Monday, March 8, 2010

Restaurant at the Setai - South Beach

I have long been intrigued by the menu at the Restaurant at the Setai - a curious amalgam of several Far Eastern cuisines - but there was always something keeping me away.

Honestly, it was the prices. Intrigue will only get me so far through the door to try "small plates" that are mostly priced in the mid $20s and main courses that are generally double that or even more. The Restaurant would participate in Miami Spice and occasionally offer other more reasonably priced programs, but I could never get my timing right. So even though the eclectic mix of Asian dishes was alluring, and Executive Chef Jonathan Wright had some solid credentials (Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons in England, Bradley Ogden's Lark Creek Inn in California), I never made my way in.

Intrigue finally got the best of me when I saw that the Setai was offering a "Menu Gourmand," featuring twelve courses from their menu for $120. Somehow, twelve courses for $120 seemed much more reasonable than perhaps three courses for probably about 3/4 of that, and so I paid my first visit to the Setai last week. The "Menu Gourmand" features:

Blue Fin Tuna Skewers, Shiso Ponzu, Asian Pear and Kaffir Lime Salsa

Sea Urchin, Shiso, Wasabi and Ginger Tempura, Oscetra Caviar, Ginger Yogurt

Seared Tuna Belly, Warm Salad of Capers, Mushrooms, Olives, Garlic Emulsion

Hot and Cold Foie Gras with Mango, Szechuan Pepper, Spiced Bread

Warm Mushroom Salad with Soba Noodes, Truffle Vinaigrette, White Truffle Ice Cream

Slow Cooked Duck Egg, Peking Duck, Foie Gras, Sweet Braised Onions, Teriyaki Broth, Bonito

Clear Ham Broth with Winter Melon, Iberico Ham, Chicken, Crab Meat, Ginger and Straw Mushrooms

Scallop and Black Truffle Har Gao, Truffle Emulsion

Scottish Langoustines, Orange and Earl Grey Emulsion, Fennel Salad

Braised then Crisp Fried Pork Belly, Turnips, Kimchi and Roasted Peanuts

Jivara Ginger and Caramel Crème with Jasmine

Passion Fruit Souffle, Bitter Chocolat Sorbet

Most of these dishes come from the "small plates" section of the main menu, which also features a selection of dim sum, several different fish, shellfish and meats prepared in a variety of Asian styles, as well as noodle and rice dishes, curries and tandoor items. Though the menu credits the cuisines of India, Singapore, Thailand, China and Malaysia as its driving forces, a keen observer will note a clear Japanese influence as well. But this is perhaps better described as a "grab-bag" approach rather than a "fusion" menu - as our waiter noted, the individual dishes tend to be uniquely of one particular culinary style, rather than trying to blend them together.

maguro akami
The restaurant itself is an unusual space, with an open exhibition kitchen and several long wooden tables jutting out at right angles from it, as well as a number of regular tables, some of which look out onto Collins Avenue. There was, however, not a lot of action going on in that exhibition kitchen, with one cook at a sauté station and another at a wok station moving in an unrushed fashion to tend to a quiet dining room. We were started with some crispy rice crackers and some pungent achar-style pickles, along with a silver bowl of toasted peanuts mixed with some small, crispy, salty dried whole fish. An unusual and promising start; but unfortunately, for several of the items that followed, smart and delicious sounding combinations were marred by flaws of technique or seasoning.

Though the "Menu Gourmand" indicates that it is served "Share Style," in fact most of the dishses were composed individual plates like this one: a cube of the lean, red flesh of a bluefin tuna ("akami"), in a puddle of shiso-inflected soy-and-citrus ponzu sauce, topped with a fine dice of Asian pear brightened with Kaffir lime, and crowned with a bit of caviar and a sprig of micro-herbs (shiso?) (apologies, by the way for the terrible quality of the photos, I'm still working on how to get decent pictures in low light). It was a nice, clean taste to start the meal, though the cube was a bit large for one bite and unwieldy to handle in any other way given the plating.

