La Ventanita: Thomas Keller discusses how growing up with single mom, four brothers shaped his career
Before I tried to eat at Thomas Keller’s fabulous — and fabulously expensive — restaurant in Surfside for less than $200 a couple, I tried to think like an astronaut.
A movie astronaut, that is.
There’s a scene in the film “Apollo 13” where the astronauts are lost in space with a dying battery and need to turn on their equipment in exactly the right order to ensure they have enough power to get home. (True story.)
That’s basically how I spent the day leading up to my first visit to The Surf Club Restaurant, parsing the menu and its price tags, obviously an equally high-stakes true story. Because if you care about fine dining, and the man who elevated American cuisine opens his first restaurant in your city — his first in your state — there is no choice but to go.
But you also want your kids to go to college.
And it’s easy to spend a mortgage payment at one of Keller’s highest-level restaurants, both of which have been awarded three Michelin stars. French Laundry in Napa Valley starts at $325 a person and Per Se in Manhattan at $355 — without an adult beverage.
So are the rest of us who dine out for sport left only to look at the pretty pictures on Instagram? Or to save for months for a singular sinful (remorseful?) splurge?
So, a compromise.
Now $200 is not exactly Rachael Ray’s $40 a day. (You might accidentally spend that amount any night out in Miami when the music is raucous and the alcohol is freely flowing.)
It’s a substantial sum that could mean a memorable and elaborate meal at one of Miami’s other top restaurants. I easily reached $150 (without drinks) at Brad Kilgore’s newly open Ember in May. But even the Kilgores of the world hold the door when Keller walks into the room.
You should be able to experience a full menu by the godfather of American fine dining without selling a kidney.
So why spend that kind of money at all?
There are people (raises hand) for whom splurging on a special meal, created by a talented chef, is akin to watching a hit Broadway show with the original cast. But just because you couldn’t afford to see “Hamilton” with Lin Manuel Miranda doesn’t mean you can’t get the same pleasure out of watching the traveling show.
Beware: You and your dining companion have to be on the same page when it comes to ordering. That is, this isn’t a first date plan, unless you’re feeling suave, retro chauvinistic and ready to deploy the line, “I’ve taken the liberty of ordering for us,” in the voice of Don Draper.
I cued up the restaurant website, downloaded the menu and went in with an Apollo 13-worthy plan to stay under $200 — and leave with the full Thomas Keller experience.
Start with some freebies
A golden light washes over the 50-seat Surf Club dining room, diffuse from the translucent chandeliers, onto oil paintings that mirror scenes of the ocean, rogue peacocks and passing sailboats and lands on curving Art Deco banquets the color of the sea.
The restaurant, dressed in dark wood, turquoise crushed velvet and dappled mirrors, draws inspiration from the historic private club of the same name, where Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Liz Taylor and Tennessee Williams escaped their dramas to Miami Beach. And the menu is a nod to what Keller called a Hollywood “golden age,” with retro Continental dishes anchored in European cooking (Lobster Thermidor, Beef Wellington) to match.
The crudite, a bowl of iced vegetables, arrives with a cucumber dipping sauce: a tart radish, a sweet yellow pepper, celery with the fibrous veins removed so it crisps like a water chestnut. Next to it, a cup of breadsticks that snap to beat back a ravenous hunger and a delicate dinner roll, dotted with a constellation of salt flakes, that pulls apart with a wish.
All very nice. Then the waiter places what looks like a tiny footed server cake dish at the edge of the table, presses down, and the device — invented specifically for this restaurant — propels out butter in seashell curls. It’s a wonderful surprise, like a dancer in a jewelry box.
Crudite, bread and ambiance: $0
Snacking is encouraged
Keller delights in offering snacks, a little nosh that is more than crudite but less than an appetizer. At French Laundry, it’s a one-bite salmon cornet. Here, a pair of deviled eggs seemed like just the right start.
A zing of mustard, a smoked scent of paprika, a twig of parsley placed with tweezers. Plucking it off the dish and popping it into your mouth feels like sneaking one from the refrigerator the night before mom’s Tupperware party.
Our waiter admitted he hangs around the kitchen at the end of the night to inhale any extra orders.
