We're sitting under a gigantic, octopuslike chandelier that's covered in a bajillion tiny white shells. The Blanca dining room, as it's called, was built in 1940 as the lobby of the Grossinger Beach Hotel. Reimagined by designer Philippe Starck, it feels like the surreal setting for an art-house movie.
Yes, that's Lady Gaga in a wall photograph with what looks like spun sugar on her head. Smaller, black-and-white photographs of who-knows-who are set around the edges of the room, and the only thing the mismatched lamps have in common are matching shades. The room is uniquely comfortable.
It's also the magical setting for the work of one of the country's most-influential chefs, who brings the best flavors of Spain, Singapore and South Florida to this 3-month-old wonder.
Chef Jose Andrés was born in Spain and trained under Ferran Adria, whose El Bulli in Catalonia changed the way the world eats, with its focus on experimental molecular cuisine. Now based in Washington, D.C., Andrés' Think Food Group oversees a growing collection of restaurants in D.C., Las Vegas, Los Angeles and, now, South Florida. He teaches at Harvard, and works toward erasing hunger here and in Haiti. In August, Time magazine called Andrés one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. High praise for someone who cooks for a living.
The Bazaar's menu takes much of its inspiration from Spain, and the Spanish dishes are among the restaurant's best. But the menu can veer into preciousness when you read that Andrés decided to offer Singaporean dishes because Miami and Singapore both embraced Art Deco in the 1930s. It's an interesting point, but it feels like a convoluted way of bringing Singapore to South Beach.
As it turns out, this section of the menu is one of its strongest. The street food known as kueh pai tai ($16) — tiny pastry cups here filled with jicama, cucumber, peanuts and shrimp in spicy chili sauce — are perfect Asian bites. Beef sui mai ($14) rates with some of the freshest dim sum I can remember. And pork-belly-filled yeasty buns ($18) are what happens when a chef of Andrés' skill takes on the Chinese bakery.
Since the prices go from $5 for gazpacho to $50 for José's Taco with caviar and Ibérico ham, order judiciously. Most items can't be shared, and the wait staff sometimes needs to do a better job of telling you so. I'm thinking of the section of the menu that features cones — one-bite, flavor-filled cylinders.
Why would a waiter allow four people to order just two bagels-and-lox ($7) cones? On a second visit, I finally got to try this combination of dilled cream cheese and salmon roe that tasted like the experimental essence of Sunday brunch at my favorite deli. The same goes for the hamachi with pickled onions and sour orange ($19): three strips of yellowtail for a party of four? There are some small service issues here, most having to do with lack of communication. Not every server knows the menu quite as well.
While I'm on a critical subject, why would any restaurant not stock its bar with Chivas Regal? And how do you run out of two of the most-interesting beers on the menu (Tampa's Cigar City IPA and Spain's Estrella Damm)?
Miami's culinary mosaic figures prominently in several dishes. I love the Cubano in Honor of Café Versailles ($12 each). These are small, baguette-style rolls filled with liquid cheese and topped with thin slices of Spanish ham. Pollo al Ajillo Cubano ($14), a slow-cooked chicken leg with black garlic, doesn't so much taste Cuban as French. Chicken bechamel fritters ($12) are satisfying bites, but yuca "churros" with peanut butter and honey ($12) are just plain cloying. Although they resemble churros, they taste like, well, peanut butter pushed through a pastry bag. Likewise, the so-called traditional Spanish flan ($12) won't win any prizes in Cuban Miami.
South Florida figures in many menu items. Bone marrow ($17) is served with shaved hearts of palm, bursts of citrus and capers. Deconstructed Key lime pie ($12) features lines of custard, dots of meringue and piles of crumb crust. Not Your Everyday Caprese ($12) combines cherry tomatoes and liquid mozzarella. The food runner tells us to use a spoon to serve it so as not to "break" the mozzarella.
Yes, the menu is full of such descriptions as "foie gras cappuccino" and "lemon air" and liquid nitrogen caipirinha. Go along on the molecular-gastronomy ride and see if you're not surprised. No one does it better than Andrés. The compressed apples in muscatel that accompany a plate of manchego ($9) are amazing.
If I had to tell someone to order just one dish, it would be the Black Rossejat ($16). (Google it, and you'll see that diners can't help tweeting photos.) Small pieces of angel-hair pasta are cooked paella-style with squid ink and cuttlefish and served with shrimp and alioli. It comes to the table in a small paella pan, which you stir to combine. Surely, there must be some butter in this dish. It's so good you don't think about the possibility that your teeth and lips have turned black until your dining partner tells you so.
Andrés never stops surprising.
The Bazaar by Jose Andrés
SLS Hotel South Beach, 1702 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
Hours: Dinner daily
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Noisy when full
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Valet; $20 weekdays and $25 weekends for first three hours; $30 after