January 20, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

 Scarpetta: Defrosting in Miami  

I’m ordering the buffet brunch and a perfect Miami day. Photo: Steven Richter
I’m ordering the buffet brunch and a perfect Miami day. Photo: Steven Richter

        When readers ask me where to brunch I feel like a fraud. I’m not a bruncher. What can I say? I Google. I consult Zagat. I poll my brunching pals. My idea of the perfect Sunday starts with breakfast in bed, raspberries or fresh squeezed juice – obviously not squeezed by me – deep dark espresso and Russian coffee cake. Brunch may be for people who need a license to start drinking before noon. It’s that killer, the irresistible eggs Benedict that make me want to crawl back into bed and sleep it off and then I’ve lost the entire day.     

        But our Florida retreat this week to the home of a friend near Palm Beach did not leave an evening free for dinner at Scott Conant’s Scarpetta in the new condo tower of the gussied up Fontainebleau – conceived in the bubble, emerging a billion dollars later in the winter of Miami’s profound discontent. We did the hour and a half commute to Miami Beach. “For Sale” banners and skeletons of interrupted enterprise lined our path on Collins Avenue, as expected… but for the new – or newly plumped up – Fontainebleau, there’s a feel of action. I imagine the ghost of the original architect, Morris Lapidus, joyfully sliding down the banister of the famous stairs to nowhere, thrilled to see his bold curves revived.

        Even Loew’s is fully booked. Bargain flights and icy wind chill conspire to lure more weekenders than I expected. Bankrupt moguls, the nouveaux pauvres and the recently unemployed need a soothing retreat at these cut-rate prices. A last hurray before the new economy budget.

Platters of vegetables, salads, salumi and cheese are just the beginning.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Big white wicker greeting stands just inside the door of Scarpetta in the Fontainbleau’s new tower set a mixed theme – Southern veranda, but mostly nautical, with mirrored portholes and white piped sky-blue leatherette cushions on white chairs.
        "I’d know you anywhere,” we are greeted by Scarpetta’s manager. “I was your waiter at Le Cirque when I was 18.” So much for being anonymous, not to mention my hope of seeming eternally young. We settle into a tropical banquette facing the sea. The tops of palm trees lining the pool paths below brush against sheer white curtains belted in the middle, tempering the wind, framing that blue water view.

When Conant’s away, chef de cuisine Mike Pirolo tends the buffet. Photo: Steven Richter

        Once I recover from the sticker shock – $49.95 for Scarpetta’s buffet brunch – and I study the menu, a hit parade of Conant favorites, I realize that is virtually a bargain. A shameless buffet pro could possibly put away breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bellinis, Mimosas and Blood Marys to soften the trauma of menu decisions. Fresh juice and coffee, croissants and muffins to wake up, a run or two at the salumi and cheese, smoked salmon and all sorts of vegetables from the U-shaped buffet for lunch. Plus an entrée: eggs or frittata, or pasta, branzino, short ribs, skirt steak. And then, certainly, desserts plural.

        The Road Food Warrior and I barely need to speak. I take the olive salad and braised radicchio, luscious tiny cauliflorets, Portabella mushrooms, heirloom tomato and three or four cuts of cheese. He gathers shrimp and salumi and vegetables I’ve bypassed. “You must have the famous polenta with truffle mushrooms,” says the manager, filling a soup bowl from one of two covered chafing dishes. Some critics dock Scott Conant points because he is still doling out that same fiercely rich polenta. But fans would feel cheated if he didn’t.

        I would happily add it to my fantasy breakfast in bed – a decadent stand-in for oatmeal.

Clams in Sorrento style-noodles pleases the Road Food Warrior. Photo: Steven Richter

        The powerful flavor of clams tossed with spot prawns and basil in Sorrento-style Scialatelli – a more substantial linguine – pleases Steven. I’m immune to the charms of the much raved about agnolotti dal plin – adorable little packages of meat and cheese fonduta sauced with mushrooms and shards of Parmigiano. I taste two and wait, then a third, to be sure. Something about the filling disappoints me. But I am surprised how much I like the plain old spaghetti with tomato and basil, a gift from the kitchen – even though it’s not my idea of a great tomato sauce. Fresh or canned, I want the tomatoes to be tart and sweet. Yet this soft almost buttery potion is really good.

That lemon meringue tart is pretty enough but not very lemony. Photo: Steven Richter

        I could go bananas over dessert and pretend that a restaurant critic must taste everything. But I’m seized by a wave of sanity. Fresh fruit cocktail, a spoonful of chocolate mousse, an inch or so of cheesecake on a graham cracker crust and a macaroon dipped in Nutella are enough. It’s a very good brunch. And more than that, it’s two hours in paradise. Leaning back against the cushy blue and white batik pillows, watching big families arriving, embracing, filling the terrace, solicitous waiter begging to serve… feeling the soft breeze like a Lapidus benediction, the miracle of a cool Miami day, not a drop of humidity… I’m so blissed out I don’t even wince at the $130 bill, though maybe that sticky sweet Nutella was one bite too many.

        “Maybe we should buy a condo,” I say to Steven. “They’ll never be cheaper than they are right now.” He ignores me and ducks inside to put the $18 valet parking fee on his credit card.

Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau, 4441 Collins Avenue. 305-674-4660


The Great Chefs of New York Cook for Citymeals: You Are Invited...

Talking to Tomatoes

        After a week of indolence in Florida, I’ll have to crank up my energy to be the “famous, fabulous tomato,” I am being billed as at thethreetomatoes.com. The powers behind the web site “for women who aren’t kids anymore” have invited me to come by Tuesday and submit to an “intimate conversation” at their cocktail party. They’re hoping I’ll tell tales of an afternoon with Elvis and an evening with Clint and what it was like eating on somebody else’s dollar for forty years.

      I hope you’ll drop by Etcetera Etcetera in midtown where, primed with a cocktail, I will answer any and every question... truthfully. Or to the best of my ability, as they say. Valerie Smaldone emcees. And the classical and flamenco guitarist Virginia Luque will play.

        Come to the upstairs salon at 352 West 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Cocktails at six, intimate conversation at 7:15. Click here to sign up.






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