16 January 2008

Winterhaven Hotel, South Beach, Miami, Florida: New Year’s Eve

It was a busy year, 2007. So, we decided to spend New Year’s Eve in a sunny, warm locale. After checking several possibilities, we decided on Miami, specifically South Beach.

We’ve been to South Beach before. In fact, this was our third vacation there in six years. The first time, we stayed at the Avalon. Two years later, we stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. After considering several possibilities, for this trip we decided to stay at the Winterhaven.

Since we were going to be there for New Year’s Eve, we didn’t expect a bargain rate. And there were many things that we liked about the hotel. First of all, there’s location. You walk out the front door, cross Ocean Drive, and you’re in Lummus Park and the beach. It’s also only four or five blocks to the shopping on Lincoln Road and Espanola Way. The hotel offers some nice amenities – beach chairs and towels for guests to use on the beach, a daily breakfast in the lobby, newspapers delivered to your room. For a modest ‘resort fee’ you also can get a free drink in a nightly happy hour.

Our daily routine involved getting up in time to have breakfast, read the paper, and sip some coffee. Then we would take a long walk on the beach. The weather was beautiful, hot, and humid, so after our walk, we’d change into our swim suits, grab our beach chairs and towels and relax for a couple of hours on the beach. After baking in the sun, we’d go back to the hotel, take a shower, then head out for shopping and lunch. We’d get back to the hotel in time for the happy hour, have a drink and relax. Then change clothes and head out for dinner. The Winterhaven was a comfortable home base for this schedule.

But, with just a few tweaks, I think the Winterhaven could be a fabulous place to stay. I think about the great time we had at the Serrano Hotel in San Francisco. It was pretty much the same concept – take a funky old hotel, fix it up and update the rooms and it becomes a unique vacation spot. But the management of the Kimpton Hotels (which runs the Serrano), has a knack for adding just a little extra pizzazz which makes staying there memorable. All the ingredients are there for the Winterhaven to do the same, but they can’t seem to make it work.

I honestly can’t say what what’s the difference. The staff is friendly enough. The lobby and front porch are attractive places to hang out. But somehow, it just isn’t conducive to encouraging the guests to socialize. We did meet some very interesting people at the Winterhaven – a couple, he’s from England now working in Wilmington, Del., she’s from Düsseldorf; another couple from England. But there wasn’t the same kind of social atmosphere we experienced at the Serrano.

Now, before I get to my restaurant reviews, I have just a few miscellaneous observations about our vacation on South Beach.

It’s really a great international gathering place. Miami is sort of a hub that attracts visitors and business travelers from Central and South America. There also are a lot of European tourists. We encountered people from Spain, England, Germany, Italy, France, and Israel. Since the current exchange rates favor the Euro, I imagine a trip to Miami is very affordable for a lot of foreign travelers.

We thought that there was less glamour than our previous vacations. You still see the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other exotic cars cruising Ocean Drive. But the drivers are dressed in grunge. On our previous visits, we saw more high fashion in the hotels, at the restaurants, and on the street.

We also thought the music was different from our previous visits. Techno is the universal sound of the South Beach night clubs. But in the past, we also heard lots of salsa music. This time, it was almost all techno. They also have a weird definition of ‘live music.’ A lot of clubs advertise ‘live music.’ They must consider a DJ to be live music. (I wonder, can techno even be performed live?)

The restaurant scene is fantastic. I’m really kind of amazed at the generally high level of quality at really reasonable prices. As you walk along Ocean Drive, the restaurants have people on the sidewalk trying to tempt you to eat there, and they always have a pitch. Either it’s happy hour, or dinner hour, or late night happy hour, two-for-one drinks or evening specials. (I saw one young woman wrap her arms around a man and promise her undying love if he’d eat at there.) All the hucksters make you wonder about the quality of the food. But we found that the quality of the food and the overall value was always pretty good.

