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Miami Spice.

Oversized Cosmopolitans and top-grade Mojitos sell with sizzle in this superhot market.

Writing about Miami Beach restaurants for a recent issue of Food & Wine, novelist Tama Janowitz observed that, "Everybody here seems to be obsessed with sex." She points to heavily themed restaurants attracting the trendy late-night crowds, where customers dressed exquisitely in black dine on mattresses (at B.E.D.) and above live grass (at Tantra). Aiming to get their names in the paper and pull tourists and celebrities off the street, each restaurant has a clearly defined gimmick, and specialty drinks are part of each one.

Most noticeably, Janowitz observed the area's young and beautiful indulging in colorful, creative cocktails. No slush machine drinks for this trend-setting crowd, for whom budget seems to be no consideration, The Beautiful People in Miami Beach encounter only the finest ingredients--top-quality rum laced with lime and mint in the endless varieties of briskly-selling mojitos, imported Russian vodkas swished just so with cranberry juice in an array of Cosmopolitans, flavored vodkas and liqueurs employed in the sour apple and chocolate-cherry-flavored Martinis that seem to proliferate in endless variation from bar to bar. At Tantra, she observes, "There are couples everywhere...sipping gold and green drinks with names like Sexual Center and Pure Ecstasy."

With the strong Latin influence due to its Spanish-speaking population, an international sophistication and the hypnotic effect of the sultry Florida sunshine, restaurants throughout Miami have at least touches of this sensual blend. While diners can surely begin their meals with a Bud (a big brand here), many choose to stick with the mixed drink du jour. The vibrant colors, the blend of sweet and sour and the luxury of sipping from oversized glasses have become THE way to begin an evening in this trend-setting Southern ciudad. And the beverages that meet those criteria are money-makers for restaurateurs, who can charge a premium and make a pretty profit.

Bubbly Beach

Champagne pours freely at the Rose Bar inside the Delano, an Ian Schrager South Beach hotel, "People order bottles of Champagne all the time here," says Michael Flint, director of food and beverage. "We've even begun serving it in Bormiolli Rocco glassware, which is very elegant and very fragile crystal." Veuve Cliquot and Laurent Perrier are poured by the glass, and whole bottles sell for as much as $4,200, for a 3-liter bottle of Perrier Jouet Fleur 1995.

Champagne cocktails are also in high demand. "Variations like the Kir Royale have been popular for quite a while," Flint says, "and now Bellinis are making a resurgence."

Quirky versions of classic cocktails are also requested en masse. The Delano Cosmopolitan is made with Absolut Citron, Absolut Mandrin, Cointreau, Stoli Raspberry and a splash of cranberry juice. And the Blue Door Martini, named for the hotel's restaurant, is made with Absolut Citron and Blue Curacao. For the Apple Martini, bartenders pour Stoli Orange with Midori.

Pricey Champagnes and top-shelf vodkas may sound a bit much for a bar, but not when paired with the bar food served alongside. Take the ThonThon, a popular appetizer served at the Rose: seared black and blue tuna with marinated daikon and lime. Another is the foie gras burger: pan-seared duck foie gras served with caramelized onion, baby greens and house-made tomato ketchup, served in the shape of a burger.

"Things start pulsating here after 10 o'clock," Flint explains. "This whole hotel is very minimalistic, very mystical, with a lot of incredible artwork and furniture designed by Philippe Starck. It's all very ethereal," he says. "It's an elegant getaway."

Mango Dancing

Those looking for a more party-like atmosphere than the rose-colored Rose might end up at Mango's Tropical Cafe, a wild restaurant, bar and club that most nights packs customers six deep at its four bars. Mango's is Florida's largest seller of Corona, but the mixed drinks on the 60-item beverage menu get plenty of play.

When the waiters and busboys aren't boogeying on a table (dance lessons are a requirement for all staff members), they are serving up such house specialties as the Cosmic Cosmo, the house Cosmopolitan, made with Bacardi Limon, champagne, Chambord and cranberry juice. The South Beach Iced Tea is another top seller, made with vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec, orange juice and Bacardi 151.

"You can go anywhere and have a Miller Genuine Draft," explains bar manager Josh Wallack. "You can go to a gas station and buy a single Budweiser. But when people come here, what's the point of sitting down and ordering a Michelob when Mango's has got the most creative bartenders, who come up with these unbelievable drinks that we copyright? We offer so many appealing drinks. Fabulous models want to drink Martinis and Cosmopolitans, sour apple Martinis, watermelon Martinis, white chocolate raspberry Martinis, so everyone else does, too.

While the beautiful people prefer the slender Martinis, tourists, says Wallack, "go nuts for a simple rum punch that we flavor up a bit with banana liquor, peach schnapps and apricot brandy."

Nightclubs might get most of the attention, but such family-style operations as Tuscan Steak keep up with the multi-colored drink craze. Dinner service begins at 6 p.m. (common in the senior-filled market), and that's when diners and the bar crowd begin ordering infused vodkas, which are served up in dramatic stemware. Starfruit and strawberry, or other fruits, spend two weeks macerating in giant jars of Finlandia vodka before being served to the many celebrities who frequent the South Beach restaurant. Cosmopolitans are big at the 44-foot-long bar here, too, made with Absolut Mandrin, "the hot new vodka," according to general manager Steve Haas. The bar crowd commonly nibbles on Black Angus beef carpaccio served with freshly shaved Parmesan cheese drizzled with truffle oil while selecting from the Martini menu.

