Here are some things I just don't see in every restaurant: A new hire shadowing an experienced server in order to learn the velvet ropes. A waitress who doesn't need for me to point out the wine I order from the list but rather nods in recognition at the name of the vintage. Employees who have obviously tasted most if not all the dishes on the menu and have intimate knowledge of both ingredients and preparation. Plus, servers who admit, "I don't know -- let me find out" about a menu item rather than try to bluff their way through their ignorance; someone who might even recommend a less-expensive entrée over a main course that might pump up the bill but not suit a customer's taste; and a pastry chef who waits for patrons who might have been in the restroom to return before expertly flambéing tableside the "Bahama Mama" dessert, an extravagant mélange of tropical fruit topped with ice cream and ripples of bittersweet hot fudge.
This kind of thoughtful, experienced service should be de rigueur in South Florida fine-dining venues. It isn't -- as anyone who reads this column regularly knows all too well. Thanks to my lowered expectations, I'm always pleasantly surprised to find a high level of service anywhere, especially when I encounter it at a richly themed restaurant like Satine, also known as Club Satine, one of the high-end eateries in the glam lobby of the Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa in Hollywood.
Named for Nicole Kidman's character in the movie Moulin Rouge, Satine takes an erotic page from the South Beach restaurant-nightclub reservation book. (Think Tantra, Touch, Kiss, Opium.) Items have names like "Moulin Rouge" salad and "silky thin chive crepe;" menu descriptions contain phrases like "taunted with aioli." Cocktail waitresses in the adjacent Nikki's Lounge wear suggestive "uniforms" that have holes cut out of the midriff, and weekend nights (which include Thursdays) are given over, after dinner hour, to themes, party promotions, and live, drag queen-oriented entertainment. Female patrons tend to dress in attire that highlights their silicone implants and makes you wonder whether they accept all major credit cards for the pleasure of their company. I was prepared to suffer through this atmosphere, knowing that Satine is a privately leased restaurant owned not by the Diplomat but by the proprietors of South Beach's Pearl and Nikki Beach Club.
In the Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa, 3555 S. Ocean Dr., Hollywood
Dinner nightly from 7 till 10:30. Call 954-602-6000.
The difference between the clubby eateries on South Beach, though, and the elegantly outfitted Satine, with its patterned carpet, mod crystal chandeliers, and assorted sizes of blown-glass plates, is that the latter knows when to dial back its sexy conceit. So shrimp cigarillos, crusty in tempuras batter and spiked with chorizo, may have been "seduced" by the chunky pineapple sabayon that accented it. But the gimmick is restrained: On sedate weeknights, when serious diners should make every attempt to visit, the music is kept low, the lighting soft, and the vibe genteel. Even on party nights, it's still possible to enjoy a quiet (albeit early) dinner.
I credit the management for not visiting the undesirable qualities of South Beach restaurants on Hollywood locals without respite. Yes, you can experience the can-can energy kick of a supper club on certain nights, but you're not forced to endure it to sample chef de cuisine Donna Wynter's irresistible, subtropical cuisine.
Indeed, Wynter is the other reason Satine rises above its potentially riotous or notorious roots. Her recent background includes high-end stints at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables and a couple of years at her eponymous eatery, Donna's Bistro, in the Biltmore's sibling, the David William Hotel. There, she perfected combinations that draw from the Caribbean, Asian, and South Florida regions but rely on trained French technique.
Concoctions such as the roasted eggplant cannelloni appetizer -- thin sheets of eggplant stuffed with chèvre and served melting over a roasted tomato coulis touched with garlicky aioli -- inspire devotion. Give me some of the fresh-baked rolls and a double order of this vegetarian dish and I'm one happy repeat customer. Vegetarians might also want to take note of main dishes such as grilled, vegetable-stuffed ravioli or summer vegetable risotto drizzled with white truffle oil.
On the other hand, I could opt for the hearty antipasti nearly every time. This combo platter contained so many individual dishes, all exquisitely executed, it's possible to make it into a light meal. Certainly the chunky, meaty terrine, topped with cornichons, and three tender leaves of smoky brasaeola are as satisfying as a filet mignon, especially when highlighted by marinated olives, a tomato-heavy slice of bruschetta, and a handful of grilled vegetables.
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But it's not only patrons such as myself who have become Wynter fans. Her kitchen has remained loyal throughout the years. In fact, her sous chef, Philip Brock, has accompanied her from Donna's, and he's just as accomplished in heading up a kitchen. This sort of partnership results in a property that can function properly even on so-called off nights; forget whatever Kitchen Confidential has planted in your brain and feel free to dine on entrées like the pan-seared Florida pompano on Monday nights. No doubt, at least one member of the team will turn out this lump crabmeat-crusted fillet without flaw, sliding it gently over the chayote-papaya-black bean salsa that has just enough zing to remind the palate of chili peppers -- a sensuous whisper rather than a chilling scream.
Vibrant restraint, a culinary oxymoron, marks the main course of spiced shrimp and scallops as well. Napped with but not overwhelmed by an orange-cardamom-ancho chili sauce, the sea scallops in particular shone. The shrimp, however, surrounding a centerpiece of nubbly corn grits like the points on a crown, could have been larger and more succulent; they were seared a little too crisply.
My only other true criticism lies in a minced fish cake that perched atop a grilled salmon fillet. Indeed, the accessory was so aromatic, at first I thought the salmon itself wasn't fresh. Once I discarded the topping, though, I found the salmon to be ideal in both flavor and texture, the flesh medium-rare the way I had ordered it. A ragout of creamed leeks offset the mild, flaky fish, and a side of cinnamon-scented couscous balanced the meal with its subtle starch.
Wynter is in the process of changing the menu according to the just-beginning fall season, so you won't be able to score the supple cowboy steak that we savored. Instead, the peppery rib-eye, which lent its softening juices to a partnering quesadilla filled with sweet onion slices and pungent Gorgonzola cheese, will be replaced by a different cut. But if the grilled cowboy steak is any indication of how the Satine kitchen cooks meat, you shouldn't have any worries about being served leather instead of lace.