uni tempura

The next course offered some of my favorite things: uni, shiso, ginger, caviar. Though advertised as a "tempura," however, what came out was more of a fried dumpling, the thick casing obscuring the delicate flavor of the sea urchin. It was a shame, because I think the other components could have complemented it well, particularly the ginger-infused yogurt it was resting upon. I will confess I rarely if ever find that cooking improves uni, but if you're going to do so, it deserves more delicate treatment than this. Nobu, for instance, does an uni tempura featuring similar flavors where the uni is wrapped in shiso, then nori, then gets a very light tempura coating before being fried. Though really, even that is unnecessary.

toro hagashi

Hagashi toro is supposed to be among the most lush and fatty of tuna cuts, typically, I believe, taken from the top of the tail. Here, a generous portion (one of the only dishes that was actually served share-style)[2] was seared and plated with a warm salad of shimeji mushrooms, capers and olives, along with a creamy-textured garlic emulsion. Unfortunately the tuna was seared so far as to be predominantly brown rather than pink, and consequently lost most of its unctuous fattiness. As a result, my favorite elements on the plate were the mushrooms and the silky garlic pudding.

si chuan man gua
The next dish offered a combination of foie gras and mango in hot and cold forms - the hot, with seared foie over a crescent of mango fruit; the cold, a cube of foie gras torchon with a cube of soft mango sandwiched by thin crispy spice bread. The torchon was lovely, the combination with mango a tropical variant on the long-running and effective theme of playing foie against fruit. The seared foie was peculiarly bland. The traditional pairings were played out even further by serving the dish with a shot of Choya umeshu, the sweet and tart Japanese plum wine playing the role customarily played by Sauternes in this composition. What I couldn't detect was the promised szechuan peppercorns, which might have brought a different element to the party.

pot au feu
Calling this a "pot au feu" suggests stronger "fusion" influences than the Restaurant's mission statement lets on to. Within the bowl were a soft-poached duck egg (presumably slow-cooked in an immersion circulator), slivers of roasted duck, cubes of foie gras, enoki and shimeji mushrooms, some chewy grains (barley? farro?) and slow-braised caramelized onions, all in a dark, sweet soy and bonito "teriyaki" broth. There were some great flavors here and I really loved the composition of elements in this dish, but unfortunately they were all overwhelmed and obscured by the overly sweet broth.

soba shiitake
It's a bit peculiar that of the many countries that the Restaurant at the Setai refers to in describing its food, it does not list Japanese among them; a majority of the dishes on the tasting menu show predominantly Japanese influences. This dish featured slippery soba noodles folded together with a warm melange of various mushrooms and a truffle vinaigrette, crowned with a small scoop of a white truffle ice cream and a delightfully crispy bit of something I couldn't identify. Regretfully, the ice cream carried little of the truffle impact as I experienced several weeks ago from the black truffle ice cream prepared by Chef Scott Boswell at Stella in New Orleans.

dong gua tang
Where the "pot au feu" suffered from a sugar overdose, this dong gua tang (winter melon soup) was a potential threat to hypertensives rather than hyperglycemics. The ham broth was just over-the-top salty, a shame because the rest of this bowl, studded with poached chicken, slivers of Iberico ham, winter melon, crab, matchsticks of ginger, and green onion, was otherwise quite nice.

shan bei jun xai jiao

The menu has about a half dozen varieties of dim sum available, and this, a har gau style dumpling filled with minced scallop and black truffle, bathed in a frothy truffle emulsion and topped with a sliver of black truffle, is certainly the most elegant and luxurious of them. Here, the flavors were spot-on, but the dumpling wrapper was overly sticky. For my gluten-intolerant companion they substituted a cube of chicken tikka - which seemed rather a step down from scallop and truffles.

pork belly with kimchi

Pork belly with kimchi and peanuts is a Korean combination of flavors, one that has been repurposed by chefs like Michael Schwartz at Michael's Genuine to great success. Chef Wright's take on it features a cube of braised, then fried pork belly, a nice slab of meat which is often perhaps a touch too fatty to eat without guilt pangs (to say nothing of chest pangs), though which here was surprisingly a bit dry. It was paired with a remarkably pungent kimchi, the leaves of cabbage elegantly wrapped in a ball. It was undoubtedly one of the most unusual kimchis I've ever tasted, redolent not so much with chile heat or even the lactic tang of fermentation, but with a spice note that was quite strong yet difficult to place. I don't shy away from strong flavors, but this one was right on the edge for me. I had no trouble deciding that I liked the braised Tokyo turnip that was the other component of the dish.

