In 2014, as Argentina plunged into economic chaos, Federico Cassino's life's work crumbled. Regular customers at his minuscule restaurant where the now-32-year-old chef would prepare a different five-course meal every night, could no longer afford to dine out.
"What we paid for gas went from 50 pesos to 1,000 pesos a month," Cassino says. "We had to raise prices while our customers had less money to spend. It was like to be a business owner, you also had to be an economist."
So after years of visiting Miami, Cassino and his wife Sofia decided to move north to start over. The result is their new restaurant, Paon Eatery, which opened in late May on the otherwise sleepy Kane Concourse in Bay Harbor Islands.
The narrow, quaint 40-seater is bordered on one side by a concrete wall decorated with pencil drawings of moose and Argentine landscapes. On the opposite side, a wall-size mirror is obscured by a tall gray leather banquette. Leafy vines, along with amorphous, overturned baskets that double as light fixtures, drop from the ceiling.
The menu offers Mediterranean and Latin American plates pared down to their simplest form and split into sections such as salads, sandwiches (during lunch), entrées, and a dozen-and-a-half tapas.
Here, on the oblong islands where people rarely glance left and right as they make their way to or from the beach, Cassino has assembled a menu of hearty bistro fare offered at far more reasonable prices than what can be found at the nearby Bal Harbour Shops.
Cassino was born in Buenos Aires and studied marketing, taking on a professional career while nurturing a lifelong enthusiasm for cooking that began with his Italian grandmother, a pasta whiz, and his mother, who cooked more refined French and Spanish cuisine for the family.
In 2008, he decided he'd had enough of corporate life and enrolled in cooking classes in Buenos Aires. Two years later, he landed a gig at Barcelona's Hisop, a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant situated just off the city's Avinguda Diagonal. He quickly moved from menial tasks like cutting vegetables to manning the restaurant's grill and roasting Mediterranean squid, sardines, and the langoustine-like cephalopods called bogovantes.
After six months, he returned to Buenos Aires, and two years later he and Sofia launched their place, which they called Moment, in a nearly century-old house. Soon, though, the economy began tanking, so they left. They chose Bay Harbor Islands because the short strip of road sees a reasonable amount of foot traffic.
The bulk of Paon's menu is tapas, most of which cost less than $10. Many suffice as entrées. The short rib ($15) is far and away the best bet. Cassino vacuum-packs the hulk of bone-in meat with olive oil and thyme, then simmers it for 18 hours. That's just long enough to turn fat-laced beef tender, but not so long that it makes the meat disintegrate after a slight touch. Just before it's served, it's crisped and given some sheen with a salty, sour soy glaze, then plated with a cold salad of hard-boiled eggs, crunchy romaine hearts, and green onion. The salad lightens each hefty bite of rib meat, making it easy to polish off.
Shrimp with the starchy, crisp, supple Swiss potato pancake called rösti ($9) is another steal. Six of the pink crustaceans boast an impressive crust with just a dash of char, while their interiors remain sweet and creamy. The rösti is like the love child of hash browns and potato pancakes. The outside is roasted to a crisp golden crust dusted with salt, and just underneath waits a creamy layer of softened potato slivers glossed with quality olive oil.
Potatoes appear to be one of Cassino's strong suits. His "triple cooked potato fries" ($5) seem to be neither potato nor fry but instead are ethereal nuggets of starchy goodness encased in a crackly, greaseless shell. He accomplishes this feat by first chopping the potatoes into bite-size cubes and giving them a long soak in ice water to leech out the starch. Next, they're boiled, chilled, blanched in hot oil, and chilled again before a final fry turns them into ruffled auburn cubes. Order them naked or crowned with a runny poached egg and squiggles of a garlicky aioli and a smoky harissa tomato sauce.
The grilled octopus ($17) presents a tentacle in peak form, tender inside and aggressively crusted outside, perched atop smashed and roasted fingerling potatoes with skins roasted into crisp shells. A few splotches of a velvety eggplant purée ($6) add an herbaceous richness. A similarly clever touch is deployed in a silky, sweet summer corn soup ($7) gussied up with a few dots of sesame oil. The nutty oil is like a catalyst for the corn's sweetness, intensifying it while also adding layers of complexity.
The eggplant purée acts like a dressing, coating and seasoning each bite of crisp green beans, cilantro, green onion, and peppery arugula.
The crispy skin red snapper ($19) is a standout on the shortlist of entrées thanks to the grilled hearts of romaine on which it perches. The usually watery, tasteless green takes on a new life after being charred on the grill. Its woody flavor mingles seamlessly with the juicy fish.
A simple plate of pappardelle ($17) fails to meet the rest of the menu's standards. Though Cassino uses a nice, eggy dried pasta and cooks it well, the cream sauce in which it sits is thin, bland, and lukewarm. Porcini and shiitake mushrooms help a bit, but without a thicker, better-seasoned sauce, the dish fails to reach its potential.
Those mushrooms get a second chance packed into the steamed, Chinese-style clamshell buns ($10) Cassino makes. Though these buns have become ubiquitous on menus in recent years, few cooks undertake the laborious process of making them from scratch. The results, however, aren't stiff, dense buns that harden as they cool. They have the fluffiness and stretchability of the interior of a fresh croissant and only get better once filled with meaty, umami-rich slivers of mushrooms.
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Despite Cassino's time in an ambitious, Michelin-starred restaurant, his latest place proves that food need not be overly fussy to be enjoyable. Such was his mission when he made the more than 4,400-mile schlep from Buenos Aires to Miami.
"We're casual in our approach, but that doesn't mean the food has to suffer," he says.
Paon is a happy respite from the carelessness of the food that can be found just south in Miami Beach. All you have to do is stroll down the road.
Paon Eatery. 1076 Kane Concourse, Bay Harbor Islands; 786-348-0672; paoneatery.com. Monday through Saturday noon to 4 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.