Pulsating dance music and leggy hostesses in pseudo-Playboy bunny attire usually don’t translate into a fine dining experience, but ultra-swank Bâoli has two things going for it: Chef Gustavo Vertone and an enchanting hidden courtyard that makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon The Secret Garden.
Shade trees strung with sparkling lights and dainty chandeliers create a canopy over the patio. A long outdoor bar backed by a built-in white bookcase lends an old beach-town vibe. Waiters in suspenders and crisp white shirts work the tables, with a 15-foot shrub creating privacy at the far end.
Such restrained charm on South Beach doesn’t come easy. To get there, you must walk down a long, narrow hallway lined with star-gazer photos and pass by the trendy lounge on the left. With its banquettes, occasional complimentary shots and theme nights like Wednesday’s “My Boyfriend is Out of Town,” the interior caters more to bachelorette parties than serious diners.
Fortunately, the glass doors separating the club-restaurant from the rear patio are mercifully thick. Only the occasional strobe flash and burst of DJ music through an opened door are reminders that people are gyrating in earnest on the other side.
You can start to relax when the complimentary basket of warm white bread and rolls arrives with a tri-plate of soft herbed butter, roasted tomatoes and black olive tapenade.
Exorbitant prices aside, the succinct menu presents a thoughtful assortment of Mediterranean-inspired dishes, with a heavy presence of foie gras, truffles and roasted garlic. Whole rosemary sprigs, bay leaves and basil adorn hot cast-iron serving dishes, setting off fresh herb aromas.
Appetizers are prudently complex. Roasted beet salad brings chopped red and sliced yellow beets, a bale of crisp mache, French green beans, blanched leeks and blue cheese, with dabs of balsamic dressing and creamy emulsified beet juice encircling the plate.
Pan-seared scallops, billed as an appetizer, easily stood in as a salty, buttery entrée, with baby zucchini, carrots, red bell pepper and asparagus sharing the bountiful casserole dish, roasted to just the right snap.
Raised in Buenos Aires, Vertone, 34, attended Gato Dumas’ culinary school in Venezuela and expanded his knowledge by working in his Italian father’s family restaurants in Italy. The Bâoli group, which runs a trendy club-restaurant by the same name in Cannes, scooped him up and trained him further in France before sending him to South Beach as part of a management shift last year that turned Vita by Bâoli into simply Bâoli. Smart move.
Even with their sophisticated presentations, Vertone’s rustic dishes taste as if they’ve emerged from some ancient oven in a seaside village. A bouillabaisse of clams, mussels, lobster, scallops, sea bass, salmon and calamari, reached by poking through a cover of crispy focaccia, is an “old family recipe,” he says.
Deceptively simple, the hulking 18-ounce boneless Angus ribeye steak was flavorful from a salt-herb rub and the red wine sauce on the side tipped the dish into eye-popping status. We paired it with a side of salty and hot duck fat fries, thick, toasty wedges with meltingly soft interiors.
Among four other cuts of beef on the menu, the 10-ounce grilled skirt steak came just as we asked, pink in the middle, and curled into a roll, with snappy chimichurri sauce on the side.
Seafood entrees and a small raw bar rely heavily on imports, such as sole, salmon and Maine lobster, with an obligatory Florida stone crab. The artichoke and lobster salad, however, was merely respectable and verged on bland. Ricotta and spinach ravioli, one of several handmade pastas, also failed to wow.
The biggest disappointment was the service. . It was overly attentive upon our arrival, with four staffers appearing one after the other to ask the same question. But they abruptly turned their backs on us once a large party appeared. We had to prod four times before our resentful waiter appeared 20 minutes later.
As a result, the ho-hum warm chocolate fondant — and the 18 percent service charge built into the steep bill — was hard to swallow.
If Bâoli aspires to live up to the restaurant part of its name and charge top-dollar for it, there needs to be more effort to make all diners feel that it’s worth it.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.