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"Without the freedom to criticize, there is no worthy praise." Beaumarchais
Chef Jason McClain’s creativity combined with attention to detail will doubtlessly ensure that 8 ½ remains one of South Beach’s dining hot spots. The casual yet romantic ambiance and topnotch fare makes it a great place to spend an evening.
By Jana Soeldner Danger
When a menu is inviting, it can be difficult to choose what to order. But Chef Jason McClain makes it easy at 8 ½, his intimate indoor-outdoor bistro in the recently renovated Art Deco Hotel Clinton in South Beach. His “spontaneous dining” concept allows you to customize your own tasting menu. A guest can choose a four- or five-course dinner, selecting that number of different dishes, which the kitchen will serve in smaller portions than if ordered as a single appetizer or entree. For the truly adventurous, there’s a seven-course option – in which case, Mr. McClain makes the choices, and may prepare fare that isn’t on the regular menu. You can also pair any of the multi-course dinners with wine flights.
Prior to opening 8 ½, McClain spent two years at Miami’s Shore Club, and then made waves as executive chef at Pearl and Nikki Beach. Before coming to South Florida, the New Jersey native worked at New York’s Four Season Hotel’s Fifty-Seven, where he snagged Best Breakfast awards from New York Magazine and the New York Times. He was also executive chef at Chicago’s renowned Narcisse.
At 8 ½ (the name comes partly from the restaurant’s location halfway down the 800 block on Washington Avenue and partly from Federico Fellini’s fabled and eponymous movie), McClain has created a reasonably-priced global menu with an emphasis on Mediterranean fare.
The interior of the restaurant has a sleek-casual, yet softly romantic ambiance, with dark wood, nicely spaced hard-surface tables, and a small, cozy bar on one end of the room. The courtyard patio is an intimate, romantic outdoor space illuminated by candles, with a small splash pool adding a tropical touch.
The international wine list is well chosen by partner Kevin Boals, formerly Director of Food and Beverage at the Westin St. Francis, San Francisco, and the Hyatt on Sunset, Los Angeles, with several selections offered by the glass.
A meal begins with a basket of pita slices with a bowl of hummus – seasoned chickpea paste - fragrant with lemon and rich with feta cheese.
We began with Moroccan-spiced calamari rings ($14.50). They were firm and fresh, seasoned with a tasty mix of all-spice, star anise, and cardamom, and accompanied by a brown butter sauce finished with veal demi glace and lemon. The dish was outstanding. A crab cake ($16.50) was rich with shellfish, very lightly breaded, and nicely accented with the zing of chipotle. The accompanying mango-avocado salsa was a cool, refreshing complement, while the fresh micro greens added crunch.
Lamb carpaccio ($11.50) was deliciously Middle Eastern in flavors, as the thin slices of pink meat were seasoned with a zahtar rub that added spice without overwhelming the mild taste of the raw lamb.
Other appetizers include Asian big eye tuna tataki ($14.50); tamarind oxtail ($10.50); gnocchi with prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes ($12.50); foie gras ($22.50); rock shrimp tempura ($9.50); and seafood ceviche ($12.50). The duet of soups ($8 ½) offered the night of our visit include4d corn, and crawfish, and potato leek and duck confit.
Fresh, flavorful grouper ($29.50) was pan-seared in butter and braised in shiitake and oyster mushroom bouillon. It’s a dish I would definitely order again. Lamb chops ($33.50) were tender and juicy, with a mustard crust adding spicy flair as well as crunch. The accompanying vegetable mash with green peppercorns and lentils gave the dish home-style heartiness.
Maine lobster ($44.50) was out of this world. It is not a given to be served such tender, luscious shellfish. Simply drizzled with lemon tarragon emulsion, it was superbly married with a side of cannelloni stuffed with artichoke. The complex combination of tastes and textures was truly delightful.
Peppered beef tenderloin ($36.50) was tender, juicy and perfectly cooked to order, although the accompanying pinot noir and veal stock reduction was strong enough to compete with rather than complement the meat’s flavor. However, the side of lobster mashed potatoes (one of chef Jason’s legendary signature dishes)was scrumptious enough to be an entrée on its own.
Sesame crusted Ahi tuna, served very rare, came alive with the zing of ginger-soy vinaigrette and wasabi puree.
Other entrees include baked chicken ($24 ½); ham-wrapped filet mignon of veal ($34 ½); and grilled salmon ($28 ½).
Desserts (all $8.50) are made on the premises, and the taste and high quality attest to homemade care. Warm, bittersweet chocolate lava cake was wonderfully dark and rich. Cheesecake was smooth and creamy, and unusually flavored with Yuzu, a Japanese citrus. Warm apple-rhubarb tart was a home-style, delightful mix of tangy and sweet. My favorite was rich bread pudding made with banana bread, a tasty alternative to the typical version.
McClain’s creativity combined with attention to detail will doubtless ensure that 8 ½ remains one of South Beach’s dining hot spots. The casual yet romantic ambiance and topnotch fare makes it a great place to spend an evening.