Surf Club may bring ecstasy (or bankruptcy)
Renowned chef’s eatery very good, very expensive
In 2003, when Thomas Keller was simply a perfectionist chef toiling in Napa Valley with two restaurants and a new bakery on the same street, I had my first, heady taste of his extraordinary talent. The meal was at the French Laundry, his flagship in Yountville, Calif., and the occasion was my first anniversary. The marriage did not last, but memories of that evening will stay forever, a nine-course extravaganza that included his famous “oystersand-pearls” (oysters in a sabayon bath of pearl tapioca topped with caviar), lobster poached in butter, gracious service, thoughtful wine pairings and a tour of the immaculate kitchen by Keller himself, who was there on a weeknight and told us of his teen years in South Florida and graduation from Lake Worth High.
We walked out floating on air. I don’t recall the final tab (OK, $670), but it was one of those magical evenings where price did not matter. We had a dining experience.
Flash forward to 2018. Keller, 63, regarded as the preeminent American chef of his generation, now heads a luxury empire. Besides the French Laundry and Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, his portfolio includes Per Se and Bouchon Bakery in New York, Bouchon in Las Vegas, seven Michelin stars, five cookbooks that have sold more than 1 million copies and business partnerships that produce California wine, American-farmed caviar, pampered Pennsylvania lamb, porcelain dinnerware from France, cutlery from Germany, and All-Clad cookware. He has come a long way from scrubbing pots at the Palm Beach Yacht Club.
I did not see Keller on my recent visit to the Surf Club Restaurant, his tribute to classic Conti- nental cuisine and mid-20th century American grandeur that opened in August at the restored Surf Club and new Four Seasons Hotel in Surfside. At this point, his presence is almost beside the point. It’s the Keller name that assures bookings. Weekend slots have been scarce, and reservations are getting harder to snag.
Attention to detail and other Keller characteristics — including staffing levels at almost an even ratio to diners — are exhibited at the Surf Club Restaurant. But perfection has not been achieved. Unlike my experience at the French Laundry, I did not leave floating. I had a very good meal with mostly good service (and outstanding wine service from sommelier Zach Gossard), but the things that stuck in the days after my meal were the stumbles. This is the high bar Keller sets.
Dirty plates lingered a bit too long when we were done with our early courses. Our server introduced himself by name at the start, but did not announce that the bill included an automatic 18 percent service charge (one of my pet peeves of South Florida dining; fortunately the credit card slip clearly indicated the charge.) For some reason, the sticker shock this time was more shocking than at the French Laundry. At the Surf Club Restaurant, there is no intricate tasting menu, just an a la carte offering of straightforward items. It was jarring to pay $85 for a singleserving entree of Maine lobster Thermidor, more so when the puff pastry shell beneath the poached tail tasted acrid. It did not look burnt, but when a tablemate tasted it, she said the flavor reminded her of the smell that comes when she leaves her hair in her curling iron too long.
Sharp kid, that 13-year-old daughter of mine.
Do not get the wrong idea. Nearly all the items we had were tasty and pretty, including tender steak tartare ($32), cubed per- fectly and topped with a raw yolk, and black-truffle lasagna, ($52), a special that was a rich rectangle of creamy decadence. A special of sole Florentine ($65), a fillet rolled into a loaf white as alabaster and stuffed with spinach next to a puddle of green sauce, was different and luxuriant. Two thick, grilled lamb chops ($75) from Keller’s Elysian Fields Farm were served simply, without fanfare, as was a side dish of buttermilk whipped potatoes ($12) that were as light as a plate of whipped cream. Too bad there was no salt or pepper on the table, because they could have used a hit of seasoning.
Our bill for a party of three totaled almost $1,000 — nearly $600 for a dozen dishes (including two desserts and a cheese course) and $350 (from my own pocket) for a bottle of wine and two glasses of bubbly — and we did not even order caviar. You could say we had a grand (as in $1G) old time. Like too many
The Surf Club Restaurant
9011 Collins Ave., Surfside (in Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club) 305-768-9440 or SurfClubRestaurant.com Cuisine: Continental Cost: Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. daily (until 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday) Reservations: Credit cards: All major Bar: Noise level: Conversational, even when crowded and with live music nightly in bar Wheelchair access: Ground level Parking: Valet $18 other fine-dining restaurants that recently have opened in South Florida, the Surf Club Restaurant is priced for the 1 percent, a special-occasion treat that will be out of reach for many. Perhaps it should be named the $$$$urf Club.
On the bright side, nothing tasted like bong water. That insult was thrown Keller’s way in a damning 2016 New York Times review of Per Se. In fact, the double-oxtail consomme Celestine ($32) at the Surf Club Restaurant was perhaps the most refined 4 ounces of liquid that have ever passed over my lips, meticulously reduced over days to a deep, rich brown. A server majestically poured it from a serving vessel into a bowl with a base of diced leeks, carrots and black truffles and noodlelike slivers of crepes. Before the soup was served, another server swooped in to finish the preparation by squeezing a
few drops of Madeira from an elegant glass eyedropper. This was the Keller I know and love.
