Carpeting, low-slung upholstered chairs, dim lighting, dropped ceiling, a buffet bar past its prime.
Plethore & Balthazar, a French import inside the Hilton Bentley in South Beach, should post a warning for weary travelers: May cause airport lounge déjà vu.
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Despite its primo spot at the southern end of Ocean Drive, Plethore & Balthazar does little to take advantage of its beachside location. At the end of an alley that runs alongside the warm and welcoming Prime Italian, it fancily claims a sister restaurant in Lyon, but seems content playing sloppy seconds for hotel guests stateside.
Our introduction was cordial enough. Complimentary black olive tapenade made a lovely, briny beginner, served with fresh, grainy Zak the Baker bread.
We weren’t interested in the free-tapas-with-cocktails offer, but our waiter brought us three crostini anyway from a lonely display table. Topped with cream cheese and salmon, tuna tartare, and sliced apples with blue cheese, the starters suffered from soggy bread sagging under inch-thick schmears of cheese.
We appreciated the gesture but never got a chance to thank our black-vested waiter. He disappeared after delivery. His befuddled replacement wasn’t long for the place, either. He told us it was his last night because he’d found another job.
Rife with misspellings, the one-page menu was divided simply into an array of starters — flatbreads, tapas, salads and ceviches — followed by several fish, paella and pasta, and steak or chicken entrees. Seven wine choices steered to the south of France.
Our spirits were raised slightly by a king crab and avocado involtini starter that wrapped seafood spread inside strips of avocado. The sushi-like log came to life with smoky dots of creamy romesco sauce on the side and a sprinkling of fresh dill. Icy chunks of king crab teetering on top were the only detraction.
So much time elapsed between courses that our second-string waiter swung by in the near-empty dining room and helpfully said, “I’ll go find your entrees.”
The slow-cooked shoulder of lamb was worth the wait. Simply prepared with sauce made from the succulent meat’s fatty juices and red wine, it was topped with sprigs of fresh parsley. A crock of potato dauphinois gratin — fluffy on the inside, golden and crunchy outside — was a rich and creamy complement.
Tandoori chicken stuffed with cremini mushrooms was seasoned modestly with cumin and coriander. Hidden under a cloud of baby greens, the chicken thighs lacked the peppery red hue and exterior crispiness of traditional tandoori. A sauce of sautéed shiitake mushrooms supplied moisture to the dry meat and accompanying noodles. Stir-fried bok choy sprinkled with black sesame seeds added much-needed color to the bland dish.
On another visit, lunch on the outdoor patio’s wicker tables overlooking the hotel’s small pool was a brighter experience — once we removed the pits accidentally left in our free olive tapenade. Our French waitress was cheerful and did not threaten to leave.
Respectable pork potstickers were slightly crunchy on the outside and paired with soy sauce for dipping. Five miniature rum-marinated smoked swordfish tacos consisted of very cold fish dip stuffed in extremely hard shells made from malanga. Topped with red pepper ringlets and greens, the dish threatened dental harm.
Our lobster and crab roll also went largely untouched. Stuffed inside a buttered and toasted hotdog-size bun, the mayo-based warm seafood salad included slivers of apple, crispy onions and celery, but was overpowered by mustard seeds and was too mushy to distinguish the lobster or crab. We dined mostly on the accompanying French fries and simple salad with green beans, matchstick carrots and cold asparagus chunks.
A super-size slice of Key lime pie tried to make up to us with a perfectly toasted meringue topping, but the graham cracker crust was so hard that we couldn’t penetrate it with our fork.
Pardon my French, but Plethore & Balthazar needs to make beaucoup changes to be more than just another mediocre hotel restaurant.
Critics dine unannounced at the Miami Herald’s expense. Jodi Mailander Farrell: @JodiMailander