South Beach, either despite or perhaps because of the huge tourist trade, has never exactly been a mecca of fine dining. There have been some very good restaurants in South Beach at various times - if you want to go way back, there was the Strand (one of Michelle Bernstein's first restaurants), Wet Paint Cafe on Lincoln Road (where Douglas Rodriguez started), and later Rodriguez's Yuca (amazingly still around though it's been ages since Rodriguez was chef), Norman Van Aken's "A Mano" in the Betsy Ross Hotel, Jonathan Eismann's Pacific Time on Lincoln Road (though I vastly prefer the newer incarnation in the Design District).* But for the most part, the options tend to be either overpriced and overblown, or tacky and tawdry. Some are even all of the above!
Amidst it all, Talula has been quietly cranking out some amazingly good, inspired food for more than five years now. Talula is the product of husband-wife chef team Andrea Curto and Frank Randazzo, both of whom first had successful restaurant careers on their own. Curto's reputation was established at Wish, where she was the executive chef when it was named in Esquire magazine among the "Best New Restaurants" of 1999; the following year Food & Wine named her among the Best New Chefs in America. Frank Randazzo, meanwhile, was making a name for himself at the Gaucho Room, a Latin American steakhouse in the Loews Hotel, when he and Andrea joined forces to open Talula.
The menu shows signs of both of their influences, with Andrea's handiwork in evidence on a number of adventurous combinations like the seared foie gras over blue corn pancakes with a red chile syrup, while a whole section of the menu is devoted to "Frank's Char Grilled Steaks," including some interesting cuts like the "Spinalis Rib Steak" and a 32 ounce "Tomahawk Chop." But regardless of who is responsible for each dish (and, I should note, lately Andrea and Frank seem to be making some room for Chef Kyle, the main guy in the kitchen these days, to add to the menu), one of the things I consistently enjoy about Talula is the boldness of flavors. They are almost always quite assertive and there are often several at play in one dish; the most impressive part is how successfully they usually balance out.
A good example of this is the appetizer of pan seared diver scallops, served over roasted cauliflower griddle cakes (at various times these have also been made with winter squash), curried cashews, a bacon & corn emulsion, and a spiced root beer gastrique. It's the kind of dish that could easily risk a "Too many notes, Mozart" critique, and yet it works perfectly. Ubiquitous tuna tartare is enlivened here with the subtle heat of serrano chile, the cool crunch of finely diced cucumber, and the saline pop of trout roe, with rice crackers for scooping. A more recent addition to the menu is a "steak and eggs" appetizer, a substantial app of sliced skirt steak, served over a bed of diced potatoes speckled with house-cured ham and wilted greens, along with two sauces, one the consistency of a reduced jus with bbq sauce flavors, the other a thicker sweet (cranberry? apple?) ketchup, topped with a fried quail egg, and sprinkled with crystals of lava salt that give an intriguing smokiness.
Soups are also consistently outstanding. An example: recently Mrs. F ordered an eggplant soup even though she doesn't really like eggplant - she loved the soup, velvety smooth and brightly flavored. The menu always features a risotto of the day, available either as an app or an entree size portion. There are only a couple pastas (also available in half or full portions) and they are also excellent - a home-made cavatelli, served with a traditional pairing of broccoli rabe and (home-made) Italian sausage, and a parsnip-filled ravioli topped with lush, rich braised shortrib and a sprinkling of goat cheese.
A new tapas menu, offered during happy hour on weekdays (5-7pm), adds several very reasonably priced options - steamed clams with chiles, roasted cauliflower with house-smoked bacon, torchon of foie gras with cocoa nibs and vanilla salt, a potato-ham hash topped with a quail egg - all for $5-10. If the menu is on the table and you ask nicely, you may be able to get some of these items even if it's not happy hour.
In-house charcuterie has become a recent recurring theme on the menu, and at various times there may be any number of different things at work in the kitchen. Several of the items are mentioned above (house-cured ham and bacon, torchon of foie gras) and I've had the good fortune to try a number of others - duck prosciutto (with a salad pairing arugula and pickled watermelon rind), saucisson sec (with pickled plums and cubes of brie encased in crystallized honey), duck confit - and they have all been outstanding. Sometimes they offer a charcuterie sampler on the menu, and if it's available, it is not to be missed.
The entrees likewise follow through with similarly assertive layers of flavor. I've had a rack of lamb done a couple different ways there - once over a fregola salad with arugula, ricotta salata and pickled cipollini onions, more recently with nira moyashi (stir-fried chive and bean sprout) and an ume (pickled plum) jus (though the ume did not come through as clearly as I would have expected). Both times the lamb was perfectly cooked and the portion (two thick double-chops) so substantial that I ended up taking one chop home (for which there was much rejoicing by the dogs, who got the bones). The pork chop is likewise expertly cooked, a thick, bone-in, Fred Flintstone style chop, served over some wilted greens, paired with a ragout of scarlet runner beans (these beautiful, gigantic and delicious deep red beans) spiked with - yes, house-made bacon - and a caramelized apple/mustard sauce. We did a group lunch there about a year ago, and Frod Jr. and Little Miss F were both fans of a salmon dish done in an Asian style with udon noodles and a miso broth. I still occasionally pine for a lavender-rubbed venison loin that's been off the menu for a couple years now.
Funny, despite having been many times, I have no real recollection of the desserts - probably because we run out of steam before getting there. The wine list used to be a real sore point for me, a decent selection but some really outrageous markups. It seems lately they've made an effort to address the issue by paring down the list some, offering a better selection in the sub-$50 range and ratcheting back the markups. At this point it probably qualifies as reasonable by South Beach standards (which isn't saying much, but is still a sign of progress).
The place has a more relaxed, less trendy vibe than most other South Beach restaurants. It's classy and comfortable, and the patio area in back provides some nice outdoor seating (not only for dinner but their Sunday brunch as well), but it's a far cry from the posh and hip hotels like the Gansevoort or the Setai that are its neighbors. But if you're about the food and not the scene, Talula is the place to go on South Beach.
210 23rd Street
Miami Beach, FL 33139
*Actually this list could go on quite a bit longer. Starfish, and then Cafe Maxx, back before Kerry Simon went Vegas; Mark's South Beach; Nemo back when Michael Schwartz was the chef; Johnny Vinczencz's first restaurant at the Astor Hotel (not the forgettable sequel), and perhaps even better, the casual Johnny V's Kitchen on Alton Road with the fantastic rib-meat hoagie; Chrysanthemum; Shoji Sushi back before it went to crap. Currently, Sardinia is very good, and Meat Market shows some promise. Perhaps I'm disproving my point here, and the general suckiness of South Beach is a more recent phenomenon.