Nikki's interior is quite lovely as well, a carryover of the comfortable, earthy-chic design elements found outside. White canvas drapes the room; thick, raw wood butcher-block tables with white-cushioned seats rise up subtly graded levels, and white pillows pad just about everything. The uppermost dining deck is taken up not with tables and chairs but with beds, a VIP thing where you buy a pricey bottle of alcohol and are privy to stretch out and enjoy prime views of the action below.
There is plenty of action, including two bars, a DJ booth, a sushi station, a kinetic crowd of dapper, well-heeled diners, and all manner of social interactions. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings host an especially loud, lively, club-like scene, but Nikki isn't exactly an all-night Bacchanalian party -- it closes at 2 a.m.
The waitress' short, sky-blue uniforms and white, platform-heeled go-go boots are comely too. These outfits will remind film buffs of the Pan Am stewardess costumes worn in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with the addition -- or should I say subtraction? -- of a circle of material in front of the dress that exposes a round of flesh running roughly from the bottom of the breasts to above the bellybutton -- just a bit of titillation. The waitresses and rest of the service team were for the most part competent, though on a weeknight visit, there weren't enough workers on the floor to take care of the full house. While the staff was swamped and diners, including yours truly, waited longer for things than they should have, a manager roamed the room with a seating chart in hand. Apparently, Nikki's beauty has brought a popularity it isn't yet prepared to deal with.
The food is likewise presented in sexy fashion, but the interaction of diner and meal (unlike that of diner and server) is an intimate one, and this intimacy is revealing: Nikki's beautiful food has its flaws. For example, a wire-mesh basket lined with white linen was an attractive way to serve bread, but once unwrapped, the rolls proved dense and chewy -- like those that come with airline dinners. Not all of Nikki's cuisine was as disappointing, but neither was it as tantalizing as it looked.
Granted, expectations were high. Chef Donna Wynter, a Jamaican-born graduate of the French Culinary Institute (where I taught, but not while Wynter was a student), moved to Miami in 1987 and has since orchestrated kitchens in some rather prestigious hotels -- The InterContinental, Biltmore, and David William Hotel in Miami-Dade, where she ran the eponymous Donna's Bistro. Along the way, Wynter has received critical praise for her Caribbean-Asian cuisine, which she continues to fuse at Nikki Marina (as well as the Diplomat's Satine Restaurant).
Part of the problem here may lie in lack of focus -- Asia and the Caribbean offer enough gastronomic goodies to fill dozens of menus, so why bother with salad Niçoise, duck confit, snapper carpaccio, Italian pastas, and Southwestern chicken salad? And if you insist on bringing in just one Mexican dish, like, say, Nikki's gazpacho, it would seem incumbent to make it better than average. The version here was munchable, not memorable, the familiar purée of tomatoes and cucumbers garnished with avocado, grated queso blanco, and thin tortilla strips; a sprig of cilantro looked photogenic on top, but there was no herb actually flavoring the soup. Prices at Nikki are what you might expect: The gazpacho $7, a mojito $11.
Other appetizers were even less impressive. A lump crab and lobster cake came dry, bready, and with few noticeable "lumps" of either shellfish; a balsamic "rhum" syrup aesthetically splashed on the plate offered little help. Lumpia, an Indonesian-Phillipine egg roll, featured two greasy, deep-fried cigars of rice paper wrapped around roasted and shredded pork. A mango, strawberry, and papaya salsa was, again, pastel-pretty to look at and sweetly tasty too, but somehow it had the same effect as putting lipstick on a pig -- in this case, a cooked pig.
"Dueling tartar" is served on a narrow, rectangular plate lined with two scoops of insipidly seasoned, diced teriyaki salmon and one scoop of a far superior, piquant tuna tartar. If it's raw fish you seek, you're better off getting oysters on the half shell or a shrimp cocktail straight from the raw bar or, better yet, a platter of nigiri and sashimi selections or one of half a dozen creative sushi rolls, like Maine lobster with roasted fennel, avocado, mango, and masago. Higher rollers might consider more extravagant platters of shellfish, like a $65 bowl of assorted, cooked crustaceans or a $200 spread containing all manner of sea delights -- Alaskan crab legs, two types of lobster, baby scallops in the shell, a stack of sushi rolls... budgetary restraints prevented me from sampling these, but, needless to say, they looked mahvelous!
A mesquite-grilled center cut of pork chop exhibited substance as well as style, the smoky, succulent meat topped with a sweet, apple-raisin chutney and resting upon corn grits flecked with yellow kernels -- a whole, wholesome, satisfying meal. Tempura bananas, a julienne of spiced cucumber threads, and a glossy orange "paw paw" sauce that tasted suspiciously like Saucy Susan duck sauce, on the other hand, served to obscure rather than elevate an otherwise fresh, juicy square of macadamia-crusted mahi-mahi.
A Caribbean-style bouillabaisse was inarguably cohesive, but the Alaskan crab leg, jumbo shrimp, thick sea scallops, mussels, clams, and overcooked lobster tail appeared to have been poached separately from the spicy, citrus-heavy broth and so were bland as the ocean. Mushy slivers of carrot and celery at one point must've contributed flavor to the base, but their limp texture added nothing at service time; "boiled garlic potatoes" were in fact "boiled water potatoes," which doesn't sound as good and doesn't taste as good either; and two croutons topped with saffron "rouille" were crusty not from being freshly toasted but from being old. Most diners around us seemed to have ordered a curried, sautéed rendition of some of the same shellfish stuffed into half a hollowed pineapple. Judging from the empty pineapples heading back to the kitchen, this probably would have been a savvier selection. So would a "surf & turf" with grilled, spiny lobster tail far more tender and tasty than its bouillabaisse counterpart and a petite, peppered, pan-seared filet of beef that was more tender and tastier still. A smattering of sautéed zucchini, yellow squash, and fingerling potatoes made for uninspired accompaniments.
Nikki trots out the same simply prepared desserts found elsewhere, like dulce de leche cheesecake, fruit cobbler, fancily flavored ice creams and sorbets -- not really the type of finish you want after sushi, tartars, and such. We closed out our meal with a roasted "sticky banana" presented partially in its peel, topped with mini-marshmallows, chocolate chips, coconut, and so many other sweets that it was less a dessert than a soft candy bar.
Nikki Marina succeeds as one undeniably fun and fabulous place to drink, snack, and hang out. We eat what we are.