Monday, May 4, 2009

A Spice for all Seasons

Spring Spice First there was just Miami Spice, a month-long summer deal where restaurants, through August, offered $23 3-course lunches and $36 3-course dinners. As the economy tanked, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau extended the original "Summer" Spice, then introduced a "Winter" Spice in January, and now is unveiling "Spring" Spice for the month of May. Coming soon - Posh Spice, Sporty Spice, Scary Spice, Old Spice, and Pickling Spice. With the return of Miami Spice come all the familiar complaints - the food is boring, the service is lousy, and why doesn't every restaurant just lower all their prices (or, stated another way, why aren't restaurants offering their best dishes at these prices)? Even New Times is joining in the kvatching.

As for the last of these gripes, it just seems silly to me. The concept here is not a particularly novel one. It's the same idea as the "prix fixe" meal that is prevalent throughout Europe - a set menu, often at a more affordable price, which as a consequence generally does not call for some of the more expensive items that may be found elsewhere on the a la carte menu. I don't see why offering a prix fixe option means a restaurant should be offering similar discounts across its whole menu. Just don't expect lobster and foie gras at $36 (though, interestingly, they can be found on some menus).

The other points are more on target but certainly nothing new. The service issue is a common one - management may think it's great to fill up seats even if it's at a lower price point, but waitstaff don't exactly relish the diminished tab on which their tip is calculated. And the food? At some places it's clear they're just going through the motions and making little effort to offer anything other than the cheapest food they can put on the plate. It's usually pretty easy to tell. Their menus almost invariably contain the uninspired trifecta of Atlantic salmon, chicken paillard, and skirt steak - lowest common denominator and lowest food cost. But there are other places that still try to showcase the strengths of their restaurants.

I've plowed through the Spring Spice menus that are available online, and found several meals I'd be happy to try. A couple notes: (1) these are not the full menus from these restuarants, just the items that sounded interesting to me; (2) some of these restaurants I've not tried or not tried any time recently, so these are not recommendations; and (3) the strategy, as always - look for interesting food, and look for places where the Spice menu actually offers a meaningful discount off the regular menu prices (keeping in mind that many places change their menu regularly). So without further ado, here is my potential Spring Spice hit list:

Bourbon Steak
Tasmanian Sea Trout Crudo
Shaved Baby Fennel, Spring Onions, Capers, Dill
Organic Chicken Breast
Crispy Thigh Confit, Truffled Macaroni & Cheese, Caramelized Onion Jus
New York Steak Pavé
Fingerling Potatoes, Cipollini Onions, Foie Gras Emulsion
($10 supplement)[1]
Macallan 18 Year Butterscotch Pudding

Capital Grill
Seafood Bouillabaisse with Corn Cream Amuse (!)
Caesar Salad
10oz. Porcini Crusted Delmonico
with Twelve Year Aged Balsamic
Seared Tenderloin with Butter Poached Lobster
10oz. Kona Crusted Sirloin
with Caramelized Shallot Butter Sauce
Crème Brulee

China Grill[2]
Tuna Oishi
Tuna, crabmeat, sushi rice & wasabi guacamole
Crackling Calamari Salad
lime miso dressing
Barbecued Salmon
Chinese mustard sauce & stir fried greens
Sweet Soy Marinated Skirt Steak
wok sauteed lo mein noodles & tempura shiitake mushrooms
Wasabi Mashed Potatoes
Chef's Selection of House Desserts

Boudin Croquettas
with Thyme-Creole Mustard Dipping Sauce
Louisiana Oyster and Tasso Stuffed Quail
with Wilted Baby Spinach and Emeril's Homemade Worcestershire
Bananas Foster Bread Pudding
with Brown Butter Bourbon Sauce

Asparagus Salad
Benton's smoked ham, mustard vinaigrette, roast peppers
White Gazpacho
jerez gel, Marcona almonds, Spanish olive oil
Truffle Crusted Prime Rib of Beef
potato gratin, roast radishes
Michy's bread pudding
chocolate, orange rind

peas & ham salad
spring greens, pea & herb emulsion, peanut oil, shaved jamon
truffle ravioli
asparagus ricotta puree, tips, egg mimosa
celery root chips, fava bean puree, saffron butter
'strawberry shortcake'
grilled olive oil cake, strawberries, chocolate balsamic sauce,
herb-infused whipped cream

