Miami Spice Report Cards: Grading the Restaurants, Part 1

 

Our crack team of undercover Miami Spice diners dishes on restaurant experiences. 

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Staff Report

Throughout Miami Spice, our Miami Herald and Miami.com team is spreading out across the county to bring you the highlights and lowlights.

Here's Part 1 of our Miami Spice Report Cards series, which includes high-end Zuma, rustic-Italian Bocce Bar, hot-new Oolite, al-fresco Terrazza and new-Cuban De Rodriguez.  

Our grading scale:  

A: What a meal! What a deal! 

B: I'd go back. 

C: Mostly "meh."  

D: Try again next year.

F: Stinks at Spice.

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1. Zuma at the Epic Hotel

270 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-577-0277

Grade: A

Dined on: Aug. 1

Meal: Lunch

Can't-miss dish: Chirashi Don

Mini review: This is your chance to power lunch with the most discerning palates in Miami. Zuma's two-tiered Spice lunch menu ($23 or $36 with upgraded options) offers a remarkably generous array of some of the restaurant's most popular dishes. It all starts with white miso soup and Japanese mizuna salad, which is dressed with chunks of bacon and maple-miso. Choosing your entree may be difficult considering the quality of these two bowls: the vegetable don buri with fresh truffles and the chirashi don with fresh sashimi diced into bite-size pieces with rice, avocado, asparagus, cucumber and topped with salmon roe.

If you think an upgrade is appropriate, the delightful jumbo tiger prawn with yuzu koshi (spicy, citrusy, herby condiment) is seriously succulent despite its time on the grill and the gindara no miso (black cod with yuzu miso) is arguably one of the best composed fish dishes in town. To complete what will surely be an epic lunch are two desserts with distinct textures: the chawan mushi (playful lightweight custard steamed in a cup) with exotic fruit and the Zuma bamboo with Earl grey ice cream, kinako cake (roasted soybean flour) and topped with a thick layer of cocoa crumbles.

Reservations are a must — even for lunch — and valet is free with validation. (BY GALENA MOSOVICH)

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2. Bocce Bar

3250 NE First Ave., Miami; 786-245-6211

Grade: B

Dined on: Aug. 3

Meal: Dinner

Can't-miss dish: None

Mini review: Bocce Bar isn’t the most expensive place in town to dine, so the fact that it offers a $39 three-course Miami Spice menu isn’t necessarily notable — a comparable dinner from the regular menu would have been in the same neighborhood. About half the items on the Miami Spice menu (four appetizers, four entrees, three desserts) are from the regular menu of rustic Italian fare, a couple of them slightly tweaked. Absent any significant price advantage, my companion — an adventurous eater as long as vegetables aren’t involved — and I decided we’d just enjoy a nice post-ballgame supper (we chose Bocce Bar in part because of its early dinner hour and an ambiance that allows for casual dress after a Sunday afternoon game).

My grilled octopus in vinaigrette was bland, the artichoke ravioli with fresh sage leaves tasty and toothsome, and my pistachio panna cotta was overwhelmed by a coat of dark chocolate. His salmon tartare was overwhelmed by the citrus topping, orecchiette with pulled-lamb ragu lighter and more delicate than you might expect, and the banana millie foglie a crunchy delight. There was no one best bet — unless it was the hot, crusty mini-baguettes — but the artichoke ravioli, pasta with lamb ragu and banana millie foglie are worth going back for.

Service was friendly but inconsistent, with some long waits. Bocce Bar offers a Miami Spice lunch menu Monday-Friday, dinner Sunday-Thursday. (BY MARJIE LAMBERT)

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3. Oolite

1661 Pennsylvania Ave., Miami Beach; 305-907-5535

Grade: A

Dined on: Aug. 6

Meal: Dinner

Can’t-miss dish: Coconut-conch, salsify and corn chowder

Mini review: The new playground of the quirky mastermind Kris Wessel, Oolite occupies the vast New World Center space christened by the spectacular bust Cooper Avenue. Wessel, late of Red Light and Florida Cookery, is one of the area’s most creative chefs, and his skills are in full flourish here. Miami Spice dinner selections include four appetizers and four entrees, most of them from the menu, and they run the gamut from steak to fish to fowl (two vegetarian starters, no entrees). Servings are big. The food pays serious respect to dining trends like gluten-free and farm-to-table, with fresh, inventive tastes and genuine surprises.

