Hipsterized portraits of Julia Tuttle and Henry Flagler preside over the cozy dining room at the new Orange Blossom in Miami Beach, where plates of Florida-fresh grouper, scallops, radishes and passion fruit remind us that we do indeed live in the land of opportunity.
Adjacent to the Boulan South Beach Hotel at Collins Park, Orange Blossom replaces the short-lived Charles St. with a warm, inviting space named for the deluxe passenger train that connected New York to Miami from the late 1920s until 1953.
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Executive chef Nelson Maldonado puts together a scrupulous menu that balances comfort classics with adventuresome dishes, all of them showing craftsmanship like a seasoned fiddle player strumming “Orange Blossom Special.”
Thinly sliced raw scallops, accompanied by spicy lemongrass ginger sauce and micro arugula, is a tastebud-awakening starter. Creamy salmon tartare, made from organic salmon belly, exceeds expectations with an Indian-French vadouvan curry and toasted naan bread. Tuna tartare, plated at room temperature and served with avocado and fried wonton chips, is among the best we’ve tasted in Miami.
On the heartier side, charred octopus with roasted fingerling potatoes and chunks of chorizo is sufficiently smoky. Fig-prosciutto flatbread — one of three flatbreads offered on slender cutting boards — is the only appetizer we tried that suffered from a heavy hand, its caramelized onions and puréed fig spread excessively sweet under slabs of cured ham.
If you think chicken is bland, Orange Blossom’s roasted, all-natural breast and thigh will make you reconsider. The skin is light and crisp, the meat moist and flavorful. It sits in its own herbed juices on a sautéed polenta round, surrounded by tender baby carrots, spring onions, asparagus and blush-colored Easter egg radishes, each rosy orb offering a sweet, peppery pop.
To our benefit, Maldonado is not afraid to use salt. Dishes are confidently well-seasoned. A fine rack of lamb comes crusted with mint and rosemary, accompanied by crushed paprika potatoes. A perfectly cooked-to-order N.Y. strip, its outside charred with a tasty rub, is topped with the garlicky goodness of a thick chimichurri sauce.
Born in Ecuador, Maldonado, 27, moved to Miami as a teen and worked his way through the dining scene, from dishwasher to culinary school grad. Formerly a banquet sous chef at the InterContinental, he moved to New York for four years to train at places like Todd English’s brasserie Ça Va before returning to open Orange Blossom in April.
Maldonado’s kitchen experience comes through in touches like a creamy watercress purée, which revives a mild piece of Florida black grouper, and an earthy pool of carrot purée and chervil butter, which livens up a chewy farro risotto.
Petite desserts mirror the same attention to detail and flavor. A passion fruit panna cotta special one night was topped with fresh fruit, surrounded on the plate by a sweet-tart dusting of powder made from dehydrated strawberries and blackberries.
Tungsten lights, comfortable orange banquettes and herringbone wood flooring cast a warm, rose-gold glow inside Orange Blossom. Shaded lamps and leather chairs at the long, wood bar, where craft cocktails dominate, evoke an old train car, but modern utilitarian black-tube chandeliers save the space from sappy nostalgia. A rotating soundtrack — classic rock one night, straight-up jazz another — keeps the atmosphere casual.
Mornings bring eggs benedict, buttermilk pancakes and huevos rancheros while the lunch menu focuses on flatbreads and salads (tuna niçoise, chicken, Thai and kale).
The mother and father of Miami would approve.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense. Follow @MiamiHeraldFood on Twitter.