Lake Worth Bumpkins Maneuver the Best and Worst of South Beach

Joe Rocco

We nickname him Helmut the Pool Nazi.

He's six feet tall, thin as a skewer, his managerial pate shaved clean, and he holds our happiness in the palm of his hand. That hand, which doles out precious access to towels and deck chairs, is mostly balled into fists of rage as he stalks the pool at the Standard Miami, weaving between chaise longues and snatching up stray towels, barking at guests, rubbing staff the wrong way. And letting it be known in no uncertain terms that whatever it is we desire, my friend, it is mostly impossible.

It takes a talent like Helmut to whip these SoBe sunbathers into submission. With its infinity pool, waterfalls, its marble hamam and steam room, outdoor mud baths, and breezy bayside restaurant, the "adult playground" at the Standard in South Beach is a study of excess wealth put to questionable uses. And that's true even in a city as luxuriously appointed as Miami. Yachts cruise within feet of the docks; so do cigarette racers, wave runners, and sailboats adorned with topless fashion models. And the overflow crowd at the Standard's pool and restaurant slurps on rum-laced popsicles and demands iced bottles of champagne. They could launch a drunken rebellion, it seems, if Helmut ceased for a minute his furious clenching and screeching.

South Beach must feel foreign even to locals. Sit at one of the umbrella-topped tables at the Standard's Lido Restaurant and you'll hear French, Spanish, a smattering of German, and English interspersed with the yaps of designer Pekapoos grumbling over tidbits of grilled tuna. You look around and realize that in SoBe Land, the goddesses wear handbags the size of suitcases and bathing suits the size of handkerchiefs, $700 stilt heels and not much else, tropic breezes lapping over flawless bodies polished gold and bronze by salt scrubs, hot stone massages, and sun, sun, sun.

Thus have we arrived in America's Riviera, pulling up in our fly-speckled Pontiac G-6, passing our stained suitcases (careful, that zipper is broken!) and filthy gym shoes to the valet, brushing the Doritos crumbs off our T-shirts — Lake Worth bumpkins with too little cleavage and too much appetite. The real work is to find out how well the best restaurants in the so-called Magic City rate against our hometown favorites.

The lavishly mirrored bathroom in our suite has got me worried, though: evidently fine dining has already gone to my hips. Fortunately the "spa menu" at the Lido is based on a slimming Mediterranean diet. The Standard's website explains: Executive chef Mark Zeitouni "meticulously executes the menu with an emphasis on high quality and organic meats and fish, olive oil, fresh herbs, unprocessed foods" ... blah blah ... "holistic and integral living mission" ... blah blah ... "a perfect balance." Who knows? Maybe I'll drop a pound or two.

But the Standard has sold too many day passes: Eurotrash and local glitterati are packed shoulder to shoulder in the spa, pool, and restaurant. We recognize the sound of drunken complaints in many languages. A French tourist hustles over, pointing to his waterlogged Jet Ski in the bay: He tells us he's going to sue the hotel for $100 grand for sinking his "poor baby." The high wheeze of the Pool Nazi rises above the hubbub: Helmut is chewing out another hotel guest; and a brown cloud of free-radical-laced grill smoke has settled over the Lido. A waitress drifts by, empty-handed and zombie-like, turns on her heel, and drifts back again. Lap dogs snap at one another.

Hello? I'd heard good things about chef Zeitouni, seen accounts of him cooking side by side at the Lido with visitor Daniel Boulud. But a $13 "market vegetable and organic green salad" looks as if it came straight out of a bag, topped with julienned root vegetables and rotten avocados. Tuna niçoise ($18) showcases a gray, mummified tuna steak over the same greens, with hard string beans and shriveled potatoes roasted in some other century. We pick at our mushy, overcooked bronzino ($28) and slurp baba gannouj ($5) puréed to the consistency of thin, sour gravy. None of the meat on the menu is organic; the seafood is not local, and there isn't the faintest whiff of a fresh herb.

And the staff! Unhinged, disorganized, and unmanaged — some are sleepwalking, some have disappeared, others are air-kissing each other while plated entrées go cold in the kitchen. "Still working on that?" a server asks, gesturing to the black, pockmarked avocado meat I've banished to a butter plate.

Score: Miami, 0. Lake Worth, 1.