And also the Manny Echeverri I know and admire. Echeverri is chef de cuisine at the Surf Club Restaurant, hired after heading the kitchen at Bazaar Mar by Jose Andres in Miami. The Colombian-born Echeverri is working at nearly the same high level in Surfside. It is a testament to his talent that Keller tapped him and not someone within the Keller Restaurant Group to lead the 35-person kitchen.
In a followup interview, Sam Calderbank, the East Coast director of operations for Keller Restaurant Group, says striking a balance between locals and outof-towners has been a key component when it comes to staffing and the restaurant’s customer base. “It’s been a real mix,” Calderbank says. “We are located in a hotel [the Four Seasons], but it’s not a hotel restaurant. We’re drawing from hotel guests, guests from other hotels and local residents. We want to be relevant locally.”
Maybe so, but on my way out, a manager’s response when I told him I was from Hollywood was, “Oh, nice — here from California.” “No, from 10 miles up the road,” I said.
The menu travels some distance, featuring throwbacks such as beef Wellington for two ($132) and lobster Thermidor, a dish created by iconic French chef Auguste Escoffier and named after a popular Paris play at the time (perhaps it should be remade as lobster Hamilton). Minus the off-putting puff-pastry shell, the dish was delicious, a gently poached tail surrounded by four morels on top and a mixture of minced claw meat, spinach and mushrooms at the base. The velvety, balanced sauce of shrimp stock, Gruyere, white wine, sherry, cognac, cream and a bit of milk was broiled to bubbly golden under a salamander.
Keller’s return to South Florida is a nod to the past, both personally (his mother was general manager of the Palm Beach Yacht Club) and on a broader scale. The Surf Club served as a playground for Hollywood stars and royalty after tire tycoon Harvey Firestone opened it in 1930. Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, British royals, the Shah of Iran and Winston Churchill once romped there. Turkish developers bought the property earlier this decade, building two boxy, glass highrises that house condominiums and the Four Seasons Hotel. They also restored the adjoining Surf Club structure to its former glory, including its grand Peacock Alley hallway.
That hallway now leads to two upscale restaurants, Keller’s and the Italian import Le Sirenuse, which opened in 2017. Le Sirenuse features Old World formality and grand opulence, but the Surf Club Restaurant, designed by Martin Brudnizki, is surprisingly warm and intimate. The bar seats 25, offers the full menu and features live music nightly. The dining room seats 50, with 19 well-spaced tables, a low ceiling, banquettes and a center table featuring fresh-cut flowers (hydrangeas on the night I dined). A 50-seat patio is opening soon.
Small lamps adorn every table, a welcome touch for older diners who will not need to beam their cellphone flashlights to read the menu. Even when the dining room was full and the sound system piped in old hits from Stevie Wonder and Blood, Sweat & Tears, it was still possible to have an unshouted conversation at the table. Refreshing.
Among the dining room’s features is a rolling champagne cart. Gossard offered a complimentary glass of sparkling, nonalcoholic cider to my daughter (a nice, family-friendly touch) and explained the bubbly options for grownups, including prices. We chose blanc de blancs sparkling wine from Keller’s Modicum label ($33 per glass). All were served in wide coupe glasses, the kind you see in old movies. I felt like we were on the Queen Mary. As we sipped, a complimentary bowl of crisp, perfectly peeled vegetables sticking upright from an ice-filled bowl was placed on the table. The crudite came with a cool yogurt dip.
Gossard later cheerfully helped us navigate an extensive wine list, steering us to a fine Northern Rhone that paired well with lamb and seafood. He brought proper Riedel glasses, decanted the bottle and poured attentively throughout the meal.
Bread and desserts from pastry chef Julie Kurz, a veteran of Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in New York, were excellent, in particular crunchy and airy dinner rolls, grilled bread that accompanied a closing cheese course of Stilton rolled with port and a decadent, seven-layer chocolate cake. The towering cake was a marvel of sturdy engineering and balanced flavor that was not too sweet, fittingly topped with gold leaf.
Now that Keller has arrived in South Florida, it may take a few trips to Fort Knox to feed this expensive habit. [email protected], 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail. Join the conversation at Facebook.com/groups/LetsEat SouthFlorida.
The roasted free range chicken for two ($68) is one of the more affordable options at The Surf Club Restaurant by Thomas Keller.Very expensive. Snacks cost $3-$8, appetizers and salads $16-$46 (more for caviar and seafood towers), pastas $26-$52, entrees $26-$160, sauces $7, sides $12, desserts $15 Essential, by phone or onlineFull liquor with rolling champagne cart, classic cocktails and extensive, impressive and pricey wine list