I’m not gonna lie, I was a little intimidated to eat at Chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s Driftwood Room. I’d eaten in celebrity chef-helmed restaurants before, but never dined on the dishes of an Iron Chef or a Chopped judge. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while, but she’s always kind of scared me a little bit. Her TV persona is that of a chef who is never one to mince words or hold back in expressing her opinion. Maybe I thought that all of this perceived hardness would transfer over to her cooking and that it would be too much for me? In any case, once I set foot in the stunning outdoor terrace, I immediately felt at ease and ready for the elegant yet relaxed dinner that awaited.
So what does a meal created under the culinary direction of an Iron Chef look like? In the case of Driftwood Room, it’s surprisingly straightforward. The menu effortlessly combines French and Mediterranean influences with local Florida ingredients: think simply grilled dishes, light salads, crudités, and a classic cocktail program and wine list.
I began my meal with a selection of appetizers, starting with the Lemonfish Crudo. This fresh starter of raw lemonfish topped with piquillo peppers, roma tomatoes, and basil, is a great way awake your palate as you ease your way into dinner. It’s nice, which is good, but not great, but definitely leaves you wanting more.
The next appetizer I tried was the Mushroom Crostini. It’s the opposite of the crudo in the sense that the mushrooms, housemade whipped ricotta, and aged balsamic atop some crusty bread is on the heavier side of the appetizer spectrum. Once again, it’s another dish that doesn’t necessarily smack you in the face, but continues to build your excitement for what’s to come.
If each of the two previous appetizers are teetering on either side of greatness, the Roasted Eggplant Dip is the one that is perched squarely in the middle, making each of them jealous. The roasted eggplant sits beautifully inside a Paradise Farms zucchini boat and is served with a side of grilled pita. It’s hard to describe it a way that can accurately portray its genius, so just take my word for it.
So, after my Goldilocks-esque appetizer round, I was ready for the next course. Usually I would consider a salad another form of a starter, but Driftwood Room’s four salad options come with their own section of the menu and read quite impressively. I’m not usually one to be waxing poetic about a bowl full of lettuce, but I have to admit that the Bibb Lettuce Salad with candied walnuts, Swank Farms watermelon radish, and red wine vinaigrette was pretty darn seductive.
Driftwood Room’s main courses can be found in two batches: Composed and Grilled. The Grilled choices are St. Barth Style Ribs, Gulf Shrimp, Cedar Plank Salmon, and Branzino. They are allprepared with olive oil, salt, lemon, and a choice of salsa verde or romesco. I went with the Branzino, which was rich and divine in its purity.
I should also note here that there are a selection of sides (mixed peppers, frites, Brussels sprouts, haricots verts, or crispy red potatoes) that would have complemented this dish nicely, but I didn’t order any because I’d already eaten 3 appetizers, a salad, and had a couple more entrees on the way.
Speaking of said “couple more entrees,” I selected the Roasted White Cloud Cauliflower Steak and Seared Diver Scallops.
The cauliflower was a suggestion by my waiter (Driftwood Room had unbeatable service, btw) and was a pleasant surprise. I’m not much of a cauliflower person and for sure wouldn’t order it left to my own devices, but this dish, thanks to the hazelnuts, golden raisins, and tumeric, opened my eyes to the wonders of this often misunderstood vegetable.
The scallops, though, had caught my eye at first glance.Perfectly caramelized and swimming in a succulent sherry pan sauce, they did not disappoint.
Believe it or not, after all that, I somehow still found room for dessert (#fatboyproblems). First up, the Flourless Hazelnut and Chocolate Torte with is another example of a sinful treat, packaged in a clean manner that gives the impression that you’re not actually sinning. It may not be healthy, but at least you save the calories from the guilt you’d usually be consuming alongside your dessert.
On the other hand, the Passionfruit Donuts, are straight up sinful. There’s no hiding it here, especially if you add in the vanilla bean custard. But, calories be damned, these fried bundles of joy are delectably sweet, tangy, tart, and too good to share. Yes, I ate all three. And, no, I don’t care if you’re judging me right now.
Mitch’s take: Driftwood Room is the celebrity chef South Beach restaurant that is the antithesis of the celebrity chef South Beach restaurant. There’s something bold and beautiful in the simple choices that Chef Guarnaschelli and team are making, which has resulted in a deliciously delightful dining experience that is not to be missed.
Standout dishes: The Roasted Eggplant Dip for its classic charm, the Roasted White Cloud Cauliflower Steak for the surprise factor, and the Passionfruit Donuts because I could eat an order of them every day for the rest of my life and have not eaten enough.