The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans take home 24 percent of all national income, own 40 percent of the country's total wealth, and are most likely to be seen dining in any restaurant where Jeff O'Neill is the chef.
O'Neill, who cut his chops in the masterful New York City kitchens of Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert, has in recent years plumped the wealthy at L'Escalier at the Breakers Hotel, at Mar-a-Lago by Donald T., and now at the Villa by Barton G. A stint in between at the more pedestrian Gibraltar at Grove Isle has been all but excised from O'Neill's resumé, yet that's where he first gained notice among many South Florida diners for his bold style of cooking.
The restaurant is located in the infamous Casa Casuarina, which was of course closed to the public after Gianni Versace purchased it as his home in 1992. But since Barton G. Weiss took over the property in early 2010, the Bastille-like entry gates have been opened to the 99 percent — if mainly for those special-occasion meals that make up about 1 percent of our dining experiences.
Yes, the Villa is quite expensive; it would be inappropriate if it were not. Can you imagine walking into a palatial setting, through an opulent lobby, past a seductive lounge of nostalgic splendor called the Moroccan Room, into an intimate dining area with walls of pebble mosaics imported from Spain and a frescoed ceiling and Versace-designed Rosenthal china — and then being handed a laminated menu of affordable burgers, pastas, and salads? Well, thankfully, Weiss has pictured things a little differently.
Yes, it's true that a mojito is $20, a flute of champagne will set you back $46 (for Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rose Brut, not often served by the glass), and valet parking is $25. But main courses and starters actually aren't out of line with South Florida's other high-end restaurants. Of the three salads and five starters offered, only a terrine of foie gras "ambrosia" ($32) and truffled asparagus salad ($29) top $25. There are entrées over $50 but also a trio for under $40.
Still, expensive is expensive. Is dinner at the Villa worth this type of dough? The answer lies in the eyes (and mouth) of the beholder. You can certainly see the money on the plates, so to speak. That truffled asparagus salad, for instance, includes a thatch of crimson petite lettuce. But those pert leaves, along with peeled stalks of asparagus, really serve as chill garnishes to the main attraction: a warm, smooth ricotta flan generously gilded in white truffle shavings and sumptuous morel mushrooms, with a truffle vinaigrette flowing through it all.
As for the starters, we skipped a teeny terrine of foie gras daintily plated with carbonated grapes and other miniature components; a more traditional-looking vodka-cured salmon carpaccio with mustard caviar and pearls of dill; and maple-glazed barramundi with lobster, papaya, and jasmine rice in white-ginger broth. A couple dining nearby raved over the barramundi, which was part of a multicourse tasting menu they'd ordered (tables here are placed surprisingly close together, so we couldn't help but listen in). There is no prix fixe option on the menu, but those in the know can call in advance and request the Villa's nine- to 15-course tasting meal.
Snapper ceviche arrives looking like a little psychedelic garden. Delicate herbs and microgreens sprout vertically from a ring of raw snapper marinated in lemon oil, which creates a moat around a multicolored patch of pickled Key shrimp with minced mango, jalapeño, red onion, candied citrus zest, and crisp coins of taro. On the outlying perimeter of the round plate are bright-green dots of Thai basil oil interspersed with red dots of spicy shrimp oil afloat on the leche de tigre (in this case tangelo and Key lime juice). The effect on the palate is fresh, bright, scintillating, tart, spicy, and a bit fruity sweet.
Another appealing appetizer brings cylinders of crêpe tightly filled with moist and savory duck confit — each duck stack capped with a red sour-ginger candy. Pistachio streusel crumbs spill upon the plate, which is likewise populated by candied kumquat circles leaning on mini cubes of vanilla-compressed pineapple and sweet dots of chocolate-A1 Steak sauce.
This sort of tweezer cuisine can be more elating than sating, but more substantially portioned entrées and incidentals such as an ahi amuse-bouche and delectable breads ensure that nobody leaves hungry. The latter, served individually by the waiter, includes a choice of a plain minibaguette brushed with truffle oil and sea salt or topped with melted Gouda.
The wine list, only slightly bulkier than a hardcover edition of War and Peace, encompasses 100-plus labels from sundry distinguished vintners. Most diners in this setting order wine by the bottle, but sommelier Hakan Balkuvvar was happy to recommend a glass of crisp '07 Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve from Oregon ($25).
The staff here is experienced and formally trained. Plateware is handled with precision, dish descriptions are enunciated with an almost British clarity, and water gets poured like clockwork. Yet one of us was brought an entrée of Maine lobster in curried coconut milk instead of what was ordered: a bread-crusted diver scallop paired with an anise-glazed veal cheek.
There was an apology, of course, as the plates were whisked away and new ones prepared. The lobster looked great, and had the server brought it instead of the hogfish entrée, I might have kept it. But the large, luscious scallop and petite, melting-soft cheek nugget were worth the wait. It was a delectable offering not only for the sharply contrasting surf-and-turf aspect but also because of a unique set of accompaniments and flavors: wilted chicory leaves, beech mushrooms, and a puck-sized toasted oat cake accented with cumin and moistened with a broth flecked with capers and golden raisins. This brilliant composition bounces off and lights up the senses like a pinball.
Other main plates include a thick rack of Colorado lamb with guanciale and charred lemon jus ($53); market-priced Dover sole ($69 the day we dined); a duet of Wagyu tenderloin and Black Angus short rib with foie gras, truffled taro, and bing cherry bordelaise sauce ($89); sage-roasted farm chicken with a ramp-and-morel fricassee ($34); and pan-roasted local hogfish with eggplant, olives, garlic chips, tomato confit, and yellow piquillo peppers stuffed with fennel sausage — a somewhat mundane Mediterranean medley relative to the aforementioned items. Sausage and peppers should not be fussed with but rather seared on fiery grills with gusto like the Argentines and Italians do it.
Luis Vasquez of Venezuela has replaced Luc Buisson as the Villa's pastry chef. A Key lime "fantasy" arrived at the table compliments of the house, in atonement for the earlier mix-up. Round pillows filled with sweet lime custard come piled atop salted graham crumbs and crowned with a puff of Chantilly cream. There is a nice sweet/tart/salty conflict at play, but a decadent meal calls for a similar finish: chocolate praline mousseline — a rich, creamy melding of Valrhona ganache, hazelnut mousse, and caramel. It's simple, yet the first spoonful yielded one of the most memorable moments of the evening.
The Villa still delivers a singular dining experience, and Jeff O'Neill continues to plate sensational tastes. Those are two things you can bank on — if you can afford to.