Matador Room is bullish on bold flavors in Miami Beach

Spanish food seems to be everywhere these days. I thought it was coming to the old Seville in Miami Beach. Under the cool hand of Ian Schrager, the 1950s stunner of a hotel has been transformed into a sexy resort called The Edition, complete with a nightclub, bowling alley and ice-skating rink.

It also includes star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Matador Room, which, despite the restaurant’s persistent bullfighter theme, mostly offers a not-very-exciting riff on Mexican fare. 

The menu is dressed with avocados, limes, poblanos, jalapeños, tacos and moles, plus a couple of jamon and olive snacks. A waiter recited an odd explanation about a “fusion of Latin and local” flavors. Whatever the origin, under the hand of talented executive chef Jeremy Ford, Matador’s food is mostly delicious although a bit uneven. 

When making this hot-as-cayenne reservation, guests should consider asking for a table on the Matador Terrace. I wish I had. The open-air spot with its St. Tropez-like vibe serves the same menu as Matador Room, but in a less-formal setting as inside, where the banquettes are upholstered in mohair and a stunning Miami Modern chandelier catches the eye. 

In any seat, the menu is confusing. There are raw dishes, sliced meats, grilled seafood, four kinds of tacos and as many pizzas. But it is impossible to tell what dishes are small and which ones would be better suited as main courses. Categories like “light & bright” or “golden & crispy” (a carryover from Jean-Georges’ ABC Cocina in New York) don’t help.

Neither did our friendly waiter in his couture-fitted white suit. Between forgetting to bring bread and acting bewildered when we inquired about stone crabs, his knowledge of the menu was as wobbly as a newborn calf. The runners and bussers were equally shaky.

What’s called sweet-pea guacamole had me expecting a bright green mash of peas. Instead it featured a competent rendition of the classic dotted with about half a dozen fresh peas served alongside warm, crispy tortilla chips.

Our guy did explain the shrimp in “agua diablo,” sort of. “They are hardly cooked at all,” he said of the lovely red shrimp, “like, just dipped in boiling water for a second.” Indeed, they were so snappy and bright with a broth spiked with chile and tiny nibs of sweet banana that balance the earthy nuttiness of the roasted Marcona almonds. A winner, also borrowed from ABC Cocina.

The black truffle pizza (not local, Latin or in season) should find its way to everyone’s table. Its bold, scorched, puffed edges hold together a thin pool of Fontina cheese and a tangle of frisée. Sadly, the salad topping was so over-salted that we had to pick it off.

Speaking of salads, most are gorgeous thanks to the delicate greens and microgreens from Swank Farms. The standout is the nearly naked Palmito with fresh shaved circlets of tender palm hearts contrasted with super-creamy bits of avocado in a kicky, sherry-spiked dressing.

The kitchen has a knack for bold flavors. Seared red snapper with its shatteringly crisp, glass-like crust stays miraculously moist in the flesh. It rests on a bed of bracingly bitter broccoli rabe offset by a simple smear of sweet tamarind sauce and a wedge of lime.

Simplicity is the key to a deliciously charred New York strip. The beefy slab is carved into thick slices alongside a tame chimichurri and a mound of invitingly frizzled haystack potatoes — they would have been a lot more fun if hot. The otherwise delicious black grouper tacos, by the way, also were served tepid in their thick and spicy cream sauce.

A fine rendition of a famous Mexican street dish, elote, here features sweet corn melded with a crown of stiff Manchego and a building heat.

An exclusive-to-Miami dish — a so-called arroz con pollo — is a blah pandering play on a homey classic with flabby chicharrones of yellow chicken skin. The lime did little to lighten the greasy mass.

Desserts bring more cultures to the table with almond cake, guava ice cream, tres leches, churros, passion fruit sorbet as well as what’s deemed an “impossible flan” with a cookie-like base and salted caramel, which was really rubbery. My favorite were the golf-ball-size doughnuts filled with a hot Mexican chocolate cream and sprinkled with sugar and tiny curls of candied orange peel.

We ate well despite some slip-ups in and out of the kitchen. I guess I expected more bravery, romance and agility from Jean-Georges to match the restaurant’s namesake. 

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Victoria Pesce Elliott is on Twitter and Instagram: @VictoriaPesceE.

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