Most of the restaurants automatically add a tip to the bill. For our meals, it ranged from 15% (for lunch one day) to 18% (most places for dinner). I assume it’s because so many Europeans travelers are used to ‘service compris’ at their restaurants. I think it’s handled very effectively. When you look at your bill, the gratuity is clearly marked, and there’s an additional line for any extra you might want to give your server.

Two days before New Year’s Eve, they closed off most of Ocean Drive to traffic. The restaurants, which all have sidewalk tables anyway, set up additional tables and expanded into the middle of the street. So for two days, Ocean Drive became a pedestrian way.

New Year’s Eve was lots of fun. We had a late dinner. After dinner, we walked on the boardwalk along the beach, past hotels with sounds of uninhibited partying. At midnight, there were fireworks on the beach (though it was a pretty short display). Then the partying continued on Ocean Drive with music and dancing and celebration.

So all in all, it was a great vacation. Hot, wonderful weather. Fun, funky hotel. Great food and restaurants. Relaxing atmosphere (I left my BlackBerry at the office). Wild partying. But I didn’t expect to see signs of poverty on the beach. There were many young women who apparently couldn’t afford tops for their bikinis. (So sad.)

South Beach Dinner #1: Santo

As we prepared for our Florida vacation, we decided to make reservations for the night we arrived (Saturday) and for New Year’s Eve. We figured we’d be able to find a restaurant for the night between those dates. After doing a little research, we picked Santo Restaurant. Their web site and other things we read noted that they had live music, the menu looked interesting, and the reviews about the food were good. So we made a reservation for New Year’s Eve.

A few days later, I got a call. At first, I couldn’t figure out who was calling because the caller had such a thick Spanish accent. After I understood it was Santo calling, I then learned that for New Year’s Eve, they had a fixed price menu. After a brief discussion with my wife, we decided that’s not what we wanted. But, we still were excited about eating there, so we switched the reservation to Saturday. We made an 8:30 reservation.

As we continued to talk about our plans, we began to wonder when the music would start on Saturday. My wife called to ask. “Midnight,” was the answer. No problem. We’re on vacation, and we planned to stay up late anyway listening to music. “By the way,” my wife asked, “what kind of music is it?” “Oh,” came the reply, “on Saturday nights we have a little older crowd, so it’s a mix.” Older crowd? “Yeah, late 20s to early 30s.” Oh.

Well, we’re adventuresome, so we switched our reservation to 10 p.m. so that we would already have our table when the music began.

So on Saturday when we arrived on South Beach, we took a little walk to check it out. It really looked cool.

We went back to our hotel, had a cocktail, rested up from our traveling, changed clothes and arrived for dinner at 10.There were a few diners, one big table of partiers and another smaller table of people some of whom were from Madrid.

We ordered a bottle of wine – Benvolio Pinot Grigio from Italy. We liked the wine list at Santo. It was organized into groups of $39, $49, or $59 bottles plus a selection of ‘reserve’ bottles. The Benvolio was $39. It was cool and crisp and easy on the palate. We took our time and enjoyed a glass before ordering. After all, we needed to make the dinner last until midnight.

The food at Santo lived up to our expectations. For starters, I ordered brie with tomato fondue, and my wife ordered spinach salad with arugula, caramelized onions, spicy candied walnuts, gorgonzola, apple smoked bacon, and raspberry vinaigrette. Both were very good, nicely prepared and presented and very tasty.

After finishing our starters and another glass of wine, we ordered entrées. I had red snapper served with a roasted poblano pepper and black bean corn salsa. The fish was moist and flaky. The pepper was smoky and flavorful without too much heat. The salsa was a nice relish with a wonderful blend of Latin flavors to complement the meal.

Linda had mahi-mahi with sweet potato puree and a tropical salsa. The flavors of her meal were more Caribbean and also very good.

