By brett graff | March 13, 2012 | Food & Drink
Smith & Wollensky’s bustling patio bar overlooking South Pointe Park
For five days each March, one exclusive Miami restaurant carries more cachet than all others combined: From the 5th to the 9th, the iconic Smith & Wollensky steakhouse will host its internationally recognized Wine Week by marking the event’s 25th anniversary—or, since it’s held twice annually—the 50th occasion during which 10 wines can be tasted for $10 with the purchase of a lunch entrée (read: not dinner).
“I skip work for Wine Week,” says Dinah Stein, an appellate lawyer and partner at the downtown Miami-based firm Hicks, Porter, Ebenfeld & Stein PA, only half joking. “Our table is always 16 or 20 people, and while it’s very much social, I always see clients there and inevitably manage to get some networking in.” In fact, all year long it’s a safe bet you’ll find local and visiting luminaries lunching at this restaurant of mahogany, brass, and aged beef. The place is formal enough to encourage business lunches, friendly enough to keep its regulars happy, and—as it’s situated on the most priceless piece of waterfront property in town—offers a view that’s breathtaking enough to lure tourists. But twice a year (it occurs again in September), Wine Week takes over the picturesque Miami Beach waterfront outpost, as well as eight other S&Ws nationwide.
|Hand-cut Oscar-style filet mignon with asparagus, crabmeat, and béarnaise is one of the steakhouse’s signature dishes.|
“Friday is the ideal day to go,” says Matthew Krieger, a real estate and entertainment lawyer and entrepreneur who’s dined there with clients including former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Terrence Wilkins. “Don’t schedule any meetings afterward—there won’t be a lot of productivity in the office.” In addition to Wine Week’s quarter-century milestone, this year Smith & Wollensky will also unveil its private-reserve Sauvignon Blanc. The wine list was calling for this variety of white, says Stuart Roy, Smith & Wollensky’s national director of wine and spirits, to pair perfectly with the fish dishes and the signature Shellfish Bouquets that are particularly popular in Miami. The new vintage is produced by Kunde Family Estate in California’s Sonoma Valley and—with its notes of citrus, mango, and melon—will be on the tasting menu for all five lunches that week. The other 45 selections (nine for each day) will be handpicked by local managers (in Miami Beach that’s Henry Delgado), and will generally include Champagne or sparkling wine, a lighter white, a light red Pinot Noir or a Chianti, and a Cabernet. “We try and mix it up,” says Roy. “The great thing about Wine Week is that most people can’t taste $125 bottles of wine often. This gives them a chance to come in and try a lot of the big names.”
Smith & Wollensky itself is a marquee restaurant, having risen to steakhouse stardom since its New York opening in 1977 and then in Miami Beach exactly 20 years later. That same year, New York Times writer Ruth Reichl called it “a steakhouse to end all arguments.” Its lunch became so synonymous with status, in fact, that the restaurant continues to make cameo appearances in movies such as The Devil Wears Prada.
Life imitates art here in Miami. While many afternoon diners arriving from the beach or hotel pools choose patio seating, inside, the boldfaced names in Miami business, art, and philanthropy view the cruise ships lumbering out to sea in air-conditioned comfort. It’s this crowd that most appreciates the green ties and formal white jackets worn by the waitstaff. “They understand the power lunch, and that’s very important,” says Greg White, a local banker. “Impressions in business are everything, and here, you’re recognized as a person of authority from the moment you walk in the door.”
That’s accomplished by maintaining an unusually stable staff in a town known for a transient service industry. Most of the personnel—about 70 percent, estimates manager Delgado—has been working at the Miami Beach location for more than seven years. But well beyond, even past the hustle of the kitchen, unseen considerations further elevate the Smith & Wollensky experience. Not only does the steakhouse employ its own butcher—who trims about 40 percent of the product initially purchased—but it allocates valuable space for dry-aging its meat on-site. In a UV-lighted aging box set to a 34-degree temperature, at any given moment $80,000 worth of beef is maturing for three to four weeks. And while it undoubtedly would be cheaper to buy it sliced and ready from the slaughterhouse, the extra effort is well worth it. “This system that facilitates the aging breaks down the enzymes and turns the fat content into flavor,” says Delgado. “It intensifies the taste.”
Those who dine here regularly savor it all—including their favored tables and chairs. Jimmy McLean, a treasure hunter, author, and CPA by trade, and Rudy Vila, an entrepreneur who cofounded yupi.com and is currently with Orbit Media Group, are two Miami Beach locals who lunch here almost daily. “You feel like you’re going to your own private club,” says McLean. He’s splitting a French dip sandwich with Vila, who adds, “During Wine Week, we’re at our computers by 7 so we can get all our business done and be here by noon. Every day.”
photograph by scott goodwin (filet)