Review: Le Sirenuse at the Four Seasons Surfside is a bumpy, first-class trip to Italy

 

★★½

Le Sirenuse Miami, a stunning Italian restaurant in the restored Surf Club at the Four Seasons Surfside, features Old World elegance and modern-day annoyance. White-jacketed servers, some in black bow ties and others wearing gold epaulets, sail through the dining room bearing drinks on silver trays and entrees under silver domes. It is a fantasy world melding European formality with South Florida’s playground past and present, a place where bottles of Cristal flow freely in the champagne bar and amuse-bouches of charcoal-smoked hamachi with truffle are artfully presented on skewers with a flourish.

But at meal’s end, those who want their virtual valet tickets validated must fish out phones and retrieve the four-digit code sent by text from the parking attendants on the way in. The server memorizes the code, runs off to punch it into the system, and then diners get another text, allowing them to retrieve their cars for $12 instead of the hotel’s usual $18 charge. Six bucks is six bucks, but it’s a clunky and inelegant finish, particularly after ringing up a tab that exceeded the price of some flights to Italy. I felt miserly and nickel-and-dimed at the same time.

I suppose it’s too much to ask for free parking from an upscale hotel chain after a luxe experience such as this. Then again, I suppose it’s gauche to talk or fret about cost when stepping into this gilded world. Le Sirenuse is a place where all cares can disappear, along with your bank balance. The Miami outpost is an offshoot of the famed Le Sirenuse resort on Italy’s Amalfi Coast and its Michelin-starred restaurant, La Sponda. The shameless extravagance is part of the fun, and it explains why after opening in March 2017 Le Sirenuse has become one of the hottest tables in South Florida, with weekends fully booked weeks in advance. I finally got in on a Sunday night, when chef de cuisine Antonio Mermolia was not in the kitchen.

After an evening that included mostly good food, excellent wine, uneven service, many nice touches and more than a few hiccups, I’m still ruminating whether this meal was worth the hefty price tag. In a vacuum, I’d wholeheartedly recommend Le Sirenuse to people who want to soak up a first-class dining experience. In the real world, I’ll say curious epicureans and those looking to splurge for an occasion may want to try it once, but that this is a restaurant best suited for Powerball winners, hedge-fund managers and trust-fund recipients.

I’ll also recommend it for those who want to eat soup with a fork.

One dining mate found herself in that predicament after our server said stracciatella cheese ($23), a special, would replace the warm buffalo mozzarella appetizer, which was sold out. The bowl arrived without a spoon, but the cold, stretched cheese was milky and mostly liquid, served with finely chopped tomatoes. After watching my companion struggle, I summoned our server and requested a spoon.

“It’s a soup, a chilled mozzarella with a tomato tartare,” Mermolia says in a followup interview. He says a spoon should have been provided upfront.

It tasted fine, but appropriate utensils would have been nice. At these prices, I wanted perfection. There were many exquisite and beautiful plates, including a New Zealand langoustine tartare ($26) with shaved fennel, orange zest and black olives, and a Mediterranean octopus main course ($36) featuring a fine stew of tomato broth, potatoes, olives, spicy peppers and octopus chunks that take three days to prepare, including a 45-minute hand massage to soften and seven hours in a low-temperature oven. Mermalia, 32, has a way with seafood and pastas, something you’d expect from a chef born in Calabria who has spent time at La Sponda and who became familiar with America working at several restaurants in New York.

Also good was fagottello Genovese ($32), a housemade pasta of little purses stuffed with pulverized onion and beef, spiced with a hint of cinnamon and bay leaf and surrounded by a puddle of satisfying demi-glace. The black truffle shaved on top, however, was flavorless, a touch that Mermolia says is more for decoration and texture. It was a reminder that Le Sirenuse didn’t always hit the mark.

Consider the dorade special, a whole fish from the Mediterranean filleted tableside and served with a lemon sauce. The fish was slightly overcooked, and I crunched on a bone on my first bite. Our server missed several bones.I didn’t ask the price of the dorade at the time we ordered, and when our check was presented, I was somewhat shocked to see it cost $70.

“We have to make a one-week reservation in advance for the fish — it’s very limited,” Mermolia explains. Apparently, it flies first class.

Everything here seems designed for the jet set, including $60 champagne cocktails in the lounge with a separate menu that offers oysters and caviar, and the $20 salad with a scoop of refreshing lemon sorbet that doubles as dressing as it melts. The vibe is fitting given this property’s past and the Amalfi pedigree of Le Sirenuse. The Surf Club served as a playground for Hollywood stars and royalty after tire tycoon Harvey Firestone opened it in 1930, a place where Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, British royals, the Shah of Iran and Winston Churchill once romped.

Turkish developers bought the property earlier this decade and restored the structure to its former glory, including its grand Peacock Alley hallway. The developers also built two boxy, glass towers to house condominiums and the Four Seasons hotel. Thomas Keller, the celebrated chef behind French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, is scheduled to open the complex’s second restaurant in 2018.

The hotel lobby and hallways leading to Le Sirenuse feature stark, white, modern minimalist design from French designer Joseph Dirand. The dining room, also designed by Dirand, is warmer and more stylish, with soaring, vaulted, dark-wood ceilings, potted palms and arched windows overlooking the ocean patio. Chairs and banquettes are comfortable ,and LED lamps in the middle of each table cast a flattering glow with roseate gel.

We were seated promptly at our reservation time, but as the room filled, the service pace slowed. We enjoyed two complimentary starters, including a tomato-mousse crouton served with chilled tomato jus, and a bread server offered mini baguettes, focaccia and multigrain rolls, all fresh baked. The wine service from general manager and sommelier Dario Vigil, formerly of Casa Tua in Miami Beach, was good. The list is heavy on Italian wines and heavy on price, with nearly three times markup. He regaled us with a story of the 2011 Tenuta Argentiera ($165) we ordered and brought proper Riedel stemware. I didn’t ask for a decanting, even though the wine was a bit tight at the start, and it wasn’t offered. I saw other tables with decanters, and I wondered if they were doled out by price point or the age of the wine.

Some things kept coming without asking, with four bottles of $8 sparkling water racked up. I noticed servers divided and served salads and pastas for a nearby table, but the same wasn’t done for our group, with two pastas we shared between appetizers and mains plopped in the middle of the table with serving forks and spoons. Mermolia says dishes are divided upon request. I say it should be automatic for dishes that are obviously going to be shared.

After the dorade was deboned and served, we waited nearly 10 minutes until the other entrees arrived. It was an awkward and noticeable gap. An organic boneless chicken ($36) was cold and disappointing, with lifeless skin and flavorless truffles atop a gummy potato veloute. By that point, I didn’t want to send it back. I licked my wounds with a top-notch cheese plate ($29) for dessert. Such are the highs and lows of la dolce vita, Le Sirenuse style.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

Le Sirenuse

9011 Collins Ave., Surfside (in the Four Seasons Surf Club)

786-482-2280 or SirenuseMiami.com

Cuisine: Italian

Cost: Very expensive. Appetizers cost $20 to $30, pastas and main courses $28 to $70, desserts $14 to $29.

Hours: Breakfast 7-11 a.m. daily. Lunch noon-3 p.m. daily. Dinner 7-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 6:30-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Reservations: Required for dinner

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Champagne bar with specialty cocktails and separate food menu, full bar with expensive Italian-focused wine list in dining room

Sound level: Conversational, can get loud when full

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: $12 valet with validation

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