HIGH STYLE PROMOTES WELL BEING AT MIAMI’S NEW EPIC HOTEL

By David Leiberman & Graziella Drover

We were greeted by a mix of soft earth tones and the sound of gently flowing water as we stepped through the front doors into the Epic’s “living room”. Sunlight bathed the lobby space, which was no darker or colder than the bright Miami day we’d just stepped out of.

On our left we saw a fountain consisting of a smooth, paper-thin sheet of water running over a low wall of lovely azure tiles; on our right was a bank of stylish but comfy-looking couches; ahead, beyond the front counter, we glimpsed a warmly-lit sitting room. The counter, adorned with a stunning orchid, was staffed by a group of serene-looking women in silky lavender outfits. We didn’t have to drag our suitcases to the counter and elicit service with an imploring look; instead, someone actually came out from behind the counter to shake our hand and greet us by name.

The newly opened Epic Hotel captures Miami's sophisticated cosmopolitan pulse (photo by David Leiberman).

An instant later, keys in hand, we lingered to absorb our surroundings a bit before going upstairs. The lobby/living area is a striking, high-ceilinged space, but it’s not imposing – a row of sculptures, a playful mobile, gorgeous flower arrangements and cozy, intimate groupings of couches and armchairs create a comforting, human scale. The murmur of the fountain dampens footsteps and voices and allows for private conversations and quiet reading. With views of the river and the bay, it’s the perfect place to relax after a long journey, or wait to meet someone for breakfast. I would have been happy to sit there for hours longer, but I was encouraged to go upstairs and take a nap, which didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

A hushed, carpeted elevator (the fastest in Miami, I hear) whisked us up to the 23rd floor. The halls were dramatically curved, so that we couldn’t see more than three or four rooms ahead. We wondered why this delighted us so much, and concluded that normal, straight hallways both limit privacy and make for a somewhat depressing sense of finitude. (Later, a representative giving us a tour pointed out that the curvature was also reminiscent of a sailboat.) Of course, straight corridors had never bothered us before; but the Epic’s curved ones made us wonder why anyone had ever built them any other way.

This was to become a theme of our stay. The architecture and design of the Epic, as well as its service and amenities, catered to desires and aesthetic preferences we hadn’t even known we had. In our guide’s words, architect Luis Revuelta, designer Cheryl Rowley and the Epic staff have tried to think of “all the things that you don’t think about, but that you experience.” That’s a perfect description of the subtle, subliminal effect of the hotel’s design-rather than calling attention to itself, it creates a pervasive sense of luxury, calm, and ease. That’s true of the architect’s master plan, but it’s also true of the fragrance of the soap-and of the countless other little pleasures and surprises that await Epic’s guests, from the heavy but perfectly smooth-sliding dresser drawers to the pretty canvas bag that holds the hairdryer.

Delight at these nuances, however, doesn’t begin to register until you’ve settled in, which takes a while. The Epic, which opened at the end of 2008, doesn’t offer the sorts of rooms in which, after check-in, you’re particularly eager to unpack and go out on the town. Instead, we spent a quarter-hour just marveling at the view from the balcony (large enough to function as a dining area), subliminally absorbing the mood set by the colors (warm, soft, but still somehow incandescent browns), and generally soaking up the feeling of ease and mental, not just literal, spaciousness that came over us when we walked into the room. Once we’d somewhat regained our critical faculties, we noticed some of the larger-scale choices that had created this experience.

The Epic Suite

The first thing that struck us was the way the architects had created an incredible feeling of openness by thinking more carefully about the design and layout of the bathroom. In some sense, a bathroom is just a bathroom, but on the other hand a hotel room bathroom takes up a significant portion of the square footage of the entire suite, even in amply-sized rooms like the Epic’s, and especially when the bathrooms themselves are luxuriously large and equipped with tempting freestanding tubs. Usually that area is entirely cordoned off from the rest of the suite, and the opportunity to enjoy all the space at once is wasted. The result is that you typically enter into a short, narrow hallway, with the bathroom on the right, and can only take in the rest of the suite once you’ve walked past it.

