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If you're in the vicinity of the Village of Merrick Park and aching for a big, thick, juicy steak, you most likely head to the Palm. Should you be more in the mood for dazzling, contemporary Latin-inspired cooking, you choose Chispa. But how many folks simply can't decide between the two?
Douglas Rodriguez is apparently hoping plenty. Just two months ago he opened his Nuevo Latino meatery OLA Steak in the Merrick Park space formerly occupied by Pescado. Like chef/partner Norman Van Aken of the ill-fated neighboring Mundo, Rodriguez began a career-catapulting stint years ago in Coral Gables, at Efrain Veiga's original Yuca restaurant. Following the success of New York's Patria and the opening of Miami's original OLA (on Biscayne and 50th Street), Rodriguez is beefing up his resumé. Mundo demonstrated that a name is not always enough, yet given the immense popularity of South Beach's Prime One Twelve, it seems there's a gap in the market for fashionable steak houses.
The meal begins well with a petit "pan d bono" (though be patient -- during one visit, we waited twenty minutes before receiving any). Also offered at Patria, this Colombian cheese bread is made with mozzarella and yuca flour (which has the consistency of cornstarch), and it's rich enough to eschew butter. If you desire multiple rolls, you'll have to ask, because they're parceled with the parsimoniousness of a prince dispensing pence to peasants. Perhaps this is a strategic maneuver to stop patrons from overindulging before ordering, but it's equally likely the bread server wasn't on top of his game. Although the waitstaff is well trained and generally knowledgeable, some runners and bussers were slow. Considering OLA Steak is relatively new, we will extend a bit of grace.
The menu is big and busy, brimming with stimulating, mouthwatering choices that make it difficult knowing where to start. "Ellyssoise" makes for a bright beginning, the effervescent vichyssoise created from chilled yuca and leeks, with a hot nugget of bacalao plunked in the center. "White salad" is another light and lively option, with endive, parsnip, coconut, toasted almond, feta cheese, and garlic vinaigrette providing as many contrasting tastes as one plate can handle. Other small snacks include "mystery meatballs" (prepared from oxtail); "domino" empanaditas with black beans and queso blanco wrapped in a sweet, arepa-like corn dough; and half a dozen baked whitewater clams piqued with biting cachucha peppers, minced onions, and chicharron of pork -- but overcooked.
Some of the more expensive appetizers include fried oysters served over beef tartare with a blue cheese crme frache, and a "twenty dollar medianoche" comprising foie gras, duck Serrano ham, truffled cheese, and guava mustard. Castro, if he ever found out, would use this sandwich to prove American decadence and then secretly order his cooks to prepare one.
Rodriguez's eateries consistently feature unique and unparalleled ceviche, and OLA Steak is no exception. Choose from either shrimp pepped with pink grapefruit, peppercorn, and Thai basil; or corvina with translucent sheets of tangy, lime-marinated fish tossed with raw and caramelized red onions, cilantro, and strips of pickled poblano pepper. That's not all: Fried, spiced kernels of Peruvian corn add a crunch, and a provocative scoop of Guinness sorbet contributes a titillating twang of beer.
Eight steaks are divided equally into two categories: natural, grass-fed, wet-aged Uruguayan; and dry-aged, USDA-certified Black Angus. With the exception of a two-pound porterhouse for $65, the meat is sanely portioned (nine to twenty ounces) and priced ($24 to $35). The American beef is fattier and moister, and dry-aging tends to yield a richer-tasting product. Cows were compared based on sampling a rib eye from each section. The fourteen-ounce Uruguayan cut costs $25. It could have had a smooth, beefy taste, but the smoky adobo spice rub dominated the overall flavor, plus the meat was tough. As expected the $35 sixteen-ounce USDA beef was juicier, more tender, and streaked with more fat, thus a better steak.
If it's Uruguayan meat you're after, opt for a filet mignon, a cut whose buttery texture is not dictated by its grease content. A second option is the "Big Boy churrasco," which isn't very impressive considering it's only twelve ounces of tenderloin given a spiral cut to look like skirt steak (odd -- chefs used to make skirt steak seem like tenderloin). Nevertheless the steak was delicious, possessing the generously seasoned, quickly grilled flavor of churrasco and the soft texture of a filet. An array of full-bodied, mostly California red wine is available at lofty prices.
The chef offers three sauces as accompaniment: traditional chimichurri; tamarind panca pepper sauce (think A.1. with balls); and huacatay sauce, derived from Peruvian black mint leaves, whose pungency makes for an acquired taste. Those seeking an extreme steak-over can choose from more extravagant toppings (such as black truffle or carrot-and-crab-based chimichurris), each tempting and capable of elevating the price of your entrée by $10 to $13. ¬ la carte side dishes aren't family-portioned steak-house style, but delicious and inexpensive enough (most $3 to $6) that you can order a bunch for the table. Rodriguez was working on maximum mojo when he dreamed up these delights, and I don't mean only the mushroom mojo served with grilled asparagus. Other vegetable picks include a gratin of fava, sugar snap, and green beans, and a sumptuous trio of Peruvian "choclo" creamed corn kernels. Delicate wedges of yuca hash browns and a creamy purée of malanga should satisfy starch cravings, but skip the mofongo: Two small, crumbly balls drenched in garlic oil prove that some dishes aren't meant to be miniaturized.