Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My South Beach Diet

First, let me say: Miami Beach is warm and nice but WEIRD. It is like a combination of the French Riviera and Las Vegas. It is so sceney! So slick! And yet you have the large pasty tourists lumbering along very slowly past the restaurants and the Versace mansion on Ocean Drive. But they lumber hedonistically.

I was there for five days. My hotel was right on Ocean Drive, so I did a lot of slow-walker dodging and generally tried to avoid the area after dark aside from scurrying back up to my room. When I'm next back there in the spring, I want to stay anywhere but on Ocean Drive, despite the view from my room:

Can you believe it? The water really is that color. And you can swim in it without losing sensation in your extremities.

Day One:
Arrived from the Frozen North very overdressed. After the taxi ride to hotel from the airport, I shed most of my clothing and put on a pair of summer sandals. Left the hotel and walked up Ocean Drive to end. Up Collins to Bass Museum. Over to Lincoln Road. Walked the length of Lincoln Road (open-air pedestrian-only shopping mall and upscale food court designed by Morris Lapidus) and back. Feet beginning to blister due to humidity, overwalking, and being unaccustomed to going sockless. Walk all the way down to Joe's Stone Crab at other end of South Beach. Beginning to limp slightly.

In Joe's, cannot figure out where host station is. Finally cut through crowds of people, find a host-looking person, ask what the wait is for a table for one, am told to STAND OVER HERE with no further explanation. After about 45 anxious seconds a very nice waiter retrieves me, escorts me to a table. I hear that the wait here, at what the Time Out guide calls "the most famous restaurant in South Florida", can last hours. Here's a tip: go alone, and go at 7 pm.

Ask waiter how to go about ordering: everything looks like it's family-size, everything looks incredibly delicious (when the soles of one's feet are covered in blisters, an iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing sounds ever so refreshing), everything is very expensive. Ozzie, the waiter, says "I will bring you a bowl of the large crab claws, an order of hash browns, and an order of creamed spinach. Those are the house specialties and that's all you need." He also bought me a glass of wine. I am so glad I trusted him. The stone crab claws were unlike any crab I'd ever eaten -- not flimsy like blue crab, not sparse like Jonah crab, not sweet and fleeting like Dungeness. They were solid, meaty, dense, filling. You hold them like a lollipop and dip them into a creamy mustard sauce. Then you eat a bite of the hash browns that are so crispy and swimming in butter, and a bite of the creamed spinach with enormous chunks of roasted garlic, and perhaps a nibble of the pretzel croissant that is nestled in your bread basket, and you think Miami might not be such a bad place to spend some serious time. Especially when Ozzie then brings you a slice of the most silken and cold and luxurious and perfect Key lime pie ever. Then the only thing to do is leave Ozzie an enormous tip, waddle back to the hotel, and beach yourself in front of Sex and the City.

Day Two:
Breakfast is a very large, very sweet cafe con leche from the Art Deco Market on Washington. Dear lord I wish we had cafe con leche widely available for a dollar here. It is my new addiction.

Lunch with the Wolfsonian registrars at Van Dyke Cafe on Lincoln Road, sister establishment to News Cafe on Ocean Drive, which is evidently where Gianni Versace ate his last meal. Both are supposed to be very see-and-be-seen places, but the diner-ish food leaves me wondering whether Joe's will be the only good meal I get on this trip.

Dinner with Emily, who very fortunately for me was delayed an extra day in Florida, so I got to have some very, very buttery and rich veal and mushroom ravioli with her at the low-key (for South Beach) Spiga on Collins Avenue. There are a plethora of Italian places in Miami Beach, which seems odd to me -- rich, carby pasta is never something I look forward to eating in the heat. But no matter. The night was cool and the ravioli was deluxe and unexpectedly seeing Emily was like getting the best present on Christmas Day.

Day Three:
Cafe con leche from the Art Deco Market for breakfast again. Speaking of Art Deco: it is really, really beautiful. But I took very few photos of it because (a) everyone has already taken a million photos of it and (b) after a while I kind of stopped seeing it because it is everywhere. It reminded me of being in Berkeley, where for the first week or so I was completely floored by all of the elaborate Arts & Crafts architecture, but after a while it just faded into the beautiful , eucalyptus-scented background.

