I've had some less than kind things to say about the recent influx of carpet-bagging chefs and high-end hotel restaurants to Miami. But Area 31, in the new Epic Hotel downtown, seemed to be doing things a little differently. Though the chef hails from Boston, most of the food comes from much closer. The restaurant is named after a designation from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization of the fishing area off the coast of Florida and stretching down to parts of Central and South America, and much of the seafood-centric menu (sorry for the terrible Blackberry photo) is sourced from the namesake region.
The Epic is run by the Kimpton Group, which happens to be one of my favorite hotel chains, as they typically manage to give every hotel a unique, non-chain feel, and also often make a real effort to bring good restaurants into their hotels, places that would be worth a visit even if you're not staying there. The Epic is a lot more grandiose than any other Kimpton hotel I've been to, but this is Miami, after all. The restaurant is up on the 16th floor, providing views primarily across the Miami River and down Brickell Avenue, but also out to Biscayne Bay, particularly from the sizable (but windy) outdoor area.
Area 31's menu is, unsurprisingly, heavy on the fish and seafood, but also shows a distinctly Italian slant. There are about 5-6 "crudos" (various raw or near-raw ceviche and tiradito type items), another half-dozen or so salads and cooked appetizers, about 5-6 fish available simply grilled with a choice of different sauces, about 5 pasta dishes, and then several entrees (fish, fowl and larger beasts) and a number of vegetable sides too.
Even though the seafood is clearly the focus here, I was very tempted by an appetizer of escargot, pork belly and carrots, but alas it was not available. Just as well, I instead shifted gears and went instead with an octopus "crudo," which brought a ceviche-like mix of thinly sliced shingles of octopus, fresh hearts of palm, slivers of kumquat, and an unadvertised bonus of thin slices of lightly marinated mackerel, bathing in a coconut milk spiked with citrus juices. This was an absolutely beautiful combination. I'm a big fan of kumquat, and its tart, slightly bitter pucker was a great contrast to the not-overwhelming sweetness of the coconut milk. The flavor profiles, particularly with the hint of sweetness to the marinade and the boldness of the thinly sliced whole citrus, were actually very similar to the octopus ceviche often served at Yakko-San. Mrs. F started with a beet salad with avocado and pistachio, which I found underwhelming.
I followed with a red drum, seared and served with a parsley root puree, caramelized cipollini onions, and pumpernickel crumbs, along with (again, unadvertised) thin discs of golden beet (I think?) that were infused with vanilla aroma and flavor. The fish's skin had a perfect crispy sear, but the meat itself was just a touch dry. I loved the accompaniments, especially the pumpernickel crumbs, which provided a nice, deep savory pairing with the fish, and the vanilla was a nice touch. Mrs. F had the sepia (a large cuttlefish) from the simply prepared "Ocean to Table" section of the menu. It was indeed simply prepared, grilled (a tiny bit under-cooked said Mrs. F) and served with a salsa verde that provided a nice burst of herbs and garlic. This was also priced pretty darn reasonably at $16. (The "Ocean to Table" section of the menu is all very reasonably priced, with options ranging from $15 for mahi mahi to $22 for red drum, though I believe this comes with smaller portion sizes as well). One disappointment was that a side order of broccoli rapini, advertised on the menu as being sauteed in garlic and olive oil, instead came literally soaking in way too much melted butter.
The wine list is fairly wide-ranging without being encyclopedic, and I was happy to see one of my favorite pairings with seafood, a Txakoli (the Oreka from Talai Berri) from the Basque region of Spain, available. At $50, this is almost exactly 2.5x retail, not great but not outrageous by Miami standards. However, the list was somewhat lacking in a lot of options under $50.
Despite my railing against carpet-bagging outsiders opening up fancy restaurants in big hotels, Area 31 is actually doing a lot of things right in my book.
270 Biscayne Boulevard Way
Miami, FL 33131