By now it was after 11:30 and people started arriving for the music. By the time we finished our meals and a final glass of wine, nearly all of the tables were taken and the bar was standing-room only as the partiers waited to get in. It became evident that the club was in the back of the restaurant.

Finally, at a little after midnight, we paid our bill and stood up. One of the servers gestured toward the front door. We shook our heads and pointed toward the club. When the music started, sure enough, it was not a live band but a DJ spinning techno. We were the oldest people in the club by decades. We danced for about a half hour then left. As we went out the front door, there was a line of young people waiting to get in. We probably left before the others were even warmed up. But it was a fun way to begin our vacation.

South Beach Dinner #2: Medi

Our goal for our second night on South Beach was to just stroll up and down Ocean Drive and see what was available. We saw a lot of possibilities but finally settled on Medi.

As I described in my opening post about our South Beach vacation, on Sunday, Ocean Drive was closed off and the restaurants expanded into the middle of the street. Medi is the sidewalk café in front of the Strand Ocean Drive.

I also described how the cafés and restaurants have their hosts out on the sidewalk trying to induce customers to come in. We picked Medi because the menu looked good, the music playing in the background was a nice mix of rock (not techno), and they offered us a two-for-one drink special.

Well, my martini was $14 and Linda’s Miami Vice cocktail was $18. We each got two of them, but you can make your own judgment about whether it was really a half-price deal.

But if the drinks were over-priced, they still were good, and the food was very good.

I had a Cuban steak. (It wasn’t called that on the menu, but the server confirmed that’s what it was.) It was a very nice piece of flank steak topped with a chimichurri sauce. It was served with black beans and rice.

Linda had seafood ravioli. The fresh pasta ravioli were very flavorful and it was served with a rich cream sauce.

The food was very good, and the street-side table was great for watching the endless parade of revelers on Ocean Drive.

South Beach Dinner #3: Creek 28

So when I started writing about our South Beach restaurants, I mentioned that we originally planned to eat at Santo for New Year’s Eve. When those plans fell through, we resumed our search.

We were fairly specific in our criteria. We wanted a great dining experience – food, wine, ambiance. We wanted to order off the menu, not a set menu. We wanted to eat late, but be done in time to be on the beach for the fireworks at midnight.

We used OpenTable to screen the possibilities for us. We found Creek 28, and it sounded intriguing. It has a very attractive web site. We used a Google map to figure out it’s location. It’s about a mile north of the Winterhaven where we stayed and a block off of Collins. That sounded about right. We’d eat at 9 or 9:30, then finish in time to stroll the boardwalk and arrive back at Lummus Park in time for the fireworks. The menu posted online was very intriguing. So we made a reservation.

Though we have developed a pretty good sense of how to judge a restaurant based on internet research, we didn’t want any unpleasant surprises on New Year’s Eve. So when we took our morning walk the day after we arrived, we walked up to check it out. We really liked what we saw.

Creek 28 is located in the Indian Creek Hotel. It is up the road from the Art Deco hotels and two blocks off the beach. But it was very appealing and the hotel décor featured an eclectic mix of interesting antiques and modern styles. We checked out the restaurant and learned that there are many tables in the courtyard garden. After confirming that we could be seated there, we finished our walk with anticipation of our New Year’s Eve dinner.

The only near-glitch in our dining experience occurred when we arrive at 9:30 sharp. Well, we were informed, your reservation was for 9, and we’ve given your table away. Oh. Honestly, we couldn’t remember if we’d made the reservation for 9 or 9:30, but we must have looked so forlorn that after a short wait, they said they could accommodate us.

We started with martinis. They were very nicely prepared and actually quite large. We had planned on having a glass of Champaign besides, but after finishing the martini, we decided to skip it. We also decided to split an appetizer – baked, herbed goat cheese. It was fantastic. The cheese was wrapped in a filo crust with carmelized onions and a fruit compote. They served wonderful, thin crackers to go with it.

