Cigar Aficionado

Grand Bay Hotel, Miami

The valet runs toward the car. The bell captain in a white uniform emerges from his kiosk and heads toward the car, too. Within seconds of stopping, the car door is pulled open gently, and a hearty "Welcome to the Grand Bay" greets the visitor as he steps out. "Are you checking in?" the bell captain asks. "Let me get your bags, and welcome to the Grand Bay." The bell captain escorts the guest into the lobby, seats him at a reception desk and says, "someone will be with you shortly." Within a heartbeat or two, a lovely receptionist approaches the desk and says, "welcome to the Grand Bay."

If at that point you haven't figured it out, check again: this hotel is genuinely glad that you're staying for the night. Part of the worldwide Ciga Hotel chain, the Grand Bay is simply the best hotel in Miami. Somehow its 180 rooms create a small, European feel...that's by design. Moreover, the Coconut Grove location is far from the frenetic pace of Miami's hot, new South Beach area, the aging elegance of the beach's gold coast area and remote in every sense from the bayside hotels in downtown Miami, which cater to the cruise-ship crowds. Within walking distance, the Grove's quaint, narrow streets beckon visitors with cafes and boutiques.

Currently undergoing a discreet, room-by-room redecoration, the Grand Bay is shedding some of its old-world look for a more updated, sophisticated tropical appearance. In a large bay suite--living room with wet bar, separate bedroom and two bathrooms--a light pine-green-and-tan motif gives a soft, relaxing mood. A basket of fresh fruit and chilled Perrier Jouet Champagne await guests in their rooms. There is a fax machine in every room, televisions at every turn--in the suite, there are phones and televisions in both bathrooms and both rooms. And each room sports a balcony overlooking the palms and low trees evident all along Florida's coast. As advertised, the hotel will deliver room service all day and night and respond to just about every request; in one brochure, a story is told about a guest who admired a waiter's jacket. The waiter said, "here, take it."

The hotel's main restaurant, the Grand Cafe, has always been considered among Miami's finest. However, in the past two years, it has suffered the defection of one chef and the presence of an uninspired replacement. That's all changed. Pascal Oudin, a Frenchman who is a veteran of the Miami scene, moved into the kitchens in January and quickly restored the food to its former glory.

Although limited to a few items on a daily-specials menu, during a recent visit, Oudin's offerings included crabcakes made with fresh blue and stone crabs; it was a succulent, extremely flavorful rendering of this dish. Lobster tails with porcinis in a wild-mushroom reduction was a combination of flavor bursts from the sea and forest. Main courses of seared tuna and a fresh salmon fillet were perfectly prepared and showed an inordinate attention to absolute freshness, a quality that is possible in Miami if you know the right fishing boat captains.

The wine list is pricey. But it includes some gems, especially given current vintages that are available in the market. Top white wines include a 1989 Corton Charlemagne, Bonneau du Martray, $148; a Puligny-Montrachet, 1990 from Louis Latour, $80 and a 1990 Grgich Hills Napa Chardonnay, 1990, $67.

Red wine selection is comprehensive, too. California Cabernets going back to 1974 are listed including Beaulieu Georges de la Tour, 1974, $275; a Joseph Heitz, Martha's Vineyard, 1979, $175 and an Inglenook Cask Reserve, 1974, $240. The restaurant also has some 1961 and 1970 first-growth Bordeaux including Château Lafite-Rothschild, 1961, $895; a Château Latour, 1970, $355; a Château Mouton-Rothschild, 1961, $895 and a 1970 Château Margaux, $340.

Of course, this hotel is cigar friendly. Grand Cafe patrons are asked to smoke their after-dinner cigars in the Ciga bar area, a rich, wood-paneled room with plush couches and quiet corners, where smoking them is encouraged. Terry Zarikian, director of product development, hasn't put in a hotel humidor yet; that's in the works this year. The impending arrival of a humidor points to one thing: the hotel's success with a series of cigar dinners, which are limited to 50 people. Tickets are not easy to come by.

In a town where cigar smoke is often in the air, thanks to the city's strong Cuban community, it's an additional pleasure to find a modern, luxurious hotel where cigars are also welcome. They are here. Just sit back in the Ciga bar and check out the welcoming smiles on the staff's faces, and you'll know that you have a home for a few days or even just a few hours.

-- Gordon Mott

Grand Bay Hotel
2669 South Bayshore Drive
Phone: (305) 858-9600
Rooms (seasonal rates): $275-$325; Suites: $340-$1,100