Deviled eggs: $3 each, $6
Horn-heavy music, from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Ben l’Oncle Soul’s rendition of “Seven Nation Army” and John Lennon Brit-pop “Stand by Me,” set the retro modern pace when the Oysters Rockefeller arrive.
A half order, set upon rock salt with a twist of lemon, delivers a garlicky creaminess offset by a breadcrumb crunch. And in the background, the sound of the ocean and the taste of the sea.
Oysters Rockefeller: $26
Drink if you must
Private jokes become public laughter as wine begins to set in among the diners around us. People were having fun.
It’s perhaps a cardinal sin not to have a drink at a restaurant like the Surf Club, which has a notable and encyclopedic list of Old and New World wines. If you’d rather eat than drink your calories (like I normally would) that frees you up to try at least two more sides, at $12 apiece.
But at a restaurant that hopes to embody Hollywood excess, a bit of recklessness is called for. With a $200 cap, you have to be watchful. Fortunately, the Surf Club has several wines by the glass that slide in at $15. (Never mind you could have an entire bottle of 2014 Crocus Malbec for about $18.) A pair of generous pours and we are de rigueur.
Crocus L’Atelier Malbec 2014: $30 for two glasses
A plate meant to share
A decade ago, Thomas Keller told a story about the last meal he cooked for his late father: barbecued chicken.
That helped us set aside the axiom that you don’t order chicken out, especially when one of the world’s great chefs has set the table for you. The roasted free-range organic chicken for two is presented whole, like three-dimensional artwork, then carved tableside, the server placing each piece skin side up on a cutting board with fresh cracked pepper and salt to finish the final bit of seasoning before your eyes.
The pieces are stacked on each plate like Jenga and the reduced chicken jus drizzled around it. Because the bird is air dried the night before, in the oven the skin becomes crispy like Peking duck, shattering in places like the sugar on a perfect creme brulee, the meat beneath it deep and rich in flavor.
If you went with wine instead of side dishes, you might choose the buttermilk whipped potatoes, which scoop like Chantilly cream and soak up the rest of the chicken jus. If you were smart, you saved a shred of that airy dinner roll for this very task.
The couple next to us gasped and ordered the same thing.
Whole roasted chicken for two: $68
Whipped potatoes: $12
Don’t forget dessert
Indiscretion is the better part of dessert.
Although the wait staff suggested the lemon tart with their heads, they endorsed the ice cream sundae made tableside with their hearts.
Our server piled three scoops of Madagascar vanilla as if instructed by Dairy Queen, glued them together with marshmallow fluff, blessed them with dollops of Chantilly cream, sprinkled on brown butter bourbon pecans, and drizzled dark chocolate and bourbon caramel sauces in excess. When he placed the homemade Maraschino cherry on top, it called for applause from tables on either side of us.
The meal was a display of decadence, from the temptation of the champagne cart as you take your seats to a kitchen tour for first-time guests that ends at the bar should you want to bust your budget with an after-dinner drink.
Anywhere else in Miami, you add up the prices, include the 18% service charge, roll in the 7% tax and you walk out of the Surf Club Restaurant with a bill of $198.22.
But you’re not in Miami. Surfside imposes a 2% restaurant tax I had not anticipated.
Our final bill: $201.37. (Maybe raid the ashtray in your car where you keep the change?)
It’s still enough to prove Thomas Keller can deliver a memorable meal for right around $200. And that I would have made a terrible astronaut.
Miami Herald critics dine unannounced at the newspaper’s expense. For the latest restaurant inspection reports, visit dine.miami.com.
Miami Herald dining reviews no longer include star ratings. We believe a restaurant should be judged on its merits and the nuance of the dining experience, not simply on a grade. — Carlos Frías, Miami Herald food editor
The Surf Club Restaurant
Address: 9011 Collins Ave., Surfside
Info: 305-768-9440; surfclubrestaurant.com
Hours: 7-9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. 6-10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Sunday, open for brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner 6-9 p.m.
Price range: Starters $18-$36; pastas $26-$46; entrees $26-$160
FYI: Valet parking at the hotel is $18. Metered street parking is plentiful and available across street. Accessible first-level entry and accessible restrooms. Reservations required, available at the restaurant website or via Open Table.