My wife had grilled sea scallops which are a regular item on the menu. You could have it, as she did, as a small entrée or it could be a starter to split with others. The scallops were expertly prepared, cooked through to Linda’s preference, but still moist and tender. They were served with a tomato saffron sauce, currants, chorizo sausage and grilled bread.

I had been obsessing over a dish that I saw on the menu online – lamb osso bucco. Osso bucco is usually prepared with veal shanks, and I also love braised lamb shanks, so I was eager to see how they would handle this dish. I kind of expected that they would serve whole lamb shanks in a braising liquid like osso bucco. I was delighted when my dish arrived and they had sliced the lamb shanks into little cross sections like osso bucco made with veal shanks. The flavors were wonderful and the presentation superb.

Halfway through dinner, one of the other guests stood up and made a very loud announcement, asking everyone to lift a glass in celebration of the new year. It seems likely he’d had enough to drink to neutralize normal inhibitions. But all of the diners lifted their glasses and joined him in his toast. To me, it captured a feeling of generous understanding. So what if he was tipsy? The old year was ending, the new year was about to begin. Happy New Year.

Lunch at TiramesU, South Beach

For my reports on our South Beach vacation, I’ve focused on the places we had dinner. But I have to give a short post on one lunch that we had.

The restaurant was TiramesU, located on Lincoln Drive. The tables spill out into the pedestrian mall. Several of the tables are next to a fountain. The day was hot and beautiful. The fountain was so appealing. We just had to eat there.

We don’t usually eat very heavy at lunch time. So we split the daily soup special and a salad. Linda had a glass of Pinot Grigio and I had an Italian beer – Peroni. The soup was a carrot spinach soup. It was very good. I expected it to taste like a squash soup, probably because the bright orange color resembled squash. But the flavors were light with a nice blend of carrot without being overpowering. The salad also was very good – very fresh and flavorful. No dressing, just served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to your taste.

But besides the food, we loved being on the mall next to the fountain. Families would stroll by and the kids would want to stop and look at the fountain. Fashionistas (and fashionista wannabes) made the scene. One of those corny human statues was attracting gawkers on the other side of the fountain.

At the table next to us, apparently a U.S. family was hosting a foreign exchange student. They ordered the Caprese salad to share for the table. It was a beautiful big plate of luscious tomatoes and creamy white mozzarella. Four big pieces, enough for everyone.

At another nearby table, a family of Italians (probably tourists?) were enjoying a very large lunch. We watched as the servers brought plate after plate of food which was quickly devoured.

Great food. Great people watching, and a lot of fun.

Family dinner at Coal Mine Pizza, Boca Raton, FL

At the end of our Florida vacation, we rented a car, left sunny South Beach and drove up the coast 55 miles to visit relatives in Boca Raton. Just in time, too. The weatherman said a cold front was moving across Florida. Before we reached the Miami city limits driving north on I-95, it was raining. By the time we reached Boca, it was 20 degrees cooler. And the next day, the high temp was only in the 50s.

As much fun as South Beach is, I don’t know what you’d do there if it rained or if it was too chilly to go to the beach.

We had a nice visit, but we were having trouble finding a mutually convenient time to see one cousin’s family. It finally was worked out that on the day before we left for home, after we finished shopping and before they went to a high school basketball game, we’d all meet for pizza.

The pizza place was Coal Mine Pizza. We were there a little early, and we had no trouble getting a table for eight. Our server told us that by 7 p.m., it would be packed. The menu is very appealing. They offer a selection of appetizers, salads, and sandwiches. But the main appeal is pizza. They have two sizes – 12-inch “personal” and 16-inch “large.” You can select your own toppings from a creative list, or you can choose a “specialty” pizza which is priced the same as a pizza with two toppings.

We started with a couple of appetizers. The calamari was very good. The batter was tasty and fried lightly, not at all greasy. We also had Dynamite Shrimp which turned out to be medium-sized, tender shrimp also batter-fried. They both were good, but I preferred the calamari.

