I was practically raised by a television set as a kid, sitting in front of a constantly blaring screen of images and noise for as long as both my parents worked and for as long as my daycare sitters were lazy (which was all of the time.) These, of course, were the days before Baby Einstein existed and mommy-guilt forums touted the need for “social stimulation” at an early age.
With so many hours of TV, I naturally forged a deep kinship with the characters I watched and felt the consequence of the things that happened to them. I felt for Cookie Monster and his eating disorder just as much as I felt for the issues faced by my friends on The Wire as an adult.
Later on, I found comfort in the safety of televised food competition. I’d come home from a long day at work, grab a box of cereal for dinner, and watch real people cook the things I should be eating. It was soothing and realistic. The corn pops I’d shovel into my mouth turned into scallops and risotto. I’d go to bed deceptively satiated by the things I watched instead of the things I actually ate.
Of all the cooking show characters that got me through this unhealthy phase of couch sitting, the one that appealed to me the most was Fabio Viviani, an Italian chef who competed on the fifth season of Top Chef. He was cute, funny, and had some seriously water-cooler-at-work quote-worthy commentary. Week after week, he’d say stuff like “I got so many kick in my ass that sometime when I am in the bathroom, I poop shoes out of my ass.” On TV, he was a real, no-bullshit guy with a funny Italian accent.
Nearly five years later, Fabio turned up again – this time in real life. He was set to open his fourth restaurant, Siena Tavern in Miami and only a few blocks away from my apartment on the beach.
News of an opening party was out, and I marked the day on my calendar that I could finally taste the food I’ve been watching this guy cook for so long. At the party, there must have been over a thousand people there, a four-block line around the restaurant, and lots of high-heels clacking around hoping to get a glimpse of the famous chef and a bite from the highly anticipated menu.
Inside Siena Tavern, I was met with a huge, circular bar, humming productively and pumping out drinks with Fabio’s no-bullshit brand of cocktail naming conventions: No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and so on.
With a No. 7 in hand, I let myself be moved by the crowd inside the massive space, nearly every square inch of the old China Grill building being taken up by really tall, good-looking people wearing their best black outfits. One thing about living on South Beach that always gets me – you forget you live in South Beach until you do a really South Beachy thing.
Photo cred: Droolius
After journeying through the restaurant and trying to chase down servers carrying trays of wagyu beef meatballs, pasta in jars, and lamb chops to the barbarian crowd, I found the man of the hour with a little help from a now mutual friend, Droolius.
Television does something weird to people. It makes them feel like a caricature of themselves, a real-life bobblehead whose layers upon layers of TV editing slowly melt away as they look you in the eye and say words that are actually intended for you. Fabio was super gracious, genuinely excited, and understandably very distracted by the madness of the night. But he said words. Not to a camera. Or a screen. But to me. I didn’t hear them, but he said them. And then he became a person.
And with that, he disappeared into the blur of the masses.
So, how was the food? Was my journalistic integrity impaired by a case of serious fangirling? Could I fairly evaluate the restaurant on merit alone? The answer is… maybe.
It isn’t easy going to this type of event, sip on your third free cocktail of the night, frantically plow spoonfuls of small versions of a restaurant’s dishes into your mouth and be able to give an unbiased assessment.
But I am sure of a couple of things. First of all, the restaurant looks awesome. The mood lighting and ambiance in the restaurant makes you feel like you’re getting a warm hug from your parents on Christmas morning. I mean, look at this place – even those mafioso-looking guys in the corner can’t deny it:
And while trying to taste some of the food meant having to hide behind the counter where the waitstaff were coming out and punch anyone in the face that got in the way, I was finally able to snab a spoonful of butternut squash tortellaci from a server who was in the process of running away from a maniacal crowd. Brown sugar. Sage. One taste and I’d momentarily forgotten Fabio’s face altogether.
That was just enough for me to want to go back on a regular night and actually pay to have food in a less frantic environment and without the distraction of a dreamy Italian chef. Count me in for a real date, Siena Tavern.
404 Washington Ave
Miami Beach FL 33139