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Miso black cod in daikon consommé; photography by Michael Pisarri

Zen Master

by Jen Karetnick | Miami magazine | November 21, 2012

From food to fashion, Miamians are obsessed with two styles: trending and vintage. If it’s not brand-new or something that’s been resurrected from an Art Deco grave, it’s just not happening. And that’s unfortunate, especially in the case of restaurants. Our fickleness leaves a lot of once-hot but still-viable South Beach properties wondering where the buzz went, and how to bring back their formerly fighting-to-get-in customers.

At first glance, it might appear like this is what’s happening to The Setai and its culinary establishment, The Restaurant at the Setai, located in the Asian rarities-filled lobby. No longer a sought-after debutante, the Zen-oriented hotel has been overshadowed by the launch of the high-style SLS a few blocks south. At the same time, it has yet to reach the dowager status of the Delano. If The Setai were a Victorian woman, she’d have to marry the first eligible bachelor who asked, or she’d be in danger of being left forever on the shelf.

Fortunately, The Setai has found itself, in this day and age and without that kind of desperation, an excellent match in recently appointed Executive Chef Mathias Gervais. A French native, Gervais is a veteran—albeit a young one at age 33—of several European Michelin-starred kitchens, including a two-star at Hôtel Monaco specializing in Japanese cuisine. In addition, Gervais is married to a Japanese woman and frequently travels to her home country to visit family and dine. These experiences, he says, have taught him how to prepare Far Eastern fusion with European techniques, and to recognize “what is authentic beyond sushi and rolls.”

The results can be savored almost immediately upon being seated in the handsome dining room when an exceedingly well-trained staff delivers a basket of black pepper-spiked pappadam and puffy shrimp chips to nosh on while perusing the fairly extensive menu.

You might want to order a Kemuri Jade (Martin Miller’s Westbourne gin, black cardamom syrup, avocado, citrus and Benedictine), a smoky muddle that tastes vaguely like green tea, from the recently unveiled fall/winter “Bar & Courtyard” cocktail list, presented by head mixologist Philip Khandehrish, to sip along with it. The lengthy lists of hot and cold appetizers, dim sum, small plates and main plates could induce some anxiety among the indecisive or the skeptical, who might believe that it’s impossible for every single dish to be just as exquisitely wrought as the other. In short, somewhere among these 50-plus items must lie a misstep.

If there are fumbles, however, I haven’t been able to find them. From presentation to the quality of ingredients to the chef’s enthusiasm tableside, dining at The Restaurant at the Setai goes off like a perfectly planned wedding. The only suffering you’re liable to be subjected to is a fate of your own making: gluttony.

In truth, though, it’s easy to fall victim to this sin, simply because the dishes are not only that wonderfully prepared, but because they are deceptively light-tasting. For instance, a starter of chawan mushi, or Japanese egg custard, is a silky disc encasing bites of asparagus as well as woodsy shiitake and the slightly nutty hon-shimeji mushrooms. Ditto for a delectable tom kha gai, or Thai coconut milk soup, which is nothing like you’ve had in the local Japanese-Thai restaurants. Delicate rather than gloppy, with flavors of galangal and kaffir lime leaves seamlessly interwoven with the coconut milk, the soup is chockablock with white-meat chicken, mushrooms and pumpkin. It’s impossible to stop slurping these concoctions until they’ve disappeared.

Japanese and Thai notes recur throughout the menu on some of the house’s signature dishes, such as the foie gras-eel terrine and the grilled beef salad, which servers enthusiastically endorse. The former, four gilded slices of homemade foie gras topped with caramelized eel so flaky it tastes like it was shaved, is a rich treat that must be shared; the latter, tender strips of marinated, medium-rare beef tossed with palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, chilies, mint and cashew nuts and served still warm from the grill, is pure decadence on a plate. As with the tom kha gai, the meld of flavors in this pla neua sot is easily addictive.

Chef Gervais is equally comfortable whether he’s braising a lamb shank with Indian spices or frying egg noodles with an Indonesian sambal, roasting yogurt-marinated sea bass in a tandoor or tossing Maine lobster in a wok. But however you decide to proceed with a meal—even if it’s the utterly satisfying rendang daging, pot-roasted short ribs dripping with a sambal-scented coconut-milk jus—take an intermezzo with a dim sum dish or two. Among the delectable choices, including Peking duck crispy dumplings and slow-braised spicy chicken dumplings, the truffle dumplings are a standout (and I know of what I speak).

The main courses make a more lasting impression upon the appetite, with plenty of savory proteins, ravishing gravies and perfectly pitched accents. To wit: the grilled Wagyu beef, a 10-ounce strip loin, which offers such excellent beef flavor you almost don’t need the inspired soy-olive-oil gravy and ripe cherry tomatoes, broiled and stuffed with herbs that enhance its mineral aspects.

Thinking fish instead of meat? Miso black cod—yes, another familiar Japanese fusion dish—gets an intriguing treatment when presented in a distinct daikon consommé that’s heightened with yuzu and red pepper flakes. Unlike other fillets I’ve experienced recently, this one was from a mature fish, too, exhibiting a thick, wide flake.

The entire staff is as enthusiastic about dessert, constructed by Pastry Chef Sylvain Marrari, as they are about any other part of the meal, and for good reason. These sweets, such as the Valrhona chocolate and raspberry bar, are architectural marvels. They take a little time to put together, so be patient; it’s not a bad idea to let some of the other fare settle first, anyway.

What clearly hasn’t been settling is the management of The Setai. The property’s team is clearly eager to show that the eatery is revitalized. I’ll go one Pan-Asian step further: Thanks to Chef Gervais, The Restaurant at The Setai may well be the boutique hotel answer to the Fontainebleau’s Hakkasan—and most certainly worthy of its own Michelin look-see.

The Restaurant at the Setai
2001 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
305.520.6000, thesetaihotel.com

Breakfast: 7-11am daily
Lunch: 12-3pm daily
Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 6:30-11pm Fri.-Sat., 6:30pm-12am
Sunday Jazz Brunch: 11:30am-3pm

Starters: $16-$38
Dim sum: $12-$32
Caviar: $125-$275
Main courses: $14-$69 Desserts: $11-$15

Tasting Menus: Good... and Evil
For lovers of Pan-Asian cuisine, a 10-item tasting menu is pure heaven. The wine and mixology pairings? Well, they’re like the angels, singing in both ears. But the temptation to follow it all up with a four-course dessert tasting menu—that’s surely the work of the devil.

Just Bead It
Different types of caviar are featured in their own section on the menu. Served with classic accompaniments, they don’t go very well with the global Euro-Asian fare, but we’re not ones to turn our noses up at Siberian and Caspian osetra.

’Tis the Season
Have starters and cocktails in The Courtyard, a lovely setting for small holiday parties. Or take dessert and coffees out there after a meal. The Setai’s outdoor décor goes well with what seems to be the venue’s unspoken mission statement: Everything Zen.