Background: Pop-ups are temporary eating places typically conceived as a means to gain traction before a chef plunges into a permanent restaurant. I don't normally review them. But A Passage to India at the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove is different. It's the first time Ritz-Carlton — at any of its 81 worldwide locations — has hosted a pop-up and lent its rarefied name to such a fleeting endeavor. That's because Ramesh Kaduru is not only the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove's executive chef, but he also grew up in India. He's frequently called upon by other Ritz-Carlton locations to create Indian feasts for weddings.
Overall impression: This makeshift Indian restaurant reminds me of a challenge contestants might undertake on an episode of "The Apprentice." Throw up some jewel-toned Indian textiles. Dress the staff in tunics and bindis. Crank up the modern Indian music. It's cute, but it feels more like an exercise in team-building than a Ritz-Carlton-worthy exchange of money for services. The flavors seem to have been watered down to appeal to broad tastes. And it's too bad the staff doesn't know the difference between a curry dish and biryani.
Ambience: A Passage to India temporarily took over the back portion of the existing Bizcaya restaurant. Event planner Ali Kimia, owner of Miami's Caidal Events, specializes in theme-decorating. Fabric, lighting and props have turned a typical low-key and elegant Ritz-Carlton restaurant into a jerry-built Indian spot. Scenes from Bollywood movies are projected on a makeshift screen. On a Friday night, a live dancer moved through the dining room.
Starters: Meals start with a complimentary basket of papadum with tamarind chutney, green chutney and cucumber raita. Punjabi vegetable anardana samosas ($7 for two) are crisp and nicely seasoned. Mumbai Juhu Beach pani poori shooters ($9) are an update on Indian street food. A crispy, hollow, crackerlike shell, or poori, is filled with a spicy vegetable filling. You eat the poori, and follow it with a shot glass of white wine. It was the most ingenious thing we ate.
Entree excellence: When I think of biryani, I think of a layered showstopping casserole of rice, vegetables and meat. But short-rib biryani ($27) was a tiny portion of lukewarm rice, a few vegetables and cold, stringy short rib. Aloo choole ($15), a stew of chickpeas and potatoes in an oniony, tomato-based sauce, was thin and underseasoned. Malai Kofta Curry ($16), potato and cheese dumplings in a creamy, cashew-studded sauce, was similarly unremarkable. Bhindi masala ($15), sauteed okra with roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions, tasted much like the biryani.
Side issues: One piece of garlic naan ($5) was cold and chewy. A second piece was devoid of garlic.
Sweet! Indian desserts tend to be overwhelmingly sweet. But the versions offered here seemed to have tempered the tendency to overdo sugar. Gulab jamun ($7), warm dumplings in rose-scented syrup and vanilla ice cream, were elegantly presented. So was Ras Malai ($7), grilled cottage-cheese dumplings with saffron-flavored milk.
Service: Awkward. Whatever happened to the Ritz-Carlton way of service? Even for a pop-up, staff members need to know what they're serving and how people eat Indian. When we started to order five vegetarian entrees to split between four people, we were told it would be a better idea to order just two. I'm not sure why we listened, because we ended up adding more dishes as the meal progressed. Had the food been better, we would have added even more.
The Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove
3300 SW 27th Ave., 305-644-4675
Hours: Dinner Thursday-Sunday through Nov. 3
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Gets noisy when dancer performs
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free valet