In this season of giving, true foodies are no doubt grateful to star chef Thomas Keller for his decision to open The Surf Club Restaurant right here on our shores. He didn’t have to. In fact, he admits that Miami wasn’t high on his list as a destination to debut an establishment. He would know. The man owns two three-Michelin-star eateries, The French Laundry and Per Se, as well as Bouchon Bistro, Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc, and he runs them all with the precision of a stopwatch, which has earned him his pre-eminent reputation as the best chef-restaurateur in America, and perhaps the world. Why risk all that on our quixotic,
The Surf Club, that’s why. The project itself, co-helmed by Nadim Ashi of Fort Partners, drew him. He was intrigued by the storied heritage of the location, upon which he could build a culinary story. He admired the commitment to its restoration and incorporation of the Martin Brudnizki-designed interiors into the original Russell T. Pancoast Mediterranean Revival architecture. And he was keen on the idea of installing a continental restaurant that would remind him of the glamorous fine dining of his youth. “I’ve been in love with these [kinds of] restaurants since my childhood,” he says. “But my biggest concern was ingredients. Our proteins all come from the same place, so that wasn’t a problem. It was the vegetables.”
As far back as 2014, Keller, who grew up in the business in Palm Beach County, worked on making connections with the small farmers and focusing on details as small as the bread. It needed to have a great crumb, the way he remembered bread, he says. The end result shows that there was never really any jeopardy at all. For Keller, for his staff (some brought from Yountville and Manhattan, others hired locally) and for us, there’s only sweet reward.
Indeed, you’ll leave as we did, thankful to Keller and crew for bringing a “real” restaurant back to Miami. You know, the kind we used to have, back when we were appropriating the word pashmina for shawl and receiving them from host stations like mints. The Surf Club staff has them on hand for those who need them. If you borrow one when dining here, try not to dip the fringe into the crisp crudités that begin all meals (it seems Keller found his radishes and carrots after all). This nod to nostalgia sets up expectations before the menu is even presented, and anyone older than a millennial knows exactly what those menu pages will reveal. Maryland jumbo lump crab cake. Hand-cut steak tartare. Maine lobster thermidor. Beef Wellington for two, made with short rib and périgourdine (truffle and Madeira) sauce. Hello, old friends. Nice to see you at the table.
Make no mistake, however. A meal at The Surf Club isn’t built on reminiscence alone. Keller’s exacting European technique, overseen by chef de cuisine Manuel Echeverri, underlies every bite. What appears as one simple dish has dozens of complicated maneuvers informing it. Take the tableside Caesar salad. The wooden bowl in which it’s prepped is, as Keller says, “impregnated” first with pungent garlic (though it must be cured so well by now that it likely exudes the scent from its sanded pores). This is followed by a wash of lemon, then a paste of garlic and anchovy that’s turned into dressing with olive oil, grapeseed oil and balsamic vinegar. The pale fulcrum points of chopped romaine then balance two kinds of croutons, made from crusty country bread and Parmesan crisps. I guarantee it’s the best Caesar you’ll ever have in this city. If lettuce isn’t your thing, then opt for the Hass avocado and garden vegetable Louie with Russian dressing, a dish that’s as beautifully composed as it is fresh on the palate.
As you read the menu, a server will come by with a tray that displays cuts of beef that are as gorgeously marbled as if an artist had painted them. You can choose the New York strip or the filet mignon, with a la carte sauces such as bearnaise, horseradish creme fraiche and red wine shallot. But the true Keller signature is the ribeye. It’s a boneless cut that has the gentle give of a filet but the mineral heft of a loin and requires no mother sauce for extra flavor.
If you truly want to understand the confidence of this kitchen, which is matched by its quality sourcing, go as simple as possible. The cross-hatching on the tournedo of Ora King salmon—and I use the word tournedo lightly because mine was twice the size of the 5 or so ounces you usually see—shows that the fish, once set on the grill, doesn’t budge except to be turned. And yet, perfection: a glossy medium rare in the middle with a pastel edge to dip into the pool of aromatic beurre blanc.
For dessert, pastry chef Julie Kurz offers several decadent items, including lemon tart, which happens to be Keller’s favorite. A sundae cart features sauces that whisper in the ear of your inner child: chocolate syrup, marshmallow. But the coconut cake is the most intriguing. Barely hinting at coconut, it reminded me of a fluffy, inside-out Key lime pie.
The only other place Keller could see an eatery like this working, he says, is Las Vegas. If you’re still in any doubt about why we should be including Keller and this venue in our blessings list, know that Sin City already has Bouchon Bistro and Bouchon Bakery. Let’s keep The Surf Club Restaurant right here where it belongs
Don’t skip the Champagne cart, which offers selections such as the Pol Roger that Surf Club guest Sir Winston Churchill liked so much back in the day.
Thanks to Thomas Keller’s standing in Napa and his Per Se sommelier’s connections, the wine list here features cult bottlings and hard-to-get labels that you wouldn’t find otherwise.
You might notice the K+M Nicaragua dark chocolate layer cake on the dessert menu. The “K” stands for Keller, the “M” for Armando Manni. This chocolate partnership is just one example of Keller’s many culinary-adjacent ventures.
The Surf Club Restaurant
9011 Collins Ave., Surfside,
Dinner nightly: Sun.-Thur., 5:30-10pm;
Snacks, $3-$8; appetizers, $16-$46; seafood dishes, from $22; pasta, $26-$46; plates, $26-$115; service for two, $68-$132; sauces, $7; sides, $12; desserts, $15-$18; cocktails, $17; wines by the glass, $9-$35; wines by the bottle, $50-$3,500.