My first trip to Miami Beach was in the mid-eighties, when it was seedy, tawdry and nostalgic. Since then it's run the gamut--from the preferred spring-break destination of binge-drinking college types to a club and fashion scene. Recently people I know down there told me that the place has finally found a comfortable equilibrium, a mix of everything it's been through in the past 15 years. They also said that if I really wanted to see what Miami Beach has become, the best thing to do would be to come down for a weekend and check out some of the wild new restaurants, which my friends promised me were not like anything I'd seen up in New York. I followed their advice, but I found the place completely bewildering. It was as if the Jetsons and the Flintstones had gotten together and made a movie that was something like Satyricon meets Caligula meets Road Warrior meets The Beach. Does this movie make any sense? Only, perhaps, to the actors--which is why I invited my friends in town to come to those restaurants with me. I needed them to explain the plot.
Sex and Moroccan vegetables
Everybody here seems to be obsessed with sex. I guess you could say that about lots of towns, but somehow I think that a restaurant like Tantra (1445 Pennsylvania Ave.; 305-672-4765), which advertises its food as "aphrodisiac cuisine," couldn't exist anywhere but in Miami Beach. It's supposed to have been inspired by the Eastern religion whose devotees seek enlightenment through sensual and sexual stimulation. Whoever designed this place certainly did their best to make sure that people are stimulated. The decor is part Moroccan villa, part Hindu temple, part Victorian brothel.
But sensual isn't exactly how I'd describe the greeting I get when I show up for my nine o'clock reservation, walking through an entranceway where the floor is planted with living grass. "You sit in the corner," the hostess commands, pushing me down into a practically supine position on a sofa so low I'm almost on the ground. I stay there for a few minutes waiting for Dr. Fred Brandt, a famous dermatologist who has a practice down here and another one in Manhattan. By the time he arrives, I am in a rage. "They made me sit in the corner!"
When we're finally shown to our table, Fred says to me, "You know, I don't usually eat here. This is a bit too much of a scene for me. I'm 50 years old." I would have guessed he was in his thirties. When I look at him, all I can think is, he looks dewy. I keep saying to myself, "Gosh, I wish I had such dewy skin." Over the next few days, I will see lots of other people with dewy skin, and after I see the hundredth such person, it will hit me: They are all Fred's patients!
Not many of the people at Tantra are dewy, though. Everyone's dressed in black, and they seem to have come out for romantic dinners. There are couples everywhere, eating food shaped into turrets and minarets, and sipping gold and green drinks with names like Sexual Center and Pure Ecstasy. I decide to order Moroccan vegetable tagine, which the chef, Willis Loughhead, describes on the menu as "a tower of Berber-spiced zucchini, black olives and red grapes nestled on a bed of sweet roast peppers, eggplant and roasted garlic hummus, finished with a cooling saffron yogurt raita." I'm a bit skeptical that anything can be an aphrodisiac when (a) it costs $26 and (b) it's served in a room where the noise is loud enough to fell a woodcock. But it turns out to be a wonderful dish, beautifully perfumed with spices and covered with a lovely hat of phyllo dough.
I find it a tiny bit disconcerting to eat in a room where a television the size of a small movie screen displays quarreling penguins, flapping storks and other natural phenomena. But after a while I give up trying to make sense of it all and start to just feel silly, and kind of brain-damaged.
A wish come true
For lunch the next day, I meet my friend Joan Robbins at Wish (801 Collins Ave.; 305-674-9474). It's late afternoon and the place is nearly empty; there's a group of French people sipping wine outdoors, copper skinned and all dressed in white as if they've just stepped off a yacht. The interior of the restaurant was done by Todd Oldham, the fashion designer; it's vaguely Persian, with colored-glass lamps in hues of melon and lavender hanging from the ceiling.
Joan is dressed in one of her wild outfits--cute trousers patterned in black-and-white stripes and pink and red roses, and a sequined T-shirt. What I love most about Joan is her voice, which sounds like a cartoon character's. It always makes me think that a bunch of Chihuahuas should follow her down the street dancing on their back legs. She does public relations for authors who come to town for readings, so she has lots of good stories, which I always try to pry out of her. Today she tells me about the time she waited at an airport for hours holding up the book of the writer she was supposed to meet. When she finally tracked the writer down, she said, "Didn't you see me standing there holding up your novel?" "Yes," the writer replied, "but I just assumed you were reading my work."
Wish proves to be divine, the best restaurant I visit. I start with perfect shrimp-and-ginger spring rolls surrounded by a pool of blood-orange sauce, then move on to yellow-eye snapper with a risotto of corn and poblano peppers. The young chef, Andrea Curto, has been getting a lot of attention lately. The menu was vegetarian when Wish first opened; now that Curto is in charge, she tries to please the carnivores too, but her cooking still seems very light and fresh.
The only thing I don't really understand about Wish is why the hotel where it's located is called The Hotel when there's a big neon sign outside that says "Tiffany." But apparently Tiffany, the jewelry store, sued them over the name. I can't see why it's a problem. After all, there are plenty of people named Tiffany, and some named Macy, and I once knew somebody whose kid went to school with a kid named LaPorsche, after the car.