To complement Tuscan Steak's family-style menu, which features thick steaks fanned out across oversized plates and placed in the center of the table, the restaurant has a "very, very extensive" red wine list, "We carry all of the high-end Italian and American wines," Haas explains.

Vodka Squared and Chilled

Vodka rules the house at Red Square, a dramatic South Beach restaurant and bar with a Russian theme. A 12-foot replica of Lenin greets customers as they enter through a huge red door. Red Square stocks 150 types of vodka, most of them Russian and Polish. The drinks are served on top of a frozen bar; clients willing to pay $2,000 to $5,000 can store their own vodkas in chilled lockers located next to the bar. Absolut is the biggest seller, with Kremloskaya, a Russian vodka, also in high demand.

While drinking at the bar or at tables hidden behind red velvet drapes, customers order from a house Martini list which includes a chocolate banana Martini and the dirty olive Martini. Caviar is as much of a menu specialty as vodka, and a popular appetizer is Siberian Nachos: homemade chips topped with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and citron caviar.

Supporting Red Square's tag line, "Join the Party," the atmosphere is unusual: more than 150 candles spaced throughout the place with high-intensity music blasting. DJs on weekend evenings play '70s disco.

At China Grill, an Asian-inspired restaurant with family-style service, (and like Red Square, a China Grill Management operation), infused sak[acute{e}] is the beverage specialty. Strawberry- and melon-infused Shirayuki sak[acute{e}] is the star of China Grill's drink list; grape and pear, and pineapple-orange infused sak[acute{e}]s sell well, too. The sak[acute{e}]s, of course, are served cold.

Already known for a vividly colored Cosmopolitan and an indulgent chocolate Martini served with a chocolate chopstick, China Grill will soon begin serving drinks meant to be shared. Adapting the sharing concept already employed in its dining room, "we will have a large Martini glass and a large Margarita glass that two or three people can drink out of," explains general manager Deborah Sackin.

Fresh and Fruity

Over in Coral Gables, bartenders at Ortinique on the Mile are dedicating surgical-like skills to making mixed drinks, intending to match the quality of the food at the upscale Caribbean restaurant. Fruits and nectars for all flavored Margaritas and Daiquiris are made from scratch, from passion fruit and mango to raspberry and strawberry, according to owner Delius Shirley.

Even mojitos are prepared with great skill here: Bartenders begin with a simple syrup made on the premises. Bartenders pour it over a scored half-lime and then add five torn fresh mint leaves. Using a mortar and muddler, they mash the lime, mint leaves and simple syrup together in a rock glass, then top with ice, Barcardi Light and soda water. Ortinique sells 200 mojitos each Friday and Saturday night.

Bigger sellers still are Martinis and Cosmopolitans. The house specialty is the Ortinique Orange Martini, made with Skyy vodka, a splash of Cointreau, a splash of Ortanique (an orange liqueur from Jamaica), and fresh orange juice. The Dark and Stormy, made with Jamaican Ginger Beer and Gosling's Dark Rum, offers a hearty alterative.

Waiters here commonly encourage newcomers to try a specialty beverage, and regular customers arrive expecting a colorful drink on their tab. The colors of the vibrant beverages have been coordinated with the dining room, decorated in rich colors, brightened with yellowish green seat cushions and softened with mosquito netting.

Well-heeled travelers looking to get away from the trendy South Beach area might find themselves at the Beach House Bal Harbor, owned by the Rubell family. Here, the Polo Ralph Lauren residential design team have executed a hotel, restaurant, lounge and bar made to feel like a home in the Hamptons, rather than an inn in Miami. The "seaside home cooking" menu was designed by Sheila Lukins, of Silver Palate cookbook fame.

Martinis, and in particular Cosmopolitans, are as popular here as anywhere in Miami. The house vodka is Skyy, but many customers request others. "Our older and more mature clientele leans toward Ketel One," reports Guntram Merl, director of food and beverage. "The younger crowd takes to newer ones like Grey Goose or Belvedere."

Single malt scotches sell particularly well. "We're surprised because there's not a lot of smoking here, and the two generally go together," Merl observes. And the wine list is small but value-oriented. "We feel that you can get most wines in Publix," Merl explains. "You look at the prices there, then you go to a restaurant and see a $33 price tag on a bottle you know you can get for $10. You feel a little bit taken advantage of. We try not to do that."

On South Beach or off, upscale or down, Miami has become quite the haven for cocktail lovers. The colorful concoctions, served in classic glasses that are dramatic as they are, merchandise themselves. And the stunning models from around the world certainly add some oomph to the already appealing offerings.

Can these top-dollar drinks work elsewhere in the country? It can't hurt to try.
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Author:Gindin, Rona
Date:Jun 1, 2000
Next Article:Playing The Wine Game.

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