Miami Restaurants Bocce Bar, L'Echon Brasserie, and Blackbrick to Debut Soon
Jacob Katel
Blackbrick's Mongolian bread

When the humidity drops below 90 percent and temperatures cool to the mid-70s, Miami comes alive. Snowbirds and weekenders fly south for the winter in search of balmy breezes and events such as Art Basel and the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. It is also the time when new restaurants surface.

In the next couple of months, three eateries are set to open, and behind each establishment is a chef who has departed his current culinary style to enter a new realm of flavor. Though each chef has a different story, all of them have been influenced by their travels. Marcel Proust wrote, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." These chefs are cooking with new eyes, and Miami is in for a culinary voyage.

Samba Brands Management, which is also behind the SushiSamba chain, decided to open an Italian restaurant because of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill's chef/partner Timon Balloo's passion for the Mediterranean.

Bocce Bar's Timon Balloo
Andrew Meade
Bocce Bar's Timon Balloo
Pubbelly partner and L'Echon Brasserie executive chef Jose Mendin
Hector Torres
Pubbelly partner and L'Echon Brasserie executive chef Jose Mendin
Blackbrick's Richard Hales
Blackbrick's Richard Hales

Bocce Bar, forecast to open in late 2013 at 3252 NE First Ave., is designed to give Miami a bit of the dolce vita for which Italians are known. Modeled after a traditional enoteca, the midtown Miami restaurant will feature an indoor/outdoor bar as a focal point. A counter will display a selection of house-made pastas, sauces, and prepared foods for take-out. And there will be a bocce court in the restaurant. The cuisine, described as "modern Italian," will take cues from different cities Balloo has visited. "When I was in Italy last year, I was just leisurely absorbing the culture. There were so many things I loved — I really don't want to get pigeonholed," he says.

More important to Balloo is capturing the spirit and soulfulness of the food. "There's so much history behind everything. Even a cup of espresso is done perfectly — just so — the way it's been done for decades, centuries. There's a pride in beautiful, handcrafted items. We have to respect the ingredients, but we'll also have a laid-back, rustic approach to dining." Balloo explains he'll also borrow influences from the entire Mediterranean region, including North Africa, Spain, and Greece. "Part of the success of Sugarcane is that we are a little bit of everything to everyone."

To further his education in Italian cuisine, the chef will travel to Italy this month with the goal of eating around the boot as much as possible. "I'm going to Florence, Puglia, Naples, Rome, Sicily, and Sardinia. I want to learn and absorb what I can. I have a deep infatuation with Italian cuisine.

"Besides," he quips, "I'm half-Chinese. I guess we gave the Italians noodles. So that I have down solid."

Long before South Beach's popular pork-centric restaurant Pubbelly was even a thought, a 17-year-old kid named Jose Mendin announced he wanted to be a chef and went to Paris with his father. "My dad took me to a three-star Michelin restaurant, and I think I had the best meal of my life there. I can still taste the foie gras."

Like many a young American, Mendin fell in love with the City of Lights. "I've been known more for working with Asian cuisine, but I just love everything French."

Mendin and his business partners, Andreas Schreiner and Sergio Navarro, affectionately known as the Pubbelly boys, have founded a small but growing Miami empire — the Pubbelly Restaurant Group — with restaurants that feature pork, sushi, Italian, Spanish, and American-steak-house fare. Now they face a new challenge: a French bistro inside a hotel. L'Echon Brasserie, a play on the Spanish word for "pork," is scheduled to open December 16 at the Hilton Cabana Miami Beach at 6261 Collins Ave.

"This gives us a good opportunity to bring our style of dining to a hotel in Miami Beach," Pubbelly partner and executive chef Mendin says. He says that hotel management had, in fact, planned on bringing in an out-of-town name, "but one of the hotel executives loved Pubbelly so much he brought his bosses to experience our style."

The trio has been wanting to do a French bistro for some time. "We're big fans of French cuisine, and we always had this brasserie concept that we wanted to develop because it really captures all that we think is cool in a restaurant." The place will channel a Paris bistro, complete with butcher-block tables, a raw bar, and an open kitchen. There will also be a communal table — a Pubbelly signature.

