Miami restaurant review: Celeb chef restaurant goes adrift in South Beach

Passionfruit doughnuts at Driftwood Room in South Beach.
Passionfruit doughnuts at Driftwood Room in South Beach.

To eat in Miami means to know the feeling of being burned by an overpriced, underperforming celebrity chef’s restaurant. It’s like a punch to the gut before having your wallet stolen.

Lately, South Beach eaters seem to be biting back against absentee TV chefs, the ones who swing in for their contractually obligated five or 10 days a month, pick up their checks and fly home. Morimoto couldn’t sell enough sushi to stay afloat more than a year; Fabio Viviani’s Siena Tavern lasted less time than it takes to film a season of Top Chef; and Spike Mendelsohn’s Sunny’s has gotten off to a rocky start.

Without immediate and radical changes, Alex Guarnaschelli’s Driftwood Room is likely next on the chopping block. At best, it is a forgettable hotel restaurant that serves three meals a day. At worst, it is a ripoff factory where the supervisor has fallen asleep.

Open since October in Sixty Hotels’ new Nautilus South Beach, Driftwood Room is a collaboration between Guarnaschelli and China Grill Management. Lucas Marino, a veteran of Guarnaschelli’s New York kitchens, is chef de cuisine. 

Marino’s Argentine roots peek to the surface with a starter of provoleta ($11), a specialty of his native country. A skillet of thick provolone cheese with halved cherry tomatoes from Homestead and a sprinkle of Cuban oregano is baked until golden and gooey, then flambéed tableside with a squirt of gin. The presentation is appealing, and flaming cheese is happy food.

Some other appetizers also appeal, like a smoky eggplant dip ($10) served in a hollowed-out local zucchini and simply grilled tri-color peppers ($8) with a mild heat level. A pretty composition of cured, thin-sliced salmon ($19) is spiced to taste like an everything bagel. Its lemon-dill vinaigrette is a clean, cooling touch; sacs of salmon roe push the flavor too far toward fishy.

Many of Driftwood’s dishes exhibit a basic lack of skillful execution.

“Beachfront” fritto misto ($19) needs a lifeguard to rescue it from a too-long dive in the deep fryer, which renders miniscule calamari rings too tough to chew and burns lemon wheels to an astringent char.

Lobster ($34) on spinach suffers the opposite problem, not being cooked long enough to firm up the meat’s gelatinous texture. Shrimp on a quinoa salad ($19) with mismatching menu descriptions — that’s Granny Smith apple, not Honeycrisp — hadn’t been deveined, leaving strings of filth with every bite.

At $120, côte de boeuf for two is a sucker move. After cooking an alleged 38-ounce rib cut to the desired doneness, the kitchen takes the liberty of inelegantly hacking up the meat and smothering it in an acidic brown sauce that resembles Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinaigrette. Four of us each took one bite and stopped, but a server didn’t bother to ask why. Frozen french fries, salted to the point of causing lips to chap, also went untouched.

Servers on multiple visits were friendly and eager if not a little helicopter-like with their hovering. Driftwood’s flaws don’t fall on them. The tone-deaf lack of attention to detail is surprising in a restaurant with the backing of China Grill Management and its owner, seasoned restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow.

Misspellings pervade the menu: lavendar, cucmber, tumeric. Even Guarnaschelli’s name is botched several places on the Nautilus website. If you can’t get the name of the star chef right, odds are you’re not going to care when a table of 14 is smoking cigarettes upwind of other customers and in violation of the law.

Driftwood Room’s desserts are stronger than the savory side of the menu. Passionfruit doughnuts ($12) position the creamy jelly’s cool tang against hot fried dough and sweet vanilla-bean sauce. Cocktails ($15) are made with agave and skew sweet, except a thyme-infused vodka drink that tastes tinny from its Moscow Mule serving cup. An $8 charge for double espresso leaves a bitter finish.

Celebrity chef restaurants that succeed in Miami thrive not because of the big name on the marquee but because of a motivated team executing a clear vision. This restaurant needs to find its identity soon, before customers abandon it like driftwood.

Critics dine unannounced at the Miami Herald’s expense.

Evan S. Benn is Miami Herald food editor: 305-376-4624, @EvanBenn