October 25, 2014

Royal Mandarin

Miami is the Floridian's antidote for chronic life-in-the-slow-lane. That's why we go there-to jump start the lassitude that comes with the latitude, to reap all the benefits of an exotic foreign vacation without passports or luggage scans or those pesky full-body frisks. There's always something shaking in Baghdad-on-the-Biscayne, and the weekend we planned promised to be even more kinetic than usual.

For starters, there was the Miami International Boat Show, probably the largest display of dreamcraft on the planet-gazillion-dollar trawlers, tricked-out sportfishermen and flats boats galore, a real nautical droolfest. We'd spend the better part of a day just ogling all there was to ogle. Then we'd hop over to the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, which is the coolest such gathering certainly in all of Florida since they cut out the kitsch and decided to concentrate on stuff that is actually artsy. There's lots of good food (killer conch fritters) and lots of beer and lots of truly interesting people to look at (it helps that Miami has one of the highest percentages of underclad human beings in the universe.) Plus, I wanted to hit a couple of favorite Cuban joints on Calle Ocho, and I'd been promising my wife a stone-crab bacchanalia at Joe's, and there were all those hot South Beach clubs we could prowl after midnight if we were still numbered among the living. Yes, it was shaping up to be an action-packed three days.

At least that's what we were thinking as we wheeled our car over the little bridge that leads from the heart of downtown Miami to Brickell Cay and caught our first glimpse of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Every trip to Miami seems to bring some new architectural wonder-OK, an occasional glaring oddity thrown into the mix-and the hotel was a real grabber. It soared 20 stories above the bay, but it wasn't just a box of blocks meant to dazzle merely by its bigness. It gave a sense of sculpture.

"It looks like a fan," my wife said. "A giant Chinese fan."

It was white and ochre, the color of a queen conch shell, and its gentle form seemed to mimic the curve of the shore. Yes, a giant Chinese fan, that's just what it looked like.

We pulled up to the entrance, handed the car keys to the valet, followed the bellman into the lobby and stopped dead in our tracks. It was closing in on sunset and, through the floor-to-ceiling atrium windows, the crazy Dow Jones graph that is the Miami skyline did more than just glow, it radiated. There was Brazilian marble everywhere and bamboo trees and tasteful artifacts placed in just the right places, along with the sound of falling water, surely some kind of masterful feng shui thing. It was Art Deco meets Steamy Latino meets Cool, Cool Zen. Over-the-top fusion, sure, but it worked.

But what really galvanized us was a long, low table in the middle of the lobby. Atop the table were dozens of tiny vases. And in each vase stood a single orchid stem. Far be it from me to get all goo-goo about it, but each orchid was like a tiny face.

"Oh, my," said my wife. She got this dreamy look in her eyes, a look that likely mirrored my own.

At that precise moment our plans went straight to hell. We were goners. Forget that on-the-town, burn-it-at-both-ends weekend. We didn't leave the hotel for three days.

Since opening a little more than two years ago, the 329-room Mandarin Oriental Miami has secured its niche as the city's A-list outpost. Springsteen stayed here. Cher stayed here. J. Lo stayed here. Michael Jackson stayed here for an entire month (before all that weirdness with babies and balconies.) Pavarotti settled in at the top-of-the-heap Oriental Suite, a 2,365-square-foot aerie that comes with a multimedia screening room and its own grand piano. The well-fed tenor christened the suite's kitchen by cooking his favorite pasta and serving it in the formal dining room with seating for eight.

We bunked down in one of the Biscayne Suites, almost a thousand square feet of exquisitely livable space. The ceilings were high, the furnishings elegant, and bamboo hardwood covered the floors. There was a stand-alone tub-for-two in the bathroom and an enormous walk-in shower that could have fit the entire starting lineup of the Miami Dolphins with room for substitutes should anyone slip on the Spanish marble floor. It took me a few minutes to notice that the marble was speckled with golden, bamboo-like veining. Nice, cohesive touch.

Walk into a suite like that and your "ahhhhh" is automatic. I plopped down on the bed and picked up the room-service menu.

"I think we'll be ordering in tonight," I called out to my wife.

But she didn't hear me. How could she? She was already in the bathtub and the water was running.

We kept meaning to leave the hotel, really we did. But things just kept conspiring against us. Among the most devious co-conspirators was the food. Miami is one of the best cities for eating in the entire world. There is absolutely no reason to eat all your meals at a hotel. But then most hotels don't have restaurants like Café Sambul and Azul. The creation of acclaimed restaurant designer Tony Chi, the two restaurants share a separate, multi-leveled waterfront building with views of the bay and the city.

Café Sambul, casual and open all day, serves up fresh breads and good coffee and breakfasts of turkey hash with poached egg, Asian pesto and hollandaise sauce. For lunch there are Asian-inspired offerings like sugarcane roasted salmon with sticky rice, red snapper with almond fried rice and jumbo sea scallop kung pao. Azul, which was the first Miami restaurant to win the AAA Five Diamond rating, has garnered worldwide acclaim through its chef, Michelle Bernstein. A native of Miami, Bernstein studied dance and performed with the Joffrey Ballet before turning her talents to the kitchen. She's now a co-host of The Food Network's Melting Pot. It's an apropos title since Bernstein has followed the Mandarin Oriental's fusion theme by blending Latin flavors with Asian, Caribbean and classic French influences. Bernstein and her staff perform in a magnificent white marble, open kitchen, which encompasses a raw bar and a long wine table. Among the plats de resistance are grouper with Malaysian curry stewed vegetables, short ribs falling-off-the-bone with jalapeños and kumquats, and a signature Caribbean bouillabaisse with lime, chiles and cilantro.

And then there's the spa. Really, it's more like a temple-three levels, 15,000 square feet with 17 private treatment rooms. My wife went in for an aromatherapy facial and I settled on a Thai massage.

Afterward we lounged on the balcony outside our suite, draped in those terry-cloth robes that are such a temptation to steal. There was chardonnay and a nice pâté and the sun was sinking low again.

"You know, we really should get out and do something. Like go to the boat show," said my wife.

"Look, there's some boats, down there on the bay," I said.

So we sat there and watched them awhile.

"We could get in the car and drive to the art festival," I said.

"We could," said my wife.

So we napped awhile.

Later, we talked about getting dressed and hitting the South Beach club scene. So we took a bath, a really long bath. And after that we ordered room service. 

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