In our room, instead, the bathroom was in its usual position on the right as you came in, but was enclosed by wide frosted-glass and wood sliding doors, so that its entrance felt broad and prepared you for its size. This shape was echoed, on the bathroom’s opposite wall, by a huge open window opening onto the bedroom. As a result, as soon as you walk in, in addition to glimpsing the room unfolding out past the entrance hallway, you can also see into the bathroom through the sliding door, and, through there, you have an even broader view of the bedroom from another perspective through the bathroom window. Finally, these three frames are echoed by the fourth and grandest frame — the sliding doors of the balcony. The effect is stunning: your suite and the city and sea below all emerge as one continuous expanse.

On a more superficial note, because of the window, my companion could dress and get ready to go out while talking to me through the window in a normal voice, eliminating the usual shouting of “Are you ready?”. Needless to say, the bathroom window does not, however, limit your privacy — the window can be obscured by a tasteful translucent shade, and even when it is open, only the sink area, not the shower, is visible from the bedroom; the toilet is set off from the rest of the bathroom entirely in a European-style water closet with its own door. It’s hard to exaggerate how much this simple departure from the standard hotel-room layout changed the experience of living in the room. Taking a bath in a hotel bathtub, however nice, is usually a somewhat claustrophobic experience — the air gets stuffy and you feel shut away from the rest of the suite. Here, two people can chat casually while one soaks in a hot bath and the other researches restaurants at the desk.

After we’d familiarized ourselves with the broad contours of our surroundings, we immediately started to treat the suite like home. It was then that the details began to register, eliciting frequent little exclamations of surprise. The beds were triple-sheeted with subtly patterned, incredibly soft white linens; the fluffy down duvet and pillows contrasted with the nicely firm mattress. The curves of the gorgeous almond-colored wood furniture echoed those of the building. The dresser drawers opened and closed so smoothly and silently that I insisted my companion come over and try them immediately.

The TV, usually a somewhat unsexy presence in an otherwise elegant suite, was not just flat-screen — it was actually built in, so that it was flush with the surface of the wall and did not seem to anchor the suite as hotel TV’s sometimes do. If we hadn’t looked for it, we could have gone our entire stay without noticing it, although it was large and perfectly positioned over the bed. Most hotels have wireless internet access, of course, but using it requires you to drag out your laptop and charger, which is hardly the first thing you feel like doing in a luxury hotel room. Instead, rooms at the Epic are equipped with unobtrusive desktop computers, which are always connected to the internet — no passwords or fidgeting required — and are marvelously convenient for quickly looking up facts about Miami’s attractions.

Even the pools reflect the high-style and chic design of the Epic Hotel (photo by David Leiberman).

In the bathroom, the deep square tub which rises out of the marble floor has its faucets in the middle, not at the foot, so that the water can be adjusted while you’re lying down; the wonderfully huge circular showerhead similarly hangs from the middle of the ceiling above the shower, not from the side wall, and the water comes down vertically, making you feel you’re standing in a gentle rain shower. The sinks are lovely bowls, perched on a wooden table, and so deep that it would be nearly impossible for water to splash out of them onto the counter below, eliminating yet another tiny but common hotel-room annoyance. The table on which they sat had convenient open shelves underneath, where you could store your toiletries while keeping the tabletop pristine — yet another departure from the usual clutter of toothbrushes which mars the otherwise orderly feeling of a hotel bathroom.

Even the closet was a pleasure to use, equipped with charming silk-covered padded clothes hangers. The closet need not be stuffed with extra bedding, since the Epic is eager to suit your bedding tastes — it actually boasts a “pillow library” so you can choose your favorite size and texture, whether you want down, memory foam, big and fluffy or small and firm, which will be delivered to your door at a moment’s notice.

From Sewing Kits to Goldfish

There is a real sense that Epic staff takes pride in addressing even the most particular of guests’ needs, from sewing kits and extension cords to in-room spa services and “pawdicures”. (In typical Kimpton fashion, the Epic has a “Guppy Love” program which offers goldfish traveling companions to keep guests company; the hotel also invites guests to bring along Very Important Pets [VIPs], with no weight or height restrictions!) As one Epic representative showing us around put it, the hotel is “willing to do everything for its guests — short of breaking the law.”

The hotel’s dedicated attention to service is perhaps the most essential feature of the Epic experience. It is both extremely responsive and unobtrusive. Requests tend to be honored immediately and without hassle or questions. The front desk manager happily agreed to extend our check-out time (to 5 p.m., no less!). We had a bit of trouble with the climate-control system at first (although we were the room’s first guests, this was the only bug we noticed). When we let the receptionist know, two engineers came by in ten minutes flat. Porters seemed to materialize instantly in response to our calls downstairs with the smallest requests, such as for matches or complimentary yoga mats. (By the way, the mats had amazing traction, and the spacious balcony comfortably fit two at once.)

Even the way the employee’s help is requested and announced upon arrival is special in its combination of availability and respect for guests’ privacy — each room has a quiet, even soothing doorbell, eliminating the startling pounding on the door that, in most hotels, announces the arrival of the housekeeper. Even better, a pair of lighted buttons inside the door allows you to indicate “privacy” without having to lean out of the door, half-naked, to fumble with one of those awful hanging paper signs which you inevitably drop and have to bend down to retrieve just as your neighbor is emerging bright-eyed and fully dressed.

At some point in the day, however, you might want to come out of your cocoon — if not for ambitious sightseeing, then at least for some food, wine, swimming, and possibly even company. Miami, of course, can provide all that in spades; but aside from the inclination to just stay in and order room service, the Epic’s public spaces provide an additional temptation not to bother leaving. The fabulous pool area, which overlooks the Miami skyline, waterways, and the sea, has two mosaic-tiled “infinity” pools, ringed by tasteful private cabanas (for rent by the hour) and a variety of cool-looking, comfortable padded pool chairs, couches, and lounges of all kinds, some designed especially for couples and groups. Polite staff rush to your side with rolled towels (some with little orchids tucked inside), glasses of lime-infused ice water, and even sunblock if you’ve forgotten it. And, if like me you couldn’t bear to go inside after settling into this poolside paradise, the Epic’s entire bar and food menu is available with poolside service at all hours of the day.

After a long day of sunbathing, your thoughts may naturally turn to cocktails somewhat in advance of the dinner hour. You’re in luck — the Epic hosts a complimentary daily cocktail hour from 5-6 pm, where you can enjoy their signature mojitos and an interesting selection of wines, and mingle with your fellow guests.

Sadly, though, we missed the wine hour because we were too busy freshening up for dinner, where we’d choose from an even vaster wine selection upstairs at “Area 31″.

Area 31: 
Fresh Fish, Phenomenal Desserts

Area 31 is a destination in itself, a truly bold and unique restaurant that happens to be conveniently situated on the 16th floor just off the Epic’s pool deck. The restaurant specializes in delicately prepared fresh fish, all of which is sourced from its namesake region, the U.N. designated fishing area encompassing the waters off Miami’s coast, as well as parts of Central and South America.

Epic Hotel's room with a water view.

We arrived just after our fish did, and encountered it raw – first in the form of a sashimi appetizer of red snapper with a delicate cilantro sauce, and again when chef John Critchley brought out the whole fish we planned to share as a main course, submitting it to our scrutiny before cooking it. It looked gorgeous then, and tasted even better when it reappeared a few minutes later.

Extremely fresh fish, simply and delicately prepared, is, of course, the mark of a great seafood restaurant, and Area 31 more than met this standard set of expectations. It distinguished itself from other fine seafood establishments, though, in its entrees and side dishes, including a coarsely-ground white corn polenta-flavored only with the standard butter and Parmigiano, with a texture that testified to a lifetime’s practice-so exquisite that it could have put Area 31 on the map as an Italian restaurant. The garlicky broccoli rabe was, likewise, exceptional.

After such bounty, we were not particularly excited about dessert, but duty called, so we allowed our waitress to bring us a selection of pastries. These turned out to be the highlight of the meal, and were in fact among the most memorable dishes of any kind I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant. A sophisticated rendition of key lime pie juxtaposed a tart, lime-infused mousse with a sweet carrot puree atop a delicate pastry disc. Homemade cardamom ice cream was paired with rosemary-infused chocolate and garnished with a delicate, slightly caramelized wafer. Ginger, dark chocolate, and rum flavors mingled in unpredictable and delightful ways. A bitter passion fruit puree was paired with a sweet saut�ed mango and passion fruit compote.