Lunch with my new colleagues at the bizarrely-named World Resources Cafe, a place that serves both sushi and Thai food. Light food like this is always what I want to eat in a warm climate.

After work I went for a cocktail on the porch at Wish, the bar/restaurant in The Hotel, the interiors of which were designed by Todd Oldham. (Miami is where I totally lived my best BravoTV lifestyle. Many hotel interiors were designed by Kelly Wearstler, Todd Oldham, Jonathan Adler -- all from Top Design. Emily drove into South Beach and immediately upon arrival saw Uli from Project Runway, and Mychael from PR was appearing at a Starbucks nearby while I was there, too.) The cocktails at Wish had been billed as "neon", and my frozen mojito (for SEVENTEEN DOLLARS) did indeed arrive glowing. Sadly, the neon was provided not by some bizarre plutonium-infused mint leaves but instead by a little plastic ice-cube shaped square with a green LED light inside. I felt so conned! No radiation poisoning for me!

After spending almost all of my dinner allowance on one drink, I wandered over to La Sandwicherie for some cheap eats. Sat at the counter, asked for pate on a baguette. The (French-sounding) guy behind the counter asked me "do you want everything on it?" I said no, just cornichons maybe, but how do you like to eat it? "The best way is to have the pate with butter and Brie -- do you know Brie cheese? -- and vinaigrette and cornichons." OH my goodness. Leave it to the French to cram as much fat as possible onto a piece of bread. I loved it, but I couldn't finish it.

Nightcap at the bar at the Hotel Victor, one of the lovelier hotels on Ocean Drive. One mojito with a stick of sugarcane in it; one vodka gimlet on the rocks. When I got the bill I could barely believe my eyes -- they had charged me the ROCKS FEE! $1.50 for ice in my drink. See ya never, Hotel Victor! For the rest of my trip I vowed to drink only from my hotel room's minibar, which, at $5 per tiny bottle of booze, all of a sudden seemed like the best bargain in South Florida.

Day Four:
Cafe con leche and a little cookie filled with dulce de leche and dusted with coconut for breakfast, this time at David's Cafe. The cookie didn't do much to change my generally blah opinion of Latin American baked goods (except for tres leches cake, which is just about my favorite thing ever), and the cafe con leche was three times the price of the old reliable Art Deco Market's.

Lunch was with Kim and Erin at Puerto Sagua, a Cuban diner down the block from my hotel. I had fried kingfish steak with yellow rice and black beans on an enormous plate. Kingfish has a bit of the texture of swordfish, but tastes saltier. They didn't have my favorite Cuban dish on the menu -- I was hoping for an approximation of the Pollo al Ajillo at the late, lamented La Rosita -- but I vowed to come back another time for the Medianoche pressed sandwich.

One of the best dinners I ate came from a recommendation from Jonathan and Igor, who had been in Miami for Art Basel in December. They suggested Creek 28 in the Indian Creek Hotel. First of all, the hotel is adorable -- all vintage luggage and fake crocodiles and faux-Colonial decor way off the beaten Collins Avenue track. Love at first sight. Love at second sight came when I sat down in their beautiful courtyard and the tiniest, sweetest black kitty came running up to me! The restaurant's house cat. I ordered a glass of something white and dry and Italian to go with my grilled romaine salad (a revelation, with ricotta salata and mint leaves and smoky, rich tomato vinaigrette -- evidently Igor has had great success recreating this dish in Greenpoint) and a Cotes-du-Rhone to go with my special entree of elk skewers with tomato relish. My waiter was wonderful (while describing the special bruschetta with caponata appetizer to me, he asked "do you know what caponata is?" Maybe lots of people in Miami don't know what caponata or Brie cheese are) , the setting was gorgeous, and the special was the perfect (smallish) amount of food for far less ($15!) than the average entree on the menu. My only regret was having to race out of there in order to make the 8 pm curtain at the New World Symphony, so I didn't get to try any of their desserts. No problem, though, because after the concert I pressed through the Lincoln Road crowds over to the beautiful and tiny yet overwhelming-with-selections Icebox Cafe, where I bought a slice of the pumpkin shortcake -- big enough for both dessert and breakfast the next day -- to take back with me to the hotel.