Too much is never enough
I like the area I'm staying in; my hotel, The Marlin, and the others along that end of Collins Avenue are those Art Deco spots that were never particularly grand but somehow have the most charm. Farther down the strip, the hotels get bigger, like the Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau, both built in the Fifties by Morris Lapidus, the famously over-the-top architect. (He called his autobiography Too Much Is Never Enough.) Lapidus came out of retirement last year to design a restaurant called Aura (613 Lincoln Rd.; 305-695-1100), and as you'd expect, it's utterly zany and fun--all curves and swooshes, with sci-fi touches like plastic flowers straight out of A Clockwork Orange.
The chef, Kamel Dahmani, takes his food seriously--I have perfectly seared foie gras with truffle sauce and polenta as a starter and pistachio-crusted sea bass as a main course--but even he can't resist a little Lapidus-style humor. His tomato, mozzarella and basil salad, for instance, has been sliced and stacked so it looks like a red, white and green striped tomato. Still, Aura feels very relaxed, and I end up making an evening's entertainment out of the nutty architecture, the food and the crowd. When I get up to go to the lavatory, I pass a group seated near the bar who are totally perfect--a white-haired woman dressed in leopard print and two younger folk, perhaps male, perhaps female, in elaborate feathered hats, boas and nifty Forties suits. For some reason, each table seems to have one person who is quite ancient and one who is quite young. Perhaps the fact that Lapidus was 97 when he designed this place has something to do with it.
Stuck in detention
The next night, I make plans to meet my friend Tom Austin at Beach House Bal Harbor (9449 Collins Ave.; 305-865-3551), a new hotel and restaurant where, I'm told, we've been invited to a party. It's owned by the Rubell family, who brought in Sheila Lukins (of Silver Palate fame) to draw up the menu. When I get there, all the tables have different signs: Field Trip, Recess, Gym. I've been told to sit at Detention, which is empty. I don't want to sit at Detention alone, so I move to an unmarked table by the swimming pool. From a buffet, I fill a plate with food that might be served in a high-school cafeteria: spaghetti, corn on the cob, some kind of mystery meat. I don't have a fork or a knife, so I steal them from Social Studies.
I'm relieved when I finally see Tom. "This is the weirdest party I've ever been at!" I announce. "Let's get out of here," he says. He turns to thank the hostess, who's dressed in a pleated black Issey Miyake number. "You're leaving?" she says ferociously. "What did you bother coming for?" Tom goes white. He's a sensitive person. Outside, he explains that the party was a benefit for a charity called Adopt-a-Classroom. I was glad to have that cleared up, but unfortunately, I can't exactly say what the Beach House is like on an ordinary night.
The only normal place
Tom decides we should go to Joe Allen (1787 Purdy Ave.; 305-531-7007) with his friend, Eric Newill, the managing editor of the South Beach magazine Ocean Drive. "I eat there three or four times a week," Eric says when we meet up with him. "It's the only normal place in town." This local outpost of the famous theater hangout in Manhattan has a casually upscale menu--everything from burgers and fries to sautéed parrot fish with tarragon pesto--and bartenders who whip up Cosmopolitans behind a row of vintage cocktail shakers.
The restaurant is the size of a small airplane hanger, and everyone in it has a slightly furtive expression--the sort that says, "Gosh, I hope I don't see anybody I know." Of course, the whole time they're glancing around the room for someone they know. The place is packed with people who look like they actually go to work during the day, which thus far I've seen no signs of anyone in Miami doing.
Dinner in bed
"Normal" is not the first word that comes to mind to describe B.E.D. (929 Washington Ave.; 305-532-9070). It turns out you really do eat in bed. There are 14 of them, each surrounded by gauzy curtains; the biggest ones can hold about 10 people. Sheets are changed several times a night. It's Sunday, which means it's "Recovery Night": The staff is dressed in operating-room scrubs, complete with surgical masks. Several people who don't work here--patrons--are wearing pajamas.
I'm here with Glenn Albin, who edits Ocean Drive. After a wait, we're shown to our bed. The menu is limited, with only four main courses, but perfectly wonderful. Of course, it's a trifle difficult to eat lying down, but the beef tenderloin with Cabernet demiglace and the veal rib eye in a truffle-scented veal reduction have been precut into bite-size pieces. Under these conditions, dessert is the most successful course: ice creams and puddings, which can be eaten just with a spoon. Through the curtains, only a yard or so from Glenn's crème brûlée, we can see a woman lying fully prone on the bed next to ours. A masseur kneels at her feet. I can't see the woman too clearly because she's nestled in the pillows, but the masseur is in a state of near orgasmic bliss as he rubs her feet.
The chef, who goes by the single name Vitor, comes out to say hello. He seems a bit perplexed that his food is being eaten by people lying down. I want to tell him not to worry. I was perplexed a few days ago, too, but now I'm beginning to enjoy dining in restaurants that make me giggle.
Tama Janowitz's latest novel, A Certain Age (Doubleday/Anchor), will be published in paperback in July.