Although this week will undoubtedly be overrun with drunken celebrations that only loosely tie into celebrating St. Patrick's Day, on Brickell Key a very special first birthday will mean surprises for Miami diners. La Mar by Gastón Acurio, a waterside restaurant inside the Mandarin Oriental, will celebrate its first anniversary this Thursday, March 19, when chef Diego Oka will usher in some welcome changes.
As New Times sat down to speak with the chef about what's new, what has changed, and how the first year has gone, the topic of an Instagram post from a few weeks ago came up. A huge fan of the photo-driven app, Oka admitted he was a bit forward in posting a picture of what looks like a cart.
"Oh my God," he sighed. "Well, I put it on Instagram because it's my toy. I just posted it — boom. Actually, what we are planning will come in two weeks. They told me not to talk about it because they knew you'd ask. In a few words, it's going to be a new toy that we'll have here, and it's going to be used only by the kitchen, not by the servers. We will manage that cart, and we are going to serve food there. What type of food is a surprise, every night."
Other, more subtle changes abound. "We have new art. Mandarin is a very elegant, conservative hotel. To be able to put this urban street art inside the hotel [is amazing]. These are from Hense, from Atlanta. He's an artist I like, and we asked if he wanted to show here." Large, brightly colored canvases dot the room, balancing well with the hand-drawn chalkboards above the ceviche and open-grill seating areas. A new lighting scheme gives the restaurant significantly more ambiance, and a new stereo system has also been installed