case of Miami, the food I sampled in the middle price range was far more interesting - and better prepared too. Notably, in the design district, I found a pair of restaurants that each displayed the sort of euphoric embrace of cross-cultural culinary influence that characterized dining out in Toronto in the eighties - albeit with a different flavour profile.
At Gigi, on North Miami Avenue, you will find a menu that spans the geographical divide from tacos to pad Thai, ramen, tandoori chicken, and then steak and eggs. It seems mad to throw all this together on one short menu and expect the diner to decipher therein any sort of coherent message. But not long after settling in for a few bites and a little wine, you realize that there is one after all, and it is simply to have fun, eat well, and cheaply - and it's hard not to like that.
The room is modern and clean in its design, with floor-to-ceiling windows that keep it sunny and cheerful. The long, blond-wood bar overlooks an open kitchen, and sitting there (which I recommend) I enjoyed in no particular order: some sparklingly fresh, crisp-skinned snapper on a bed of jasmine rice, with Savoy cabbage, sweet sugar peas and a heavy drizzle of intense black bean sauce; some soft tacos filled with shredded brisket, brunoise of bell pepper and sweet corn; a pressed short rib terrine with two sauces; and a plate of star fruit, jackfruit and pomegranate spiked with chili. All of it was soundly prepared and brightly flavoured; the most expensive dish was $15, and some cost just $3.
Around the corner on NE 40th Street, at the main entrance to the Atlas Plaza, you will find Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, comprising a handsome courtyard patio, and inside, a handsome dark wood bar and lounge flanked by twin dining rooms, one of them by a wood-burning pizza oven. Here too, the menu has range - but it subscribes to a stated ideal: "fresh, simple, pure."
The energy here at night is delightfully contagious. The food, meanwhile, is ideal for casual sharing. Pizzas are thin and crisp, but the wood oven is also used for roasting whole chicken (with pine nuts, raisins and mixed greens), snapper (with fennel and grilled lemon) and porterhouses (with garlic butter). Crisp pork belly with crushed peanuts, kimchi and pea shoots, and steamed mussels with harissa, roasted tomato and garlic chips nicely sum up the flavour-rich style of a menu that has something for just about everyone.
Back at the Soho Beach House, you will find that - just as at the sister properties in London and New York - whatever time you feel like having a drink, a whole bunch of entertaining and nicely turned-out people had the same idea well before you. Everyone knows that the Soho House knows how to manage a great bar. What is different here is that you can also settle in on a beach chair and read in the sun while snacking on a fine grouper ceviche and fantastic croquettas flavoured with goat cheese and tiny cubes of Serrano ham.
It is a stunning hotel - and its aforementioned restaurant, Cecconi's, where you dine on a covered patio beneath sprawling tree branches lit with tiny white lights, may well be its aesthetic highlight. Alas, it is one of those restaurants where everything on the menu sounds fantastic, but only a handful of things turn out that way. Our meal there began auspiciously, with a classical, and well-prepared carpaccio, exquisitely delicate gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce, and a good wood-oven roasted meatball in tomato sauce. But then, I never did find out how the promised $39 North Atlantic turbot would taste with butternut squash and wild mushrooms - because the kitchen swapped that great fish without notice or apology for a piece of black cod (which is about as similar as, say, shrimp is to salmon).
Hakkasan is a handsome, if slightly clichéd-looking restaurant (backlit bar, soft blue light, cascading water) with lots of dark corners perfect for a romantic date. Dishes that helped make the London original famous - like the $198 Peking duck with caviar - are all here.
Spend less, though, and you may not be moved at all. Stir-fried tangerine beef and tea-smoked ribs were all sound, but one-dimensional in their flavourings. The roasted Pi Pa duck did have lovely crisp skin that melted like candy on the tongue. But the charcoal-grilled black pepper eel was just another sweet-soy glazed unagi - no pepper in evidence. I have had a lot of better Chinese meals at a quarter the price. And in Miami, that seems to be the price range they do best.
Special to The Globe and Mail