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Ahi tuna with watermelon, Fresno peppers, capers, crispy leeks and sea salt

Social Seasoning

by Jen Karetnick | Photography by Michael Pisarri | Miami magazine | January 22, 2015

The line of men shooting their French cuffs and women holding down the hems of their flirty dresses in the South Beach breeze stretched from the velvet rope to the corner of Fourth Street. Young girls with clipboards strode up and down checking for VIPs. Inside the 10,000-square-foot Siena Tavern, the scene was standing room only. I did the proverbial double take. I hadn’t seen an opening like this since the mid-1990s.

“What kind of food is this again?” my husband asked.

“Celebrity,” I answered, somewhat speciously. “It’s a thing now.”

Indeed, Siena Tavern, the first sibling to the ultra-popular Italian establishment in Chicago that has earned the tag “Top Celebrity Hangout” from The Chicago Tribune, is fronted by season five Top Chef fan favorite Fabio Viviani. On subsequent visits, we’ve seen the gregarious Viviani frequently strolling the floor in spotless whites. It’s fairly clear that this young but veteran chef—he’d owned five restaurants and two nightclubs in Florence by the age of 27, then moved to Los Angeles and opened two more successful ventures—is doing more overseeing than actual cooking. The chopping, mixing and sauteing, he reserves for his internet show, Chow Ciao; his reality TV series, Life After Top Chef; his endorsements for brands such as Bertolli Olive Oil; and his broadcasts on talk shows like Good Morning America and Ellen. Does this mean that Viviani is the faux and Siena Tavern the pas? Not at all. Viviani partnered with the Chicago-based DineAmic Group to expand his brand, and he chose well. The two gentlemen that comprise DineAmic, Lucas Stoioff and David Rekhson, are bright, friendly and full of good ideas. Between the three of them, the charisma at Siena Tavern is enough to seduce the wariest diner, and that is something of a necessity, given that the restaurant (in the former China Grill space) has some awfully big booths to fill.

The first of those good ideas was hiring Bar Lab to design the cocktail menu. Bar Lab followed a very simple formula of strong plus sweet-floral plus bitter-tart-sour for their drinks and named them by numbers. To wit: No. 3 is Plymouth gin with honey lavender and lemon; No. 4 is Old Forester bourbon, coffee reduction and orange bitters; and so forth. The results are plenty of perfectly executed, spectacular sips.

The second bright light bulb: scoring Paolo Del Papa as executive chef. Longtime Miamians will recognize this seasoned toque from his days at Casa Tua. But like Viviani, he’s an Italian native with Old World training and contemporary sensibilities. As such, he’s the ideal man to execute Viviani’s specialties, including his justifiably famous wagyu beef meatball in roasted tomato sauce topped with Bellwether Farms ricotta cheese—a bowl of earthy loveliness that is enough to make a light meal out of, especially if you order it along with coccoli or fried dough, a Florentine favorite revived from the 1950s, that’s paired with spreadable stracchino cheese and prosciutto di Parma.

Naturally, you can always count on an assortment of Miami’s top-quality pesce from Siena’s collection of crudos. Like the cocktails, these are created according to something of a formula: The fish and shellfish are garnished with a spice, a salt and a sweet. This is attested to by the ahi tuna, which is one of the most elaborately decorated dishes, with similarly hued watermelon, Fresno chile peppers, capers, crispy leeks and sea salt; and the hamachi, whose vibrant oiliness stands up to the additions of a zesty balsamic vinegar, serrano peppers, truffle honey and crispy shallots. These two specialties are also among the more crowd-pleasing, but mollusk lovers shouldn’t overlook the sinus-clearing oyster crudo with a smoked sherry mignonette, horseradish and chives, or the complexly textured scallops with Chioggia beets, walnuts and vivid micro scallions. Can’t decide on just one or two crudos? Try the medley of four. But be careful: You’ll see this in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound blueprint replayed for the cheeses, meats and the Mozzarella Bar section. Of course, if you do this with every category possible at Siena Tavern—crudos, meats, cheeses, mozzarellas and gelato, all of which have at least four and as many as six selections—you’ll certainly have a full table and an overly filled belly.

If you’re uncertain, ask the roaming Viviani, if he’s around, or the waitstaff, which is well-trained and knowledgeable. We relied several times over the course of our meals on a few different pieces of counsel. Should we order the Siena chopped salad, with its romaine, iceberg, radicchio, artichoke hearts, avocado, cherry tomato, green bean, egg, red onion, salami, pepperoncini, cannellini beans and merest hint of gorgonzola, all tossed in a light coating of sweet mustard vinaigrette; or the stone crab with hearts of palm, butter lettuce, avocado and breakfast radish, wrapped in a more challenging Calabrian chile vinaigrette? The salad is a Viviani signature, an owner confided, while the stone crab is a nod to our region. The supercharged greens won, and we found ourselves so satisfied with the fused elements of the restaurant’s emblematic salad that I find myself craving it way too often.

Pastas also pose a dilemma, but only because one sounds richer than the next. So what about the short-rib ravioli with roasted porcini mushrooms and taleggio versus the gnocchi with truffle cream, crispy pancetta and a garnish of flash-fried sage? In my case, the gnocchi won, and those little clouds were ethereal in both texture and flavor. It should be noted that truffles practically drip off the menu itself, with everything from truffle honey (on the coccoli) to truffle pecorino (on the Colorado lamb tenderloin) to white-truffle oil (on the roasted wild mushroom pizza). Diners also have the opportunity to add shaved white truffles (when in season) to anything they want, for market price.

With so much to graze through for the first two or three courses of the meal, it’s fitting that there’s only a handful of main courses. Two fish dishes include an onion-crusted ahi tuna and a roasted fillet of sea bass that rises like an island from a flamboyant brew of heirloom tomato water. In addition to the aforementioned lamb, on the meat end of things there’s an absolutely phenomenal osso buco that’s braised for 12 hours and served with farro risotto; and a 36-ounce porterhouse for two. Finally, for poultry fans, a half-chicken diavolo, pressed under a brick, isn’t as spicy as billed. Again, the waitstaff can steer you in the right direction as far as size and temperament of these dishes go.

I also received precious input during the dessert course. One of Viviani’s specialties is bomboloni, Italian donuts. Siena Tavern serves these piping-hot treats with three injection sauces—whiskey-caramel, raspberry-Chianti and chocolate-hazelnut—and if you look carefully, you’ll find a pinprick on the side so you can inject them with said sauces. When I drizzled the sauce on top instead, a server rushed over to correct me. But it was all in good fun. Perhaps he was sent by Viviani himself—because I’m certain anyone who’s survived a season of Top Chef knows a thing or two about scolding and being scolded.

Siena Tavern
404 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 305.534.5577

Dinner: Nightly, 6pm-2am

Cheeses and meats, $7-$32; crudos, $14 each, $52 for 4; mozzarellas, $16-$19 each, $52 for all; salads and antipasti, $14-$24; pizzas, $17-$24; pastas, $19-$38; main courses, $36-$110