Overall impression: The day after a meal at Area 31, one thought kept going through my mind: They ought to change its name to Chef Michael's, after E. Michael Reidt, the man in charge of the kitchen since December. Area 31 is named after the fishing area of the same name, designated by the United Nations as a place of sustainable development. While I support the U.N.'s vision, the name always struck me as self-righteous.
Background: If Reidt's name is familiar, it's because of his nearly three years at Wish in Miami Beach in the early 2000s. In 2001, he was named one of the Best New Chefs by "Food & Wine" magazine after a career that started in Boston with celebrity chef Todd English. Following Reidt's time in Miami Beach, he opened a Latin-infused restaurant in Santa Barbara, Calif., that Esquire magazine called one of the best in 2005. He traveled through Asia and South America, and later cheffed at B&O American Brasserie in Baltimore, where he was named best new chef by The Baltimore Sun. His new menus made their debut at Area 31 in March.
Ambience: The dining room on the 16th floor of downtown Miami's Epic Hotel — all white and tan with an open kitchen — is a bit too pared down for my tastes. It could use some decorative warming up. Worse still is that none of the tables take advantage of the gorgeous vista down Brickell Avenue. If you've ever lived in a big city, the view will either temper your homesickness or make you feel proud that Miami has grown into such a show-stopping nighttime metropolis. The outdoor terrace, surprisingly breezy, provides the best view of those city lights as well as the Miami River.
The food: Reidt is the most inventive seafood chef in South Florida, sending out one gem after another, each dish summoning both his classical training and his knack for subtly alluding to just the right parts of various ethnic cuisines — Italian fava beans and fennel, or Caribbean coconut rice. No two dishes make the same reference. Because he uses sustainable ingredients, parts of the menu change every day depending on what the chef finds at local farms and fishmongers.
Starters: The starter portion of the menu is divided into four: snacks, raw & marinated, "chefie" things and appetizers. We chose appetizers. Yellowfin tuna ($13) comes with radish, pickled cucumber, quinoa and just the right amount of shoyu to hint at Asia and not hit us over the head. Jumbo lump crab salad ($16) gets spicy seared watermelon, heirloom tomatoes, avocado and cilantro. Crispy octopus ($13) takes on a smoky tone with chorizo, farro, blood orange and smoked tomato.
Entree excellence: Yellowtail snappah! ($27), as it's written on the menu, is not only a perfectly cooked piece of fish, but also features some pretty amazing accompaniments: coconut rice, sliced baby zucchini, jewel-toned globe carrots and a subtle cilantro pesto. The east coast meets the Gulf coast in the Southern flounder ($30), served with Maine lobster, green asparagus, grapefruit and unique vanilla turnips. Striped bass ($27), perhaps my favorite fish, comes with artichoke confit, fava beans, caramelized fennel and dehydrated olive. The menu also has a sirloin steak ($36), chicken ($25) and duck breast ($30), for those who don't eat seafood.
Side issues: Reidt takes a creative break with his sides, so as not to interfere with the flavors included in his main plates. Spinach ($6) is simply steamed, and corn and cherries ($6) is just as it sounds.
Sweet!: Pastry chef Deborah Reyes' confections are just as well balanced as Reidt's. Strawberry "Rock" ($8) is a mixture of macerated strawberries, tres leches cake and pistachio ice cream. Her dark chocolate ($8) combines chocolate truffles, dehydrated mousse, yogurt and cherry sorbet. Perhaps most impressive was that Reyes was still in the restaurant after 10 p.m. on a Saturday night. Most pastry chefs do their work during the day and leave plating to other staff.
Service: Efficient, but informal.
Insider tip: Check out Area 31's Facebook page, Facebook.com/Area31Miami, on Tuesday nights to see what wines the restaurant will be serving at a deep discount on Wednesday night, as part of its Raid the Cellar summer special.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun