Food Snob n: A person who refuses to enjoy dinner at Barton G.
Once upon a time in the then-dismal Miami restaurant scene (not so long ago as it may seem), the apex of gastronomic creativity was to crust fish with nuts and pool it in tropical fruit sauce. “Cutting edge” meant serving fried calamari with salsa instead of marinara sauce. In other words, there was an almost unimaginable lack of imagination going down. With one exception: Barton G. The Restaurant.
Barton G. Weiss is the P.T. Barnum of restaurateurs. He started out as (and still is) an event concept designer famous for visionary ideas and impeccable execution (he has created more than 20,000 events over the past two decades). The same dining-as-entertainment notion has informed his eponymous South Beach restaurant since it opened in 2002. I attended that opening soiree, which included a couple of Barton’s personal pets: a giraffe and a monkey, the latter dressed in a chef uniform and, if I remember correctly, signing autographs. Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, and a host of top disco divas were performing while guests feasted indoors and in the outdoor garden. Mr. Weiss not only has a knack for showmanship, but also for consistently exceeding expectations.
Barton G. was the first restaurant I’d ever been to where guests felt compelled to photograph the food. Never mind that Instagram wasn’t yet around, neither were cell phone cameras! This didn’t deter tourists, who carried non-phone cameras in those days, to snap away. Nowadays, virtually every diner at Barton’s takes photos of every dish, including those at other tables.
The main photo-op back then was the absurdly tall tower of cotton candy with chocolate truffles and other goodies scattered below like gifts under a Christmas tree. As the cotton candy made its way through the dining room, flashbulbs would pop as though Beyoncé was passing through. The cotton candy, which has gone through numerous iterations since, still turns heads. But there is a new menu at Barton’s now, and everything from cocktails to desserts has gotten bigger, bolder, and better. Or to put it another way: Where else can you get a "Studio 54 Disco" meatball accompanied by a mirror-ball and a Bee Gees soundtrack? For that matter, where else can you find any dish accompanied by its own soundtrack?
There are folks who might pause at this point and think, “Okay, so Barton excels at gimmickry, but you can’t eat gimmickry.” Excellent thought (and so cleverly stated!). But that’s what I like about this place: They’ve got a serious culinary (and beverage) team in place to ensure that the quality of food and drink is worthy of the over-the-top presentations. The theme is "Fine dining meets fun dining." I mean imagine what would happen if after the whole mirrored ball-Bee Gees shebang the diner was left with a mediocre meatball. What would happen is that Barton G. wouldn’t still be going strong after 15 years. The Disco Ball is a moist, 12-ounce blend of brisket and veal.
The Director of Culinary Development is Jeff O’Neill, a highly respected Miami chef who spent years excelling without the use of props. He learned from the best while working in New York City: Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin and Daniel Boulud at Daniel. Chef du cuisine is Joshua Wahler and the corporate pastry chef is Julian Belon. In South Florida, O’Neill showed off his estimable skills at L'Escalier at the Breakers Hotel and at the Villa by Barton G., which I reviewed in 2012.
The Wheelbarrow Salad is a prime example of the way a clever concept is merged with great food: Seasonal lettuces and baby vegetables sprouting from black quinoa “soil,” with packets of sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds for garnishing, and a mini-water can of key lime vinaigrette to sprinkle on top. It’s beautiful, but more importantly, it’s delicious.
The signature lobster pop tarts are also delectable: flaky phyllo crusts stuffed with lobster and fontina Mornay sauce, served with Tabasco hollandaise and tarragon aioli.
One of the more intriguing entrees is the Thai Me Up Surf N Turf, which brings a lavish display of Buddha peanut chicken wings, bamboo leaf baked grouper, a kaffir-curry broth, as well as coconut-pistachio chutney, stewed peppers...you can also get straight-up grilled meats such as a big, plump 4A Platinum Ranch Wagyu Tomahawk rib chop. Need I note that everything here is meant to be shared?
“It's American cuisine with a twist,” Barton explained in an interview a few years back. “It's still whimsical, fun, and I make people smile. At the end of the day, that's it.”
The latest cotton candy treatment, Marie Antoinette’s Head – Let Them Eat Cake, features a soaring cotton candy pompadour atop a mannequin head accompanied by “yesteryear candies,” a Bananas Foster “shake,” vanilla panna cotta, Gianduja brownie, caramelized banana cream and Chantilly cream.
The Dolla Dolla Bills Y’All!!!! includes a rich chocolate ganache-dulce de leche tart, and a gold brick melted by a waiter wielding a welding mask and torch, exposing meringue, chocolate-feuilletine golden nuggets and a Graham cracker crust. Restaurant Performance Art.
“The whole thing is, why not? I have no boundaries, no limits.”
Barton G. was the first restaurant in town to create high-octane cocktails using liquid nitrogen, a cryogenic fluid with a temperature of -320° F. The signature Buddhalicious boasts pear-infused vodka, lychee, cranberry juice and a nitrogenized ice-pop of pear vodka.
Barton G. The Restaurant Los Angeles, which debuted on La Cienega Boulevard in 2014, has been a huge hit. Some Miami favorites have made it to the menu, such as the mac ‘n’ cheese that gets plated on a giant mousetrap, but we can assume there are original, highly innovative West Coast touches on the bill as well. Because that’s what Barton G. Weiss does.
“It's about service -- they way you present, the timing, everything. It becomes entertainment. Who doesn't want to have fun? You can never have too much fun.”