Foremost in that vein is a chowder made of conch, corn and the parsnip relative salsify, the big bowl of lusciousness a study in textural counterpoint. Bit after bit of tender conch play against creamy silken stock and the vaguely crunchy pureed corn and salsify. Other choices, if not quite as intriguing, are expertly executed. A straight-ahead ropa vieja is tender and deeply flavored, with tomato and pepper asserting themselves against the strands of rich flank steak. On the lighter side, there’s sweet grouper bathed in a coconut water broth. The fish is perfect, although coconut milk instead of water would elevate the depth of flavor (and fat content). A handful of clams in the shell creates work, not a lot else. A gigantic deconstructed spinach salad appetizer, with a jumbo poached egg and soft logs of delicious rice flour bread, comes together superbly (on the menu, you can add bacon to this, as well).

To quote the smarmy real-estate agent on Love it or List it?, desserts really have that “wow factor.” Avocado cheesecake with honey yogurt and pumpkin seed crust sounds leaden but eats light. And “chocolate dance,” a nightly chef’s choice with various chocolate creations and a local fruit, featured an outstanding brownie and dragonfruit on the whimsical plate. (BY KENDALL HAMERSLY)

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4. Terrazza at the Shore Club

1901 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-695-3226

Grade:

Dined on: July 24*

Meal: Dinner

Can't-miss dish: Tuna Tartare 

Mini review: The Shore Club’s al fresco Italian spot aims to please with its Miami Spice menu. Not only did Terrazza begin offering the three-course menu a month ahead of the official Aug. 1 start date (*hence our early dine), it offers the promotion seven days a week for lunch and dinner (with the exception being Sunday lunch).

The menu changes often and includes full-portion items from the regular menu including a generous tuna tartare dressed with ginger and soy, a refreshing watermelon-feta salad and, on the night we dined, a creamy burrata with tomatoes. We supped on organic roasted chicken, skirt steak and the house specialty chitarra, handmade spaghetti noodles in a pomodoro sauce. Desserts of ricotta cheesecake and tiramisu were equally satisfying. Seating is mostly outdoors, overlooking the Shore Club’s pool, and while it’s a bit sultry these days, ample fans keep things manageable. Service was gracious with zero attitude regarding ordering from the Spice menu. An added bonus is $35 bottles of wine offered along with Miami Spice. (BY SARA LISS)

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5. De Rodriguez Cuba

101 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; 305-672-6624

Grade: B

Dined on: Aug. 5

Meal: Dinner

Can't-miss dish: Cuban Guacamole

Mini review: The Miami Spice menu at Douglas Rodriguez’s oceanfront restaurant at the Hilton Bentley is offered daily for lunch and dinner. First-course selections are creative and diverse with a Cuban guacamole given a pleasantly smoky kick with grilled diced pineapple and a bright and colorful Cuban salad made with shredded chayote, malanga and hearts of palm. We would have liked to see more creativity in the main courses, which comprised the requisite salmon-chicken-short rib trinity of pedestrian Spice menus (although the vaca frita short rib and pomegranate-glazed salmon were satisfying).

There are a plethora of upgrade fees on the menu — an extra $9 for marlin tacos, $13 for filet mignon, $11 for sugarcane tuna — and that always rub us the wrong way. Only one choice for dessert (cuatro leches cake) also leaves everyone wishing for at least one more option. Wine pairings offered at $9 a glass are a nice touch. (BY SARA LISS)

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