Lobster Ceviche
whole small tail, fresh coconut milk, orange and lime juice,
thai chilies, red onions, chives and sage sorbet
Oysters Rodriguez
lightly fried, served over fufu and creamy
horseradish spinach, served w/ huacatay sauce
Mar y Tierra
NY Strip w/ smoked chocolate rub
served w/ lobster stuffed ancho chili relleño
Raspado de Pato
Hudson Valley duck breast served over crispy rice,
edamame, raisins, pine nuts w/ chayote and tomatillo salad
Lucuma Mousse
served over macadamia chocolate cookie crumbs, espresso & chocolate sauce

Pacific Time
seafood salad
turks and caicos conch, salmon toro, tobiko caviar, tuna,
roasted pineapple

salt & pepper skate
preserved lemon, green apple risotto
baked alaska key west
the classic with a key lime twist

Palme d'Or
Maine Lobster Bisque "My Way"
Lobster Ravioli & Saffron Capuccino
Seven-Hour Braised Beef Effilochée
Potato Mousseline, Organic Micro Greens, Truffle Vinaigrette
"L'accra" Chocolate Mousse Bar
Layered with Caramel Mousseux on a Chocolate Fondant Cake

Pascal's on Ponce
Creamy Maine Lobster Bisque
with Corn Flan and Tarragon
Braised Veal Shank
Creamy Polenta, Winter Vegetable Ragout, Braising Sauce
Bittersweet Chocolate Fondant
Vanilly Chantilly

Restaurant at the Setai
Soba Shiitake
Warm Mushroom Salad with Soba Noodles, Truffle Vinaigrette,
White Truffle Ice Cream
Lime and Chili Caramelized Pork Belly
Miso Braised Turnips, Kimchee and Roasted Peanuts
Gula Melaka
Peal Sago, Coconut Milk, Palm Sugar, Mango Sorbet

Crispy Pork Belly Salad
Avocado, Hearts of Palm, Cherry Tomato, Red Onion,
Citrus-Chile Vinaigrette

Pan Seared Local Catch
Roasted Tomato & Spinach Israeli Cous Cous Risotto, Aged Balsamic,
Lemon-Basil Emulsion

Coffee-Bittersweet Dark Chocolate Bread Pudding
Dried Cherry Caramel, Spiced Sweet Cream

Have you had any good (or bad) "Spring Spice" experiences yet?

[1]Is charging a supplement "cheating"?

[2]China Grill, with their family style servings, offers 2 apps, 1 entree, 1 side and dessert for parties of two, but adds additional entrees for parties of 3 or 4, so this only makes sense with a group of 3+. And yes, this looks suspiciously like the salmon/chicken/skirt steak red flag, but these are all regular menu items at least.

[3]Ola is taking an interesting approach and offering any 2 appetizers and any 2 entrees in a tasting size portion, apparently offering choices from the entire menu.

[4]Talula's menu is not listed on the Miami Spice website, but is on their own website.


  1. I think your dissection is spot-on and its sad/good that they make their lack of impetus so transparent. i have not taken advantage of the spring spice yet, but I recommended Bourbon Steak this past weekend to a group and they were not offered the Spring Spice menu, another common offense that plays into your paragraph #3

  2. Jason - keep in mind some places (including Bourbon Steak) do not offer the Spice menu on weekends. But yes, some places treat the Spice menu like a highly classified document even on days that it is offered.

  3. The feeling extends to both sides of the fence. I can say, for us at least, that we put the same effort into the Spice menu as we do for any other menu (and we don't just pull items from the regular menu like most other restaurants). This last incarnation was particularly difficult to write. We had to take the price point to heart more than we usually would considering the economy. Consider this... it's not just the food cost that comes into play these days. The chef must also consider that the menu needs to be executed consistently with less labor since his hands are tied with keeping payroll down. (I did take strong offense to Antoinette Bruno's recent tweet that suggested a great benefit of this current economic situation is that chefs are back on the line... don't get me started. I could fill a 2 page blog post with my angst from that remark!) Anyway, the chef tries his best to keep the cost down, the menu feasible, and to still please the guest... and also has to butt heads with the waitstaff that do not feel it is worth their while. I can't necessarily blame them. I'm not getting paid $2 an hour. It appears we are all in this big spice boat together. What are we going to do about it? I still don't get the 'spice' name? It's not like anyones focusing on spices. We made the mistake of doing a lot of research a couple of years ago and trying to write different menus every week that highlighted spice blends from around the world. We stopped as soon as we realized that we were the only participating restaurant doing this.

