“The concept of Corsair is American farmhouse cooking with influences from Spain, Italy, France…”
Here, a server searched his mental notepad for the last ingredient.
That identity confusion may be what’s keeping celebrity chef Scott Conant’s new restaurant in the Turnberry Isle resort in Aventura from taking off in the trajectory of his 4-star Scarpetta, a few miles south at the Fontainebleau.
And that’s a shame, because Corsair is turning out some of the very best plates of Italian food around (the one doing the cooking is executive chef Peter Masiello, a veteran of Italian restaurants from South Florida to New York).
Eggplant rounds are roasted to silky tenderness and stacked four-high with creamy burrata, fresh basil and tomato sauce in a stunner of an appetizer. Even a side of Jerusalem artichokes baked with purple-black Italian olives — the earthy, briny combination satisfies like a plate of fries — demonstrates the success of a few ingredients cooked with care.
Fresh strands of thin tagliolini curl around bits of soft kale and crisp pea shoots, all in a luscious sauce flavored with stock, butter and thyme. The stars of the plate are little nuggets of sweetbreads, which are cut small enough and browned in such a way that you could mistake them for mushrooms if you didn’t know better.
Corsair seems to go off course when it veers away from Italy.
Spanish-style clams with chorizo and potatoes falls flat. Brittle shells kept breaking while I tried to remove tiny bits of clam meat, and smoked paprika lent more aroma than flavor to either the broth or the spiceless chorizo.
A length of braised-then-grilled octopus is sufficiently tender but marred by gritty pieces of mussels hidden in an accompanying squid-ink pasta.
There are diners who won’t order things like sweetbreads or squid ink. They likely will turn to Corsair’s roasted free-range chicken. It’s a beautiful bird cooked to crispy-skin succulence, served with velvety polenta, tender parsnips, crunchy hazelnuts and — surprise, finicky eaters! — a liver sauce.
But for those who don’t mind adventures in protein, Corsair’s steak tartare is sensational: fresh, beefy and pleasantly forest-like, with its edible microflowers and hint of truffle oil.
The tartare, like most of Corsair’s dishes, is served on kiln-fired plates. It’s a nod toward the American farmhouse concept, which is somewhat hard to swallow in a hotel restaurant that serves $16 soup with cheese “froth” and overlooks a $300-a-round golf course. (The staccato of a nearby woodpecker during one of my visits was rather pastoral.)
While Corsair’s prices are in line with the quality of its food and its plush surroundings, service at times feels like it’s coasting for the 18 percent gratuity added to each bill. We stared at our entrees for a long stretch until we managed to flag down someone to ask for utensils.
That was confounding in part because the restaurant was not very busy. A sweet bartender repeatedly apologized for the emptiness. “You should come back on the weekend,” he said under the din of chillax spa music. “It’s way more full.” I did. It wasn’t.
Corsair’s ability to please extends through drinks and dessert. Cocktails include the Sixth Borough, an excellent riff on a Manhattan, mixed with bourbon, sweet and dry vermouths, and garnished with a marinated Italian cherry from a Palm Beach County specialty-foods company. A worldly wine list has gems from Napa Valley, Tuscany, Burgundy and beyond, although the by-the-glass list runs steep (a bottle of 2012 Pertinace Langhe Nebbiolo retails for $18, the same price Corsair charges for a pour).
For dessert, the ice cream sundae is the way to go, a playground of smoked vanilla-bean ice cream, housemade marshmallows, sticky caramel sauce, soft blondie bites and more. You can skip coffee service — for $5, it’s tepid and refills are hard to come by — and use the cash to tip the (free) valet.
It’s understandable that Conant wants to try something new with Corsair, not make another Scarpetta like the ones in Miami Beach, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But by trying to draw from too many influences, Corsair acts as if it doesn’t have an identity of its own.
I hope that changes, that Corsair embraces its Italianness and starts wowing customers like its sibling to the south. It has the kitchen talent and resources to be great, but Corsair needs to get its story straight.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Miami Herald food editor Evan S. Benn on Twitter: @EvanBenn.