**Interlude to mention that the South Beach Food and Wine Festival was going on while I was in South Beach. Initially I had been a little sorry not to have gotten my act together to get a ticket, but I overcame this the second I saw a Festival-goer yammering on his cell phone, running across the street with a swag-bag emblazoned with the HUMMER logo across it and a lariat around his neck attached to which was an upright WINE GLASS. It is hard to describe. Here are some photos of people wearing them. I am not sure I have ever seen anything more pretentious and dorky. I wanted to take my own photo of someone wearing one, but I couldn't figure out how to ask without sounding deeply insulting.**

Day Five:
This was my "free" day, my one true vacation day of the trip. Unfortunately, I completely squandered it by taking the bus all the way up to Bal Harbour in hopes of seeing some sights. Bad idea. Aside from the most upscale mall in the world -- the Bal Harbour Shops -- there is little to recommend the northern end of Miami Beach, whose main drag with huge high-rise condos on either side reminded me of the canyons of Midtown Manhattan in the summer. The restaurant I was looking for seemed to have closed since it was written up in Time Out, so for lunch I settled for a chicken empanada and a coco frio:

which was delicious but warm and not-so-refreshing, from the Normandy Village farmer's market in Surfside (or possibly North Beach -- it was hard to discern the borders between neighborhoods). I walked and walked and WALKED down to the two Morris Lapidus masterpieces that I had been waiting all week to see -- the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau hotels -- only to find that both were in a state of severe "revitalization" (aka soul-sucking) and were shadows of their former selves. After having scoped out the lobbies of the Delano and Sagamore hotels, though, I am not sure that anything old-school would have held its own. Bummed and exhausted, I broke my minibar-only rule for a Mai Tai on the back patio of the Fontainebleau (only $8.75! Cheap!).

I eased my blistered, bruised, and sunburnt feet into the one remaining pair of shoes I had that seemed unlikely to cause any further podiatric damage and walked a few blocks south for dinner to Shoji Sushi, which Time Out had crowed about ("better than Nobu!"). I was most interested in the "box-style" pressed sushi, which I remember, wide-eyed and salivating, from our favorite sushi restaurant in Berkeley, Sushi Sho. I started with a huge bowl of hamachi ceviche, which was billed as coming with shiso leaf (one of my favorite things in life) but actually came with cilantro. Delicious nonetheless and perhaps the best thing I ate that night. I also ordered the special sazae (Japanese sea snail), which arrived in a snail shell on a bed of salt. The snail itself was minced, grilled in a very salty soy and ginger sauce, and tasted inconsistent with each bite -- one morsel would be very bland and tough, while the next would be extremely pungent with essence of snailiness (think clam belly). Next came the unagi pressed sushi, which was fine but not anywhere near the realm of deliciousness of the Sushi Sho pressed sushi. This was basically a flatter, square-er eel nigiri, whereas the pressed, marinated fish at Sushi Sho was completely unique in my sushi experience. I looked over at another patron's plate at the sushi bar to spy on what he was eating, which was a huge piece of fish that looked like mackerel but was more uniformly gray and iridescent. It was gorgeous. It was called "aji", which the sushi chef described to me as "Japanese jackfish". Thanks, but I'm still not sure what it is. No matter -- I ordered it sashimi-style and it was a bright-tasting, lovely piece of fish.

On my way out of town I ran over to Puerto Sagua and got a Medianoche sandwich of ham and pickles and mustard and cheese all pressed in the toaster and ate it on the beach at 7:30 in the morning. And a cafe con leche. This held me just fine, through two plane flights, until Andy picked me up at the airport and drove me directly to The First and Last in Hartford for some good, old-fashioned eggplant pizza. It was so nice to be back among my un-Botoxed, untanned, sweater-layered New England peeps.

But I am still looking forward to my next trip down south. Next stop: Little Haiti!

More photos of the trip here.


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