OLA, February 18th, 2017

It was hard not to notice the beautiful Panerai on our sommelier's wrist as he deftly poured Rus a taste of a beautifully complex 2004 Prado Enea. It oozed of South Beach. But then again, it was equally as challenging to not notice the expert seafood preparations on our plates, and that was something I hadn't expected in this resort town.

Such was my takeaway from dining at OLA, the flagship restaurant at the cozy Sanctuary Hotel on Miami Beach, Florida. Can you really blame me for such disconfirmation, though? My prior on Miami Beach fine dining was bucketed into two categories: overpriced but well-regarded chains (see: Hakkasan, Nobu), and overpriced and sceney (see: Prime 112, Bianca).

Fortunately, this dichotomy turned out to be false.

Ambiance-wise, OLA has your typical Miami-Beach-at-night feeling: dark, sleek, and loud. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, and considering that our party of five was celebrating a birthday (and a little buzzed, to boot), it was a good cultural fit.

It's really too bad that the rest of the restaurant doesn't quite cohere to its initial image. To get to the restrooms, for example, you walk outdoors through a pair of sliding glass doors and past a series of first-floor hotel rooms. This would be fine if there weren't dining room tables for two along the breezeway. I can't imagine anything less romantic than dinner with a loved one next to someone's hotel room.

It certainly didn't help that the women's toilet was clogged and overflowing.

The first piece of food to grace our lips was OLA's bread service, a fluffy cheese bread that was as rich and flavorful as a Red Lobster biscuit—this is a compliment, believe it or not—while as warm and light as a soufflé. Hungry from a long day of travel, I imbibed three of them in mere seconds. I deeply wanted to triple that number, but our table had some difficulty flagging down the bread-runner. We watched as he scampered from table to table with his breadboard, and it was unclear if he was overworked on a busy Saturday night, or if he was intentionally rationing his rolls amongst the entire OLA dining community to prevent patrons like us from hoarding. Either way, we eventually asked him for a full bread basket for our table, which he denied, leaving me wanting.

OLA is known for their ceviches, a staple of Miami cuisine, and so we ordered three for the table. The Fire & Ice Ceviche, one of their most popular items, wisely supports a hearty chunk of cobia with an intelligent balance of orange and jalapeño, just hot enough to tinge the lips. The cold-and-spicy combination is always fun, as you can feel the fresh saltwater fish battling the jalapeño on your tongue. I loved it.

After a forgettable snapper ceviche, we had their hamachi ceviche. The presentation itself was certainly the most creative I've ever seen of a ceviche: the hamachi were asymmetrically placed on one side of the plate, with an equal number of soy sauce tracks meant for you to drag the hamachi through. It was aesthetically sublime, and tasted great to boot. The sweet soy sauce reminded me of teriyaki sauce from a Chinese takeout diner. I would have appreciated a bit more subtlety there, but that didn't stop the dish from satisfying the palate. It was a simple preparation that worked well.

OLA's hamachi ceviche has a unique presentation that instinctively tells you how to eat it.

Now, the reason I had initially discovered OLA was because I was searching for Miami Beach restaurants that served marlin, and I noticed their smoked marlin tacos. I'd tried a marlin tartar dish at Upstate, a Manhattan raw bar, and had fallen in love with the fish. Naturally, we ordered them for the table.

Let me first say this: one of my biggest restaurant pet peeves is when they serve a three-item dish for four people, a four-item dish for five people, etc. That sort of nonsense where one person has to beg for her neighbors' scraps might fly when you order the spring rolls at The Cheesecake Factory, but it's absolutely unacceptable in the realm of high-end dining. So when our five ordered the marlin tacos and our waiter offered, unprompted, "This dish usually comes with four tacos, but I'll make sure they add a fifth so everyone gets one." I could have applauded.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a ton from the dish. The marlin itself was overcooked and flavorless, completely missing the rum and vanilla notes that the menu promised it would be cured with. The pickled jalapeño was unnoticeable; it saddened me that an ingredient used to such great effect in an earlier dish would essentially function as garnish on this one. Perhaps the fistful of shredded romaine lettuce on top—reminiscent of Taco Bell, honestly—masked the plate's truer flavors.

It's hard to tell if this is a marlin taco from a high-end restaurant, or cafeteria lunch meat with arbitrary vegetables.

The lobster empanada was a much better choice in both aesthetics and flavor. The presentation was phenomenal: salsa rosa on one side, avocado sauce on the other side, both streaked in opposing directions to conjure a culinary yin and yang, with the jet-black empanada shell in the middle. The lobster itself was satisfactory, but the sauces mingled well with both the meat and each, elevating this course above the sum of its requisite parts.

Lobster empanada, salsa rosa, and avocado sauce. No, this isn't photoshopped.

Our horologist-turned-sommelier opened our rioja, a selection he advised from Rus's preliminary choices. The rioja was strongly fruit forward with some complex earth undertones, reminiscent of a cross between a syrah and a pinot noir. I got cherry and blackberry up front, with a slightly tannic aftertaste.

As soon as staff whisked away our empty appetizer plates, the entrées arrived. My grouper was prepared well, supplemented with the spicy tang of an aji amarillo sauce. Tony's pork adobo was juicy and tasty, a straightforward dish executed well.

Rus had the sugar-rubbed tuna, which had significant volatility. On the upside, the sugarcane was delicious without dominating, and the blackened crust brought the fish into sirloin territory. On the downside, the kitchen overcooked what was already a tender, lean cut of tuna, drying out arbitrary sections of the meat and consequently turning the entrée into a game of gastronomical roulette.

It was Lewis hit the main dish jackpot, choosing a succulent full snapper (another catch of the day). Each bite was rich and full of flavor, and the texture of the meat played nicely with the crisp skin.

We skipped dessert, as OLA's dessert menu is quite pallid, opting to instead grab milkshakes and ice cream from BurgerFi. (Apparently, you can do whatever you want when on vacation.)

Looking back, OLA was definitely front-loaded. The standout ceviches gave way to some hit-or-miss appetizers, which led into a pretty standard set of main dishes—satisfactory, but not surprising. Even the plating dropped off a cliff: notice the contrast in artistry between the starters and the mains.

But therein lies the key: we can talk about OLA's food within the context of art. Sure, you can get a better-quality salmon from other restaurants, or even your local market. However, within their kitchen is a vision of what they think food should be, which manifests itself as the intersection of South Florida seafood and Latin American kick. The presence of such a vision is what I appreciate in a restaurant.

No, I never did get that fourth piece of cheese bread. But as the ceviches were plated and served, that stopped being a concern. And as we left the restaurant, absorbing the warm evening air, I smiled to myself, as OLA's dishes were still on my mind.

Rating: 6