Our final savory course from the "Menu Gourmand" was this Scottish langoustine, paired with Earl Grey and orange emulsions, along with a fennel salad. Battering and frying something as delicate as a langoustine is a bold move, and the inspiration here would seem to be the langoustine fritter wrapped with brik dough done by Joel Robuchon at his L'Atelier restaurants. But where L'Atelier's langoustine fritter, as I've had it at the Las Vegas restaurant, anyway, is ethereally light, with a feathery crunch giving way to sweet tender meat, this version was heavy and dense, the thick batter almost completely obscuring the crustacean. I suspect I would have been better pleading gluten intolerance for this round, as an unbattered langoustine would have paired delightfully with the vivid but subtle flavors of the Earl Grey and orange sauces it was plated with.

chao pang xie

Not that we were in any way lacking for sustenance, but simply for the sake of trying it, we also ordered the Singaporean wok fried stone crabs in a chile tomato sauce (a/k/a Chao Pang Xie). I was intrigued mostly because I'm not accustomed to seeing stone crabs used in hot preparations, and have heard this is because heat brings out unpleasantly strong iodine notes in the crabs. We noticed no such thing. The crab meat took well to the sauce, which was both hot and sweet, studded with red chili peppers, garlic, jalapeño slivers, and possibly thickened with egg. It was served with little fried buns that did a good job of sopping up that sauce. This may have been the best dish I tried all night.

jivara cake

For a closer, this rich Jivara chocolate cake, filled on the inside with a caramel ganache, was plated with a few slightly underripe bruleéd bananas. The other dessert was a passion fruit souffle, and though the menu indicated a bitter chocolate sorbet to go with it, it instead came with a passion fruit sorbet and chocolate sauce for pouring.

This was a lot of food for one sitting - probably too much. Our server advised us that they would often deliver dishes two at a time, even though we indicated we weren't in a rush. While it may have shaved several minutes off the meal, it creates something of a rushed feeling to be starting on one course and have another presented a minute later. I generally don't mind a tapas bar style of service, where dishes come out as they are ready; but these really were not, despite what the menu said, sharing-style tapas presentations (nor are these tapas bar prices).

Particularly given some of the missteps in execution, they might well be better served paring back the tasting menu to a more manageable number of courses and really focusing on getting those right. It's a menu unlike any other in town and some of the compositions have real potential to be great dishes. But based on my experience, it was a menu that read better than it tasted.

Restaurant at the Setai
2001 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Restaurant at the Setai on Urbanspoon

[1]As I learn more about the depletion of the bluefin tuna stocks, I am about 90% of the way toward resolving not to eat any more bluefin until the species' population is replenished. Though, for reasons described herein, I'd be sad if these were the last bites of maguro and toro I were to have for the next several years. I think, though, that my next bite will be my last for some time, until the news starts getting better.

[2]Though this could have been at least in part because my fellow diner had gluten intolerance issues, which the restaurant readily addressed by altering some preparations and substituting some dishes.


  1. Well.thanks for the details ,even I think you were rude and arrogant in your comments.I'd been there many times and was a total pleasure join the beauty and elegance of the place ,the warm company of the around the world cooks and servers and obviously the wonderful meal that we got in there.For me your comments aren't fair at all! I totally love that place .sur I will get my cod,pecking duck and other favorites ove there!

  2. I'd glad to hear your experiences there have been better than mine. Obviously opinions differ (that's why they're opinions), and indeed the experience of a restaurant can vary from night to night or even from dish to dish. I've been wanting to try the restaurant for some time and didn't exactly go there with the goal of spending $120 in order to be disappointed.

    I'd love to know what exactly you thought was rude, arrogant or unfair about my comments.