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The Continental is all over the place

Restaurant review: Two stars for the Continental in Miami Beach.

 

★★

I can see why everyone wants to eat at the Continental. The dining room is set in what was once the glass-walled, triangular lobby of the old Ankara Motel. Built in 1954, it has one of those cantilevered, winglike roofs that speaks to the optimism typical of the resort architecture now known as Miami Modern.

The Continental is now the anchor restaurant for Aloft South Beach, the hip hotel brand, with a new tower and many more new rooms. The lobby remained.

But those glass walls and the terrazzo floor make for a very noisy dining room. It's an awkwardly tight space, with tables so close you can hear everyone's conversations ("I was forced to buy a Size 4 and you know I'm a Size 2"). The restaurant feels as though it was designed to maximize seating rather than for the comfort of its guests.

It's filled with the kind of kitschy, Polynesian-inspired furniture I remember a neighbor having when I was kid. Where are the brightly colored aluminum tumblers of Kool-Aid? The chairs have metal legs and woven rattan seats. There are weird shelves of fake and living plants near the ceiling. Why anyone designing in subtropical South Florida would use dusty fake plants is beyond me.

The menu is described as "eclectic global." It's eclectic all right, wandering from bar food to retro Cantonese and then to sushi and tacos. There are even Mai-Kai-style cocktails such as the Dragonfruit Mule ($13), with vodka and ginger beer, and Bump and Rind ($14), with tequila, mezcal, watermelon, mint and all-spice.

Among the bar-food items are cheese steak egg rolls ($16) with cherry peppers, American cheese and Sriracha ketchup. If there was beef inside these off-putting rolls, we couldn't taste it. Foie gras and pancakes ($25) does a disservice to foie gras, which is loaded between griddle-cake buns with an egg, hollandaise sauce, bacon, cheese and maple syrup. It's an attempt at a gourmet treatment of a breakfast sandwich, but the foie gras was tough and overcooked.

Better apps include tender, tea-smoked ribs ($16) with hoisin barbecue sauce, sesame and cilantro and tuna tataki ($18), a fan of thinly sliced sushi-grade tuna with tomato, ginger and citrus soy.

There are five items in a menu category called "Chinese specialties," which include a disappointing pastrami fried rice ($16) with Brussels sprouts and egg. The pastrami seemed to have disintegrated. The rice was overcooked. If you can't get rice right, don't try to riff on Chinese. One of the best dishes I sampled, however, was sizzling seafood wor bar ($28), a platter of lobster, shrimp, scallops and vegetables in a lovely garlic sauce. I've had better versions in Chinese restaurants, but it stood out at the Continental.

Crispy artichokes ($15) with lemon aioli were more greasy than crispy. Lettuce wraps ($29) come on a do-it-yourself platter with Korean barbecue skirt steak and an assortment of condiments including kimchi, slivered green onions and hot sauce. No matter how we rolled these ingredients, the dish didn't make sense. The ingredients don't add up to a unified flavor.

While the restaurant uses a sharing menu, with dishes arriving as the kitchen sees fit, we were way beyond eating by the time our Korean fried chicken ($24) arrived. That said, it had a very crispy skin from its soy-garlic lacquer. The chicken is served with pickled vegetables. Vinegar is always a nice foil to fried.

Service was so uneven that it's hard to believe that this is a Stephen Starr restaurant. He's a consummate pro with decades of restaurant experience. His first operation was a version of the Continental in his native Philadelphia, where Continental Restaurant + Martini Bar just celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Including the Continental, which opened Aug. 1, Starr operates five South Florida restaurants: Steak 954 in Fort Lauderdale, Verde in Miami, and Makoto and the just opened Le Zoo in Bal Harbour. Maybe the best servers and managers were opening Le Zoo?

How else to explain why five service people approached our table before we were even given menus? It took 15 minutes to get drinks. Thinking that the crowded and loud interior was more suited to the party set than folks interested in eating, we asked to be moved outside. Service improved. And despite being right out on Collins Avenue, it's a pleasant spot to enjoy a meal.

For dessert, we shared an amazing Crackerjack sundae ($10) that did indeed taste like a box of Cracker Jack with popcorn ice cream, caramel pop corn, toasted peanuts and caramel sauce. The so-called Millionaire's chocolate cake ($11) with vanilla-bean ice cream paled next to the sundae.

I can't find a theme at the Continental, except a vague desire to create a restaurant that suits its MiMo setting. The better idea would be a plain, good restaurant.

 

The Continental

2360 Collins Ave., Miami Beach

305-604-2000, ContinentalMiami.com

Cuisine: Eclectic international

Cost: Moderate-expensive

Hours: Dinner and brunch daily

Reservations: Suggested

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Very noisy inside

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Highchairs, boosters

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: $15 valet at dinner and weekend brunch

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