Friday, May 25, 2007

Top of the Mark

Sunday--our last night in South Beach. Our last chance to find good food. So rather than trying for hipster status by going to the happeningest spot on the block, we decided to go for a place that had been around for at least a few years, with a chef who had a sound reputation.

And so, crossing our fingers that the rain would hold off for the short walk down Collins, we headed out to
Mark's South Beach, one of four restos in South Florida owned by chef Mark Militello.

We arrived at the Hotel Nash, which houses the restaurant, just as the raindrops were getting fatter, and ducked inside. There was only one other party in the restaurant, which seemed surprising for 8pm on a Sunday. But, as our waitress pointed out, it was close to the end of the season. Plus the rain tended to keep the locals away. Plus there was some kind of hip-hop convention in town, which really really kept the locals away.

Digression: what happens at a hip-hop convention? Do they have a keynote speaker? Are there tracked sessions (beginner, intermediate and advanced hip-hop)? What does the exhibition hall look like? Is everyone wandering around with baggy low-rise pants and bling, carrying Vibe tote bags filled with brochures and FuBu logo frisbees?

We ordered cocktails--a Martini for me and a Manhattan for The Boy. Wow, were they potent. "Yeah," said our waitress of the bartender, "she's pretty generous with the spirits."

I liked our waitress a lot; cool, funny, laid-back. We talked about life in Miami (she was a California transplant) and whether there was really any perfect place to live in the world (everywhere has its downsides).

I also liked that the corridor to the restrooms had old framed hotel invoices on the walls, itemizing the spending habits of guests in the 1930s (beer: 10 cents. Room for a week: three dollars).

And then to food. The Boy started with the yellowfin tuna tartare, which came with avocado and lemongrass oil. I went for the conch chowder, a generous bowlful, slightly too heavy on the coconut milk but saved by the donut-hole-sized plantain beignets piled in the center.

And then The Boy had striped bass, served with a deep, fresh tomato sauce, and olive gnocchi with the texture of good sausage--not sticky or doughy, as gnocchi often are. And I chose a second app: scallops with calabaza puree and passionfruit. The scallops tried to hold their own next to the fruit, but were slightly overwhelmed by sweetness. I'd probably have enjoyed it more had I not just waded through a bowl of coconut milk.

But even though my choices were not so well thought out, this was still the most satisfying meal we had in Miami (Cuban food aside). There was a sense, from the creative-but-not-painfully-trendy menu, and from the waitstaff, that the food mattered more than anything else.

This wasn't a place to see and be seen, but a place to get carefully considered dishes with fresh ingredients (many menu items are created from that day's market offerings). It was the one resto where the music was in the background, rather than being a pounding obstacle to conversation. It was the one place where we didn't feel completely ripped off when the check arrived.

And it was the one place that, should we find ourselves in South Beach, we'd be likely to go back to.

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