Mendin says he'll put a "spin" on traditional dishes, which can prove risky when taking liberties with classic French cuisine. "We're not afraid, but if we're going to do it, we have to do it right. We want to make sure we have the correct talent to make it happen and put out something that's respectable."

He and his partners have found that talent from within their own ranks. Josh Elliott, who will co-run the kitchen at L'Echon with Mendin, began as a sous-chef at PB Steak and is now running the kitchen with Mendin at Pubbelly. Coincidentally, Elliott worked at DB Bistro Moderne before joining the Pubbelly family. Mendin describes Elliott as "young" and "passionate," and together they're developing the menu and researching various dishes. "We're going to take care of this together, and hopefully Josh will become the face of the restaurant later on."

Although the menu hasn't been finalized, Mendin is using Pubbelly patrons as taste-testers. "We're trying out a croque-monsieur, country pâté, and chicken liver with sweet-and-sour onion marmalade. We're also doing veal brains. A lot of Miami chefs are coming in to try those." Some classic dishes will be translated into shareable plates, and everything will be previewed before it makes the final cut. "We have to make sure every dish has been tested and works. Sometimes a chef's vision isn't right.

"We're trying to take these classic recipes and make them fun without disrespecting them. Being on the beach, having a glass of wine — that's what we envision a brasserie to be."

When Richard Hales opened Sakaya Kitchen in 2010, the "fast-casual, Asian-inspired, organic-conscious restaurant" quickly became an obsession of many Miamians who craved flavorful food that wouldn't break their budgets. The restaurant served everything from Korean-style barbecue to "chunk'd" tater tots smothered in cheese and beef. Hales, who attended the French Culinary Institute in New York and worked under Jean-Georges Vongerichten, says he opened Sakaya Kitchen because "that's what I wanted to eat right then."

Now, two restaurants and two food trucks later, it seems Hales wants to eat Chinese food after having had a taste for it on a trip last year that took the chef/restaurateur to Korea, Tokyo, and northeast China.

"I took a boat from South Korea to an area called Dongbei in China to check out the 'northeast' style of food. It was a wild ride. I headed a bit farther northeast, actually very close to North Korea. After visiting a few places in Dongbei, I headed across Bohai Bay and followed the Yellow River, eating seafood until I reached Shandong."

He found the cuisine in that part of the world vastly different from the Chinese food with which Americans are familiar. "You get a lot of dumplings and bread and very little rice, because rice isn't grown there. There are a lot of roasted meats, served with almost a naan-style bread. That's something we can gravitate to as Americans."

Hales discovered more contrasts between Americanized Chinese food and the cuisine in China. "The food there is more pungent, and here it's sweeter. We have more fried foods. There are things you just don't recognize. I was eating charcuterie and stir-fried bread — I'd never heard of stir-fried bread."

He will have the opportunity to introduce Miami to some of the cuisine he experienced when Blackbrick opens in early November at 3451 NE First Ave. The intimate, 50-seat restaurant, named for the black tea that was once used as currency in China, will be Hales' answer to the dearth of good, affordable Chinese restaurants in Miami.

The menu will be a hybrid of different regional cuisines, including dishes he experienced in Dongbei, but Hales knows there will be certain expectations. "You can mimic a restaurant in China here, but people will still want ribs, General Tso's chicken, and a fortune cookie. Danny Serfer from Blue Collar keeps feeding me information on what I need to have on the menu to be a proper Chinese restaurant: There better be fried noodles when you sit down, and there better be wonton soup. I lived in New York for ten years. I was eating lamb with cumin in Flushing, Queens. I know a place in San Francisco that has great chow fun. I want to do a really good house fried rice."

Taking cues from his formal training and his eating experiences in China, Hales is creating a hybrid menu. "I don't want to say it's going to be authentic, because everyone has their own interpretation of authentic. Besides, there's a lot of crappy-assed authentic food in China. Let's make it good first and then worry about being authentic later."

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