That sinking feeling when reality dashes expectations came early during a Friday dinner visit to Fresh American Bistro. The restaurant at Solé on the Ocean resort in Sunny Isles Beach was nearly empty, save a family of vacationers. Yet somehow the best table available for our group had the worst setup imaginable: no ocean view for two standard chairs, which faced the front entrance and lobby, and a leather love seat for the other two.
I generally try to avoid sofas until after big meals, and I don't like reclining at the table except when religious custom dictates at Passover Seders, but I reluctantly plopped down.
And so began one of the more bewildering meals I've had in quite some time.
The bartender doubled as waiter. An older DJ in headphones playing jazz and club music looked as if he came from the movie "Cocoon." Some of the seasonal dishes from executive chef Philippe Ruiz were sophisticated and displayed precise haute technique. But the room was resort informal, with guests in shorts and wooden tabletops.
Most disappointing, much of the food was average and uneven. The grilled black grouper entrée was cooked perfectly and looked pretty as a picture on the plate, drizzled with sauce and garnished with herbs, microgreens and a flower. But there were bones in the grouper, amongst the easiest fish to fillet. Sloppy.
The restaurant goes by the acronym FAB, but at our table it was more like FLUB: Faces Looking Up Bewildered. And in the end, we also felt fleeced, because the bartender/server never mentioned an 18 percent gratuity was automatically added to the check, even for smaller parties. So we ended up double-tipping, leaving more than $100 on a $260 tab, something I didn't notice until I went over the hard-to-read receipt the next day. The menu didn't indicate the policy, and neither does the restaurant's website. It left a bad taste.
I had high hopes for Fresh American Bistro, recommended by someone who steered me right in the past and said he had an amazing meal there recently. It opened a year and a half ago, helmed by Ruiz, who spent a dozen years at the Biltmore Hotel's acclaimed Palme D'Or in Coral Gables and worked at several Michelin-starred restaurants in his native France. The 90-seat oceanfront dining room, with a wraparound patio, was designed by Stephane Dupoux, whose work includes Nikki Beach Club in Miami Beach and Buddha Bar in New York.
There are floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the ocean, repurposed wood with wainscoting along the walls, and a large American flag and an upside-down rowing scull mounted on the ceiling above the bar. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a $55 brunch buffet on Sunday. The room is bright and airy by day, understated and casually elegant at night.
Once I settled into my sofa, the meal got off to a promising start, although I could have used a few phone books beneath my derriere to reach the table without straining. There was much fanfare from the staff about the bread course: a round loaf of crusty, rustic French bread, its dough given three days to rise before being baked, and four pieces of cornbread. The platter came with honey butter and an olive tapenade that was oily, but high-quality and delicious.
The menu recently changed for summer, and I ordered an appetizer that showed the chef's formal French roots: a chilled-pea soup with mint ($13), poured into the bowl tableside, which enveloped a center mound of salmon tartare, topped with a toasted bread crisp garnished with microgreens and an edible flower. It was beautiful. But the soup and salmon tasted better individually than blended.
The truffled deviled eggs ($12), topped with baby arugula and speck prosciutto, were tasty. Other appetizers were disappointing. Grilled octopus ($15) was mushy. And the mozzarella bocconcini ($16) featured balls of bland, firm cheese with cantaloupe, honeydew and cherry tomato drizzled with balsamic vinegar. I've bought better mozzarella balls from my local wholesale club.
Plates were brought and cleared competently by a team of runners, but the bartender remained our point person, even as the room filled in. And he had the annoying habit of trying to memorize orders without writing them down, one of my big pet peeves when dining out.
To his credit, he got almost everything right. But he nearly forgot a cauliflower au gratin side dish ($10), which came long after the rest of the main course.
The mains were just as uneven as the appetizers. Grilled Florida prawns ($30) were split lengthwise in the shell with heads on. They were large and flavorful, but overcooked. Bone-in rib-eye ($36) was perfectly grilled medium rare, and was better without the complimentary sauces (a red-wine reduction, and a green-peppercorn sauce that tasted vaguely medicinal). And, again, there was that unintentional bone-in grouper ($32).
Finally, a mystifying lobster mac 'n cheese ($26) came in a bowl that was covered with so many undercooked bread crumbs it looked like Shake 'N Bake lobster tail. Underneath was an underwhelming mix of elbow macaroni, bland cheese and chunks of lobster.
We finished with a creamy dulce de leche cheesecake ($12), accompanied by a scoop of salted caramel ice cream that had indistinguishable flavor, and a flourless chocolate brownie topped with ganache ($13). The brownie had a bizarre texture, almost requiring a hacksaw to cut it and tasting like some kind of lab experiment gone awry.
It was a strange ending to a strange night.
Read Mike Mayo's dining blog at southflorida.com/eatbeat. email@example.com, 954-356-4508. Instagram: @mikemayoeats
Fresh American Bistro
17315 Collins Ave., Sunny Isles Beach (inside Solé on the Ocean resort)
Cuisine: Modern American, steaks, seafood
Cost: Expensive (and even more expensive if you don't realize 18 percent gratuity is included and you double tip)
Hours: Daily 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar
Sound level: Conversational, with DJ playing jazz and other music on weekends
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Children's menu items
Wheelchair accessible: Yes (elevator to second floor)
Parking: Valet, free with validation