Twenty years after opening his first eatery — a diner/martini bar in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood — restaurateur Stephen Starr is mining mid-century modern gold again with a Continental designed just for us.
Without duplicating the dozens of restaurants he already owns up and down the East Coast, Starr has revived the glass lobby of the historic 1954 Ankara Motel in Miami Beach with an eclectic sharing menu that caters to present-day tastes and our ageless pursuit of a good time.
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At Continental Miami, the early 1960s have returned under the rakishly cantilevered roof. The cats are having a gas touting the wonders of air conditioning, tiki culture and fun, fab food. Expect freshened-up Chinese favorites, daring appetizers, and some well-executed Old and New World classics, with a few admirable attempts at Latin comfort food.
Planted on the picturesque peninsula where the Collins Canal, Indian Creek waterway and Lake Pancoast meet, the southernmost Continental reclaims the notable MiMo spot as part of a complex that now includes an eight-story Aloft Miami Beach hotel and two outdoor dining areas — one off the pool and outdoor bar, and another outfitted with organically shaped wire chairs on the patio fronting Collins Avenue.
The airplane wing-shaped dining room sports narrow banquettes and cozy two-seaters on hairpin legs. Lush planters hang overhead. A terrazzo floor is decorated with a single, toothpick-pierced olive at the entrance. It’s vintage vacationland.
Set to a boisterous soundtrack of Beach Blanket Bingo music and ’60s salsa, hostesses bop around like beach-ready Gidgets in terrycloth shifts. Waiters in short-sleeved track jackets and Bermuda shorts look like they’ve stepped out of island time to present kitschy cocktails in fearsome-faced, glazed tiki mugs.
Don’t worry. There’s substance beneath the South Seas-inspired style.
Continental Miami’s postcard-size, four-page menu is organized primarily by appetizers, Chinese specialties, wood-grill dishes and large plates that hopscotch around the world.
We’d listen to ukulele tunes all day if it meant we could have another Sizzling Seafood Wor Bar, one of the Chinese dishes encouraged as a shared starter. Pregnant with large chunks of lobster, shrimp and scallops, the cast-iron platter of mixed vegetables contains a shallow pool of fragrant, steaming garlic sauce, with white rice on the side.
Another must-try: the unlikely pairing of Philly cheesesteak and egg-roll wrappers that come together like a honeymoon in your mouth. Tissue-thin strips of tender, hot beef are tightly rolled with sweet pimento and melting American cheese. Wrapped in flaky, deep-fried dough and cut into manageable bites, the rolls are topped with wisps of fried onions. Sriracha ketchup comes on the side for flavorful dipping.
Eleven appetizers demand the most attention, starting with an old-fashioned, giant crudité platter crashing into the 21st century with ranch, hummus and spicy Korean ssamjang sauces. Vietnamese and Thai dishes dominate, along with lobster mac and cheese, and three cigarette-size tuna tartare spring rolls with tart citrus ponzu.
Impractical but adventurous, the foie gras and pancakes is a rich starter that could easily double as a gluttonous dessert or breakfast. The upscale McGriddle has a fatty chunk of foie gras, a hard-fried egg, bacon, cheese and hollandaise sauce sandwiched between two dry, maple-flavored pancakes. The stack is excessively salty and sweet at the same time. It threatens to derail the rest of your meal, leaving you feeling like one of those unfortunate, force-fed fowls if you try to consume the entire dish.
Redeem yourself with one of the three salads, preferably the one of grilled peaches, pistachios, goat cheese and champagne vinaigrette that lives up to its “little gem” moniker. Three vegetable side dishes translate autumn through roasted ginger carrots, squash with candied pumpkin seeds and crispy, fried artichoke bites with lemon aioli.
Four wood-grill entrees and eight large plates explore the Middle East, Korea, North Africa, France and Japan, with a harissa-flavored branzino, za’atar-rubbed lamb steak, barbecued skirt steak lettuce wraps and a perfectly cooked steak au poivre in a cognac demi-glacé, with sautéed garlic spinach among the crowd-pleasers.
The menu heads home to the Americas with a classic cheeseburger and Miami-inspired dishes that include “Puerto Rican-style” crispy pork and a whole flash-fried snapper swimming upright with an avocado-tomato salad and a handful of respectable, salty tostones with vinegar-oil dipping sauce.
We admire the effort, but the tough vaca frita with flavorless, undercooked black beans and pickled red onions left us homesick for La Carreta. Don’t go here for Cuban food.
Continental Miami is on firmer footing when it comes to introducing new flavors to our city, like the Korean fried chicken, a half bird cut up and lacquered in a crispy sweet-and-spicy batter, sprinkled with white sesame seeds. Presented on an iron platter, with a minimalist display on the side of raw and pickled carrots, cauliflower, peppers and jicama, this is finger-licking KFC that warrants a return.
Same for the desserts, especially the addictive crackerjack sundae, a mash-up of popcorn-flavor ice cream, caramel popcorn, toasted peanuts and caramel sauce that will have you scraping the sides of the glass.
Genuinely happy servers and staff are sharp and attentive to details like promptly folding napkins for diners who leave the table. A friendly manager checked on us twice while we waited for valet to bring our car.
At this time, Continental Miami is serving only dinner and weekend brunch, which features classic morning fare like pancakes and omelets along with the burger, cheesesteak eggroll and other selections from the dinner menu.
Strangely, no dinner specials were offered on the two nights we visited, although executive chef Matthew Oetting (formerly of Starr’s Caffe Storico in New York) certainly appears up to the task.
Like all good things in life, Continental Miami should be digested in moderation. Too many trips and you risk having your three-hour tour turn into a formulaic, tiki-themed lifetime. But clearly, Starr has added another gem to his buzzworthy empire. We dig it.