  4. Frod - that had slipped my mind regarding the weekend spice.

    Chad - I have never been to your restaurant though it rides high on my list. In truth I will probably be making it over there while this spice menu is out. The dishes do sound engaging. In that sense, I think laboring through making that menu has paid off.

  5. Im really not a big fan of the whole Miami Spice thing, though I do understand its purpose. There have been a few places that Ive tried the Spice Menu at but Ive always felt awkward about it. I feel like its a lot of give on the part of the restaurant and a lot of take on the part of the diner. And Im 100% a diner. Its kinda insulting I guess, like telling a girl, "Well, I wasn't going to ask you out but I heard you'll sleep with me on the first date so I figured Id give it a shot..."

    There is no guarantee that just because I try a small portion of your sea bass, filet, kobe steak, etc, at a lesser price that Im going to be coming back for more. Truth be told, with so many Miami Spice options, it is unlikely I would visit the same place twice for that menu and after the deal period it would all come down to proximity, my dining mood, and dollars and cents. For example, I drive 15 minutes to MGFD and spend about $60 on dinner on average. Am I going to drive an extra 20-30 minutes to Bourbon Steak after having a great Miami Spice meal there for $36? I doubt it, especially knowing that if it isnt Spice I'll be spending $75+ on dinner. Both offer great food but one is less of a drive, less $$ on average, way younger scene, and has more of a variety on the menu. Or maybe I decide to walk to Jaguar in the Grove for a $35 dinner and MGFD loses out?

    See all these factors that come into play? This is why I think that Miami Spice Month (Year) has gotten way out of control. I cant imagine that it helps restaurants at all but maybe some of the chef commenters here can attest to its effectiveness? I just think that by the time you factor in the labor and food costs, there cant be much margin. That and with what little margin is made, all the restaurant has is the glimmer of hope that, because they have now tasted the "intro offer" that the customer returns to pay regular price for a meal.

  6. I think part of why prixe fix menus are much more successful in Paris, for example, is because the restaurants still offer some of their best dishes. This past summer I ate foie gras, frog legs, goat cheese raviolis, and plenty other amazing dishes all off a prixe fix menu in Paris. The whole point of prixe fix is to give you a chance to try some of the best the restaurant has to offer at a more affordable price. Apparently, that point has been missed in Miami and most of the U.S.

    In contrast, I have yet to even bother with Miami Spice because the offerings are exactly as you say, cookie cutter chicken, salmon, or skirt steak.

  7. Restaurants pay a lot of money to be involved in this promotion. The Herald (VPE) did a small piece on this last year that spelled out the fees. If it doesn't work for the restaurant owner, no one is forcing them to be involved.

    But for anyone to do their part half-assed defeats the whole purpose of the promotion. Unfortunately, that is what often happens for the most part in Miami. Like what happens the rest of the year. Most people don't give a damn about their customers. So the customers who participate in the promotion also don't give a damn about the restaurants (and screw the big tip, too!). They just want a cheaper meal in luxe surroundings.

    So maybe if they got treated nicely, they would come back, even if just for the chicken...or fact, maybe the vast majority of people who participate in this promotion PREFER chicken, or salmon or skirt steak. Isn't that a possibilty, too? I mean, I was just at Central Michel Richard in DC and ordered the fried chicken. It was pretty good. And don't many people say you can tell a chef's chops by how they cook chicken? What's with the chicken-hating? But I digres...

  8. Danny - restaurants actually may not be paying to play anymore but I nonetheless agree - if you're going to do it, why do it half-assed? That's partly why I think the Spice menu is usually a "tell" for how much restaurants really care about feeding their customers well.

    I'm not necessarily a chicken-hater; a certain South Park episode comes to mind:

    But even if I liked nothing more than chicken paillard, it's a bit like the exhausted gynecologist who goes home to his randy wife: "If I see one more ..."

  9. As Willie Dixon sang:
    You mean eat your dinner
    Eat your pork and beans.
    I eat more chicken
    Any man ever seen.
    Including the gynecologist's wife's paillard.

    Now as far as paying to participate in Spice, it is still quite costly for the restaurants, so I don't know where you got your info.

  10. "men"-you men eat your dinner...jeez!