For our table of eight, we ordered one “personal” and two “large” pizzas, all of them from the specialty list. All of the ingredients were high quality and fresh. The crusts were thin and crisp.

My favorite was the Vidal. It was fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, and basil. It was simple and very tasty. To my own surprise, my second favorite was the Scampi Pie. It consisted of shrimp, garlic, basil, fresh spinach and tomatoes. I was kind of skeptical about the combination, but it was very tasty. The flavors blended well and complimented each other nicely. The third pizza was “Melt in your Mouth Meatball and Ricotta.” It was good, but I thought it was a little bland. The meatball was held together loosely, so it crumbled when cut. (I suppose that’s why they call it ‘melt in your mouth.’) The ricotta was not at all distinctive in the mix of flavors.

Besides the pizzas, we also had wine and beer. I thought the wine was kind of expensive for a pizza joint. But since we got there early, it was happy hour, so our wines were two-for-one. One nice touch – two of our group didn’t want to have a second glass of wine. Our server gave them tokens to use the next time they came in. All the beer was bottled. About half were imports, including three from Italy.

We mainly picked the restaurant as a casual place for family members (including two kids) to get together and talk. Coal Mine Pizza turned out to be a great choice for our last night in Florida. The service was very accommodating and the food was very good besides.

15 January 2008

Dinner at Nick & Eddie, Minneapolis

My wife and I just got back from a Florida vacation where we enjoyed lots of good food. So you wouldn’t think we’d be hitting the restaurant scene at home so much. But we have. This past weekend, we went with friends to the new Nick & Eddie in Minneapolis.

Nick & Eddie has been getting a lot of local headlines and a lot of raves. The hype set quite high expectations. For the most part, it lived up to those expectations.

It’s located in a fun, cool part of the city, across the street from Loring Park. Next door is Joe’s Garage, one of our favorites, especially for rooftop dining on a warm summer evening. Just down the street is Café Lurcat, another reliably good restaurant.

When we arrived, the place was really hopping. We had 7:30 p.m. reservations. It took just a couple of minutes for our table to open up. Our waiter, Chris, was really quite a character. He said it was his birthday. I don’t know whether it was, but he was in a really good mood.

We took a look at the wine list, and with Chris’s approval, we selected a Qupe syrah. We really liked it. In researching this blog post, I looked at the Qupe web site and realized that their wines seem to be sort of a Spanish style. We love Spanish wine.

We started our dinner with salads. Two of our group ordered the evening special. It had lobster and seafood on grilled radicchio. The flavors were very bold and contrasting. My wife thought the radicchio was too bitter. The other two had a salad of bibb lettuce and cheese. Mine was goat cheese, the other diner had blue cheese. We thought our salads were simple and tasty.

For entrées, two of us ordered the mahi-mahi special of the evening. The mahi was cooked just barely through. It was flakey but still very moist. My wife tasted it, but it wasn’t cooked well enough for her preference. I loved it. One of the other diners had the braised beef cheeks. If you read some of the reviews that have been published, this is a dish that’s getting lots of praise. Our friend really liked it and said it was the tenderest meat he’d ever eaten. My wife had duck. She was not quite as thrilled by her meal as we were with ours. The duck breast was very flavorful, but it was served with the skin on and it was very fatty. She would have preferred a lean, skinless duck breast. Her duck was served with a wild rice and hominy side dish; she thought it was very creative and very tasty.

We didn’t really need dessert, but we decided to get one and split it four ways. We had a ginger cake made with fresh ginger. It was moist and very flavorful; the fresh ginger added just a little heat to the sweetness. I guess the signature dessert is a homemade chocolate ho-ho dipped in butterscotch. But that didn’t really appeal to us.

With the crowd that was piling in to the restaurant all evening, it sure looks like Nick & Eddie will have a successful run. It fills a nice niche on Loring Park – more formal than Joe’s Garage but more casual than Café Lurcat.