By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Nor was I let down by the cuisine, in my case cooked by Alice Weingarten of Alice's at La Te Da in Key West: clams on the half shell topped with chorizo; spicy pink conch bisque splashed with Stolichnaya vodka; tropical fruit shortcake with passion fruit Chantilly cream -- a delectable mix of southwestern, Caribbean, and Old World flavors. Indeed Weingarten, a formally schooled CIA chef and a member of the James Beard Foundation, is to be congratulated not only on her oft-described "fusion confusion," but her generosity of spirit: She'd been tapped as a substitute to replace the chef who originally was booked for this particular dinner, one Douglas Rodriguez.
Therein, of course, lay my nugget of gastronomic distress. Not that I wasn't grateful for Weingarten's selflessness and goodwill; after all, for her trouble she had to endure a five-hour car ride, thanks to an accident on the single-lane road down in the Keys, on her way to Boca. And she was still cheerful enough to describe every course for us, after which sommelier-in-attendance Laura DePasquale explained the wine pairs.
Still I had been looking forward to sampling Rodriguez's fare, a privilege I haven't had since his early days at Patria in New York, right after he left Miami's groundbreaking Latin-fusion restaurant Yuca. Now the widely acknowledged originator of Nuevo Latino cuisine and author of cookbooks such as Latin Ladles and Latin Flavors on the Grill, Rodriguez owns Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia as well as several NYC restaurants, including Chicama and the newly opened Chispa. Yup, the latter boasts the same name as Robbin Haas's forthcoming eatery, a coincidence that is rumored to be sparking some legal issues.
It was the then-upcoming opening of Chispa that prevented him from participating in the Bacchanal and assuaging my craving for his cooking. At the time, I had no way of knowing that I'd be able to satisfy myself the very next day, when a review copy of Rodriguez's freshly released cookbook The Great Ceviche Book arrived via U.S. Postal Service.
In the simplest terms, think of The Great Ceviche Book as the gastronomic equivalent of a vibrator -- an extremely useful tool for the passionate home cook at every level of experience. The book opens with a definition of ceviche, one that may be familiar to us here in South Florida but still illuminating: "Generally speaking, ceviche is any mixture of fish or shellfish that is 'cooked' by the acid of a citrus marinade ... and typically enhanced with chilis, onions, and cilantro. It is an ideally straightforward dish for today's style of eating, one that relies primarily on the highest-quality ingredients and skillfully precise, simple preparation rather than over-the-top creativity or elaborate, strongly flavored sauces or spices."
Simple, yes, but the variations are as endless as the regions, from South America to Polynesia, that claim to have originated the marinated dish. Rodriguez presents 60 representative recipes ranging from "Honduran Fire and Ice Lobster" to "Chino Latino Black Bass with Dried Scallops." He gives a good intro to each version, explaining its origins or the inspirations he took to develop it, then deconstructs the steps clearly and precisely. Indeed, he notes, his recipes could be causeways to your own. As long as you have the proper tools, that is, which in the end don't really amount to a huge investment: a very sharp knife, a cutting board, a plastic Japanese mandoline (for creating thin-as-skin uniformity), a citrus reamer, and a nonreactive glass or stainless steel bowl (so the fish doesn't pick up metallic flavors). "Conquer the basic formula," he writes, "and you'll soon be sailing your own ship."
The element I like best about the book is Rodriguez's nod to our region. Though born in New York and a resident of that state now, he began his professional career in Miami and received national kudos for his work at Yuca, which revolutionized fine dining in Coral Gables back in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Those of us who were around then -- which doesn't mean we're old, so get your mind out of the nursing home -- still tend to think of him as a native son (and keep our appetites as sharp as ceviche knives in case he returns).
Rodriguez even thanks the staff at Norman's, Captain Jim's Seafood, and Sunray Seafood, all in Miami, for their advice on sourcing and purchasing ceviche-worthy ingredients. As such, it seemed only right to reprint a couple of Rodriguez's recipes that were designed with Miami in mind: