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Across the farmhouse table that accommodates 20, a blond and tan woman in a slinky dress the color of cream nestles into her date, a lanky Venezuelan. They stop short of feeding each other. It's not just this farmhouse table that's packed shoulder to shoulder at East End Brassiere in the Atlantic Hotel. The dining room is abuzz as couples finish cocktails such as one called "the ginger," served in a martini glass with candied root, and the "very berry," in a highball atop crushed ice.
A fleet of waiters dressed in black unfurls from the kitchen. The first waiter files to the end of the table, and the others align. At his nod, they serve from the left, placing at each setting a very large bowl with a very small bite: tuna tartar with avocado, with tendrils of baby herbs that garnish like ribbon. Soy, wasabi mayonnaise, and pickled ginger elevate a common find at a sushi joint to a fine-dining amuse-bouche that's refreshing and clean when paired with a flinty Sancerre.
Most diners are up from Miami to take advantage of an event staged by the website Gilt City Miami. They've paid $50 for six courses and wine pairings at the restaurant, which replaced Trina in October. Staged in a muscular dining room with 1920s Frenchie paraphernalia — cancan and Lillet posters, bold lighting, and dark wood floors — the dinner falls in the family of discount dining offered by Groupon and Living Social. And yet it's in another league.
Gilt City dining events are curated by one of the biggest promoters in the food world, Lee Schrager, the guy who started the South Beach Food and Wine Festival and its sibling in New York. He's the one who built the festivals from a small gathering for industry types to the NASCAR of foodie events. Gilt appeals to that same demographic, offering pricey clothing, food, gourmet gadgets, and vacation packages, all in limited numbers.
Events curated by Gilt are becoming the newest way to experience restaurants for food-focused folks. Yet the site blurs the line between editorial and hawking wares. In an article on the Gilt site — titled "Why Are We Eating Bluefin to Extinction?" — Paul Greenberg clarifies why bluefin tuna is still on the menu, next to a sidebar that advertises ahi tuna sashimi alternatives: eight steaks for $135 for lean, $165 for the fatty stuff. Though content editor Francis Lam says that editorial content and products are separate, the accompanying ads imply otherwise: Content on Gilt is not driven by what's news, what's controversial, or what readers need to know. Food journalism becomes a cheerleader and a propagandist. By employing the voices of people we trust — including former Gourmet Editor Ruth Reichl and the New York Times' Melissa Clark — the site's editorial content seems to capitalize on our lust for buying, particularly luxury goods at a discount, usurping the motivation of how and why we read.
For East End Brasserie's offer on Gilt, diners pay for dishes created by chef Steven Zobel, who had received nods from the New York Times and New York Magazine for his work at Manhattan's Triomphe. Along with the dinner comes a $25 Gilt gift certificate and a goody bag with marmalade and madeleines.
Back at the table, a pair of bald men in contrasting gingham checked shirts and Costello glasses are delighted by butternut squash wontons poached in Parmesan herb broth, the most interesting dish of the night. The Asian-inspired presentation of a soup wonton contrasts with comfort-food flavors of maple-infused butternut and Parmesan-herb broth. Paired with an aggressive Abraxas that's floral and fruity, it's the dish that shows the potential of Zobel's creativity if he were certain the crowd would take to it.
Moving past small plates to mains, Zobel plays it safe. "This is the most boring dish," said my friend J.J., an aspiring yuppie from Colombia who moved to the States after college seven years ago. My dining sherpa on many occasions since I've moved here, J.J. invited me to this dinner. A slab of salmon the size of a woman's hand paired with parsnips, potatoes, green beans, and a crab beurre blanc is gussied-up wedding food. "This is not for foodies," he observed, a food snob himself.
Still, it's a great value. Here we are in a fine-dining restaurant, eating a lot of food for $50. While it may not be creative, it's well-executed.
"This is the most classic dish," said J.J., pleased with a perfectly rare, pan-roasted filet mignon served with creamed spinach, lobster béarnaise sauce, and truffled mashed potatoes, paired with a huge Paso Robles Merlot. The dessert is a classic too, though a clichéd one: a dark-chocolate mousse bomb with coffee ice cream. Bigger than a B-cup, its size and lack of creativity make it a gut bomb.
I called Zobel later to ask how he became involved in Gilt and to get his take on the night. "Hey, I took a hit on that dinner," he said. He was approached by Gilt before opening to partner for the event. His wife's obsession with the site and its reputation clinched his decision to close the dining room for a Gilt-only dinner. "I knew it would pay off later on to say yes now and take the hit. These are the people I want to come back to my restaurant."