With such an impressive core menu, Area 31 does not need a particularly good pastry chef. But they have found a spectacular one in Lynn Moulton, whose inventive creations alone would be worth a trip, even for the non-piscivorous.

For more information or to make table reservations at Area 31, call 305-424-5234 or visitwww.area31restaurant.com

The Epic is at 270 Biscayne Boulevard Way, Miami, FL 33131; for reservations, call 866-760-3742, or 305-424-5226, or visit www.epichotel.com. The Epic is a Kimpton Hotel; for information on other hotels and resorts in the group, call 800-KIMPTON or visit www.kimptonhotels.com.

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SMITH & WOLLENSKY: CLASSIC STEAK WITH A VIEW

By David Leiberman

Perched on the southernmost tip of South Beach, quietly removed from the clumps of tourist-swarmed restaurants along Lincoln Road and Ocean Drive, Smith and Wollensky’s Miami Beach steakhouse prepares beef that defies witty literary introduction. The writer humbly affirms, with hesitation to expend such a powerful descriptor in only his second sentence, that the steak is just spectacular.

In a city full of hip and colorful fusion restaurants, each grasping for attention in the pre-meal hours of any given day, Smith and Wollensky offers a traditional, scenic and delicious alternative for steak or seafood lovers. Steaks are dry-aged, cured and hand cut in house daily; they are tender, serious and full of flavor, from mean sirloin and rib-eye to elegant, gorgonzola crusted filet mignon. The seafood menu features an array of grilled fish, three types of lobster, and the restaurant’s famous shellfish bouquets. Chef Dana Brizee also offers “a very special non-special” roast prime rib served with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce, as well as crackling pork shank, free-range lemon pepper chicken, and Dover sole when available. Even the lightly oiled and seasoned dinner rolls are worthy of mention.

Prime meats come with prime views of Fisher Island, the downtown Miami skyline, and an ongoing procession of sea-bound freighters, cruise ships, and other marine vessels passing through the Government Cut shipping channel. The restaurant, a $22-mil-renovation of the old South Pointe Seafood House, seats close to 600 (450 on two floors, 80 in the Grill, 30 in Mrs. Wollensky’s Cigar Bar). Tables along the tall picture windows and those in the outdoor caf� offer the best waterfront views, though the oak wood floors, rich cream walls and Italian marble make for an elegant interior scene as well and contribute to an elegant but not uptight dining experience.

The classic steakhouse menu is complemented by a distinguished wine menu, offering selections that go well with the exceptional aged beef and the fresh seafood dishes. The inventory of over 14,000 bottles, some of which are stored in the second-floor cellar but many of which can be seen mounted on walls and lined up on tables in the dining room, includes prominent American classics and cults as well as an array of international vintages, including boutique and “undiscovered gems.”

Diners looking for a more intimate group setting can reserve one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms. The Fisher Island Room offers a sunken water-level view, while the Government Cut Room upstairs provides a more panoramic scene; both seat up to 36 guests. The Vanderbilt Room includes its own bar and reception area just outside the entrance and seats up to 48. The Grill, located on the first floor with a large built-in bar as well as its own private entrance, comfortable accommodates 80 guests for dinner and up to 150 guests for a cocktail party.

For those just interested in drinks, people-watching, and/or lovely sunsets, Smith and Wollensky’s Deco Bar sits on a waterfront patio with a freshly cobbled lower walkway and table area that is almost contiguous with the rocks of Government cut. Menu highlights include Oysters Rockefeller, fried calamari, beer battered shrimp, and an assortment of flatbreads including buffalo chicken with gorgonzola and chili shrimp with avocado. The dinner menu is also available to Deco Bar guests.

Smith & Wollensky is at 1 Washington Avenue (At South Pointe Park), Miami Beach, FL 33139, 305-673-2800. For further information, visit, www.smithandwollenskysteakhouses.com.

Friday, 17 April, 2009

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© 2009 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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