Eclectic indulgence at 717 South 

The quirky décor mirrors the equally varied menu.

If you’re not exactly sure what to expect as you approach 717 South, one glance at the awning above the door says it all, “Kitchens of Italy and The Pacific Rim.” Upon entering the eclectic dining room you’ll see a bank of booths to your left with snakeskin upholstery and pecan-colored wood grain that migrates onto the walls with shiny black wood trim crisscrossed like a half-timbered Tudor revival mansion.

At the center of the room is an enormous black-trimmed window with huge panes that stretch up to the top of the high ceilings. It’s like a 19th-century factory window — only it looks into the open kitchen. The stainless steel pass where the waitstaff picks up orders runs parallel to an impressive wooden bar. There, rows and rows of colorful up-lit glass bottles line the right side of the restaurant leading back to a smaller private dining area. Everywhere you look are large, ornately framed reproductions of the feminist Art Deco painter, Tamara de Lempicka, symbol of excess and indulgence.

The quirky mix of styles in the décor mirrors the equally varied menu and drink options. Owner Michael Stewart has assembled an extensive wine list (over 400 wines by the bottle), plus martinis and specialty drinks from around the globe. Korean-born chef Robert Masson displays a sure mastery of all ports and parts of the world as well.

Checking out the soup of the day is a good way to assess the technique of the kitchen. Are the flavors fresh? Does the broth contain layers — the tastes that comport with established benchmarks for the particular style that’s being featured “du jour?” Luckily, on the day of our visit, 717 is featuring a delicious grouper chowder in which all the elements sing. The soup tastes of the sea, light but brimming with flavor and packed with veggies and chunks of juicy fish.

We also opt for a another starter featuring the fruits of the ocean that reflect the chef’s Asian roots. Perfect pink yellowfin tuna is dusted with coriander and lightly seared, the fattiness of the fish balanced by the bracing acidity of several Far Eastern accompaniments. There’s a crunchy shredded daikon and carrot kimchi, a tangy seaweed salad, plus rosy pickled ginger and a savory, smooth eel sauce. Each and every one is a nice complement to the oily, thin slices of fish, and you can mix and match to suit your palate.

Our final appetizer knocks the table for a gastronomic loop. The fusion of cuisines is a triumph that’s not to be missed. Havana short rib spring rolls surround shredded braised beef with Cuban spices in an ultra-crisp deep fried wrapper. The contrasting textures surprise us all. The filling is soft and bursting with meaty flavor, and the crunch of outer roll is a reminder why fried foods (in moderation) are just so damn pleasing. As if this weren't enough, they’re served with a sweet, creamy almond guava spread and a few squiggles of spicy Peruvian pepper aioli. It’s an unforgettable combination of flavors, textures and aromas. Put this one at the top of your list.

The entrees feature a wide range of choices across a broad spectrum. There’s pizza and pasta, and protein galore. My dining companions decide it would be crazy to miss the famous miso and sake cured tilapia, and they are right. Again, Chef Masson is in total command. The miso provides savor and the sake bright acidity that bring tons of flavor to the mild fish without overpowering it. The Kaffir lime beurre blanc adds lush, buttery citrus notes that meld all the flavors into a balanced whole. With an edamame bean salsa and a slightly piquant wasabi mash to round out the plate, it’s easy to see why this has become a signature dish.

On the Italian side of the kitchen is a delightful mushroom risotto brimming with creamy goodness and an earthy mix of portabella, shitake, and white button mushrooms. The al dente rice is near perfect, with just the right amount of grated pecorino Romano and light hints of garlic and white wine. For a small up-charge, you can add a protein of your choice. We opt for chicken, and the chunks of juicy breast meat prove to be a nice addition.

717 also features a range of grilled steaks from a 20 oz. Porterhouse to a 6 oz. filet mignon with red wine demi glace. I settle on an 8 oz. strip of sirloin that arrives with classic grill marks, a perfect medium rare. The mild green peppercorn sauce and subtle garlic mashed potatoes combine with fresh grilled asparagus to make for a satisfying culinary ensemble.

The dessert menu features the usual suspects of crème brûlée and key lime pie, but we’re tempted by the pumpkin ginger cheesecake. My expectations are low because I’m so often disappointed by cheesecake that pulls its punches. I needn’t have worried. This one is properly dense and packs plenty of pumpkin flavor. We quickly devour it and the luscious whipped cream that gilds this sweet lily and exit onto South Howard with a little bit of Art Deco indulgence filling our happy guts.

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