A blessed relief: Evening falls. Douglas Rodriguez's renowned OLA is just a hop over the eastern leg of the Venetian Causeway. A valet there charges us $15 to take the Pontiac off our hands, but at least our waiter looks overjoyed to see us, as happy to coddle and flatter as the Pool Nazi was to annoy. This jolly server is so expansive, it's like we've come to his own casa; he's delighted that we've had the intelligence to order "fire and ice" ceviche ($16) and an Ola mojito ($13). "Such a fresh combination!" he praises. The ceviche is made with cobia lightly dressed in lime and Thai chilies, clean and uncluttered, nestled alongside a scoop of Asian pear granita. It's hot on cold, the spiced fish smooth and mild against airy, grainy, sweet-sour ice. Our waiter dances over again with plates of short-rib empanadas ($13), flaky meat-filled pastries dipped in drizzles of habanera cream and rosemary-infused orange marmalade; he comes with chunks of octopus so soft and rich that they're like swallowing velvet-and-butter cushions. These are the Nuevo Latin tricks — such as tender, plantain-crusted mahi on a savory mattress of oxtail stew with tomato escabeche ($29) — that Rodriguez has been performing for a decade, as far back as his Manhattan restaurant, Patria. But they're still revelatory and delicious to SoBe wannabes. We succumb to the last of a Venezuelan chocolate mousse/hazelnut "bomb" ($10) and are thoroughly conquered.

Score: Miami, by a landslide.

Next day: success at the pool. We arrive early and wage a stealth war to retain our chairs, quelling our appetite with Fage yogurt from the breakfast bar ($4; "Nothing is free!" warns the sign) and hummus served on hospital trays. Swaddled in white spa robes, we may look like invalids or loonies, but we've scored a spot near the restaurant this time; servers pass within arm's reach so we get plenty of booze and bottled water. Then the sun goes down again and we're off to Michy's.

Michy's bedevils the bumpkins. A smoked-glass storefront in an alarming part of town looks deserted from the street; the sign is minuscule, easy-to-miss. So this is the Michy's of Food & Wine accolades, James Beard awards, Zagat kudos. Inside, things are silly, pretty, plain, and charming: mismatched chairs under gigantic icicle chandeliers, fabric walls, and tables crammed next to orange banquettes so close together that servers must pirouette under their trays. Our table isn't ready. So we order prosecco mojitos at the bar. The bartender susses us as first-timers; he engagingly offers his recommendations. We must try the croquetas and the black cod. And whatever we do, order two desserts and make sure one is bread pudding. A waiter stops to pick up drinks and gets into the argument: White gazpacho is the thing to order, he says, and a fantastic rabbit salad with arugula. Bartender retorts: Whatev. But order the parpardelle carbonara. And so on.

We mostly take their advice, ordering plate after plate with no regard for tomorrow's bikinis. Croquetas ($9) dissolve in our mouths like three bubbles of jamon and blue-cheese-scented air. Crispy sweetbreads ($13) reveal molten, creamy centers beneath a crunchy shell: They're an unimpeachable argument for offal. Rabbit salad ($8) tastes wild, herbal. And then the larger courses: squares of pork belly ($19) with sweet carmelized crusts partnered with clams in shiitake broth: sweaty, fatty pig meat stunning against salty, bitter shellfish and stinky mushrooms. Amazing. And black cod fillet ($36) set on a downy duvet of the finest artichoke purée, coating the mouth with silk, alongside a single grilled baby artichoke tinged with smoke.

So much changes so often at Michy's — the preparation of the cod and the sweetbreads, the nightly specials — but the couple sitting next to us keeps coming back on every trip from Brooklyn. They can't ever really free themselves, the bejeweled wife tells us, from the polenta with bacon and fried egg cracked into the middle of it. They are haunted by memories. She relinquishes the last spoonfuls of baked Alaska to her spouse, a little sadly.

Another solid win for Miami.

So the magic is real. There's nothing at Michy's to shatter the mass delusion of endless sunlight, hot bods, and enough ready credit to buy a round of mojitos for every man, babe, and Prada-scented twinkie in the joint. So we'll sweat it off tomorrow in the steam room if we can squeeze in between the goddesses. And when the dream ends at last, it's just an hour's drive or so to make it a recurring one.

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