“There’s an old joke, um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says,‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’” — Woody Allen, Annie Hall.
I feel like I’ve dined at that resort after lunch and dinner visits to Sunny’s, the Spike Mendelsohn restaurant at The Hall, a new Joie de Vivre hotel in South Beach.
Mendelsohn, a former Top Chef contestant, has made a name for himself on Capitol Hill. I’ve swooned over his smoky burgers at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. In Washington, he and pal Michael Colletti also have shown a way with pizza and steak frites.
So far, it seems Mendelsohn and chef de cuisine Colletti have left most of the good stuff on Pennsylvania Avenue. Their intriguing menu at Sunny’s boasts tasty-sounding concoctions from coastal towns in Thailand, Hawaii, Vietnam, Italy, Greece, Maine, Mexico and beyond. But execution was, well, terrible. And portions were, um, small.
There were no other customers on our visits. No hostess, either. A girl at the juice bar told us to sit wherever.
Seats are divided between indoors and out. A tough choice, even in the rain, since the lobby smelled of cleaning chemicals and mildew reminiscent of hospitals I remember in Dubrovnik one hot summer. Punishing, straight-back chairs made of rebar lashed in white, red, green and yellow plastic looked as if they were rejects in a Rastafarian recycling challenge.
Laminated plastic menus include goofy descriptors like the Jamnesia Jerk Wings and Hot in Herre Chicken and Waffles, all of which our frantic, tiki-shirted waiter called “beach bites.” It’s supposed to be organized by “low” and “high tide” options designating size, but entrée-size dishes show up on the low-tide section and paltry plates like an anemic farro bowl are under the high. There are more fried things than I would voluntarily eat sober.
Only the nicely charred beef burger, a proprietary blend by famed New York butcher Pat La Frieda, was worth coming back for. It, too, had flaws, including a grease-soaked bottom bun (not brioche as promised) and an impossible-to-cut woody core of pineapple that had to be evicted. The good elements include a slab of sharp, crystalline cheddar and thick-cut, applewood-smoked bacon. Cigarette-thin fries looked great with loads of fresh parsley, but they were cold and limp.
Another fry fail is the Uno, Dos, Tres! balls. For some reason, this Italian specialty, arancini di riso, has been given aSpanish name — pandering to Miami bilingualism? The trio of golf ball-size starters is stuffed with camouflage-gray peas and stringy half-melted mozzarella floating in a Lemonhead-yellow aioli as thick as paste. The heavy breading crumbled beneath an onslaught of old-tasting oil.
A forlorn farro bowl with sheer slivers of radish and pickles was an odd, soupy and overly salted mix of shaved asparagus with crumbled queso blanco that was not mentioned on the menu.
The fish in a so-called “Reuben” fish sandwich served on a warped and cracked cutting board was lost beneath two pieces of over-toasted Zak the Baker whole grain bread. The skinny, overly sweet, seed-crusted snapper fillet was so dry that the crunchy bread was actually much better. Soggy potato chips were about as appetizing as the paper napkin.
A papaya salad with three pinky-size shrimp that had not been completely deveined was equally lifeless. Bits of nearly black shreds of mint and a zipless lime dressing could not revive it.
Fritto misto, a lifelong favorite of mine when done properly with tiny seafare, was massacred here. A greasy, rancid mess of shrimp, squid and hunks of snapper that were raw in the middle (my husband spit out the one bite he took). It’s all served on a fried fish carcass that the waiter warned us “is only for decoration.”
The Hawaiian poke bowl was even worse. Instead of the promised sea beans and puffed rice, we found limp avocado and threads of cafeteria carrots. So, too, the “Bali beach chicken in a bag.” Two concave, flabby-skin thighs in a khaki-tinged curry got a zip of color from out-of-season mango slabs so tasteless I thought they were from a plastic show plate. Blah white rice and unwieldy sheaves of kale did little to elevate this dish.
Despite a full menu of fresh-squeezed juices, only two were available. There was a nice selection of international wines.
A waiter warned us that “all the desserts are deep-fried.” Still, he said he might be able to bring us an “off the menu” treat. Indeed, he conjured a jar of a thick, cloying lemon pudding layered over angel food cake topped with what tasted like Duncan Hines frosting — another disappointment I wasn’t willing to swallow.
I’m sorry because I’d like to see Mendelsohn and Colletti, two talents, succeed here. They seem to have some fun ideas. It’s the execution that falls flat. As it is, Sunny’s makes us feel like a punchline in a joke that isn’t particularly funny.
Critics dine unannounced at the Miami Herald’s expense. Victoria Pesce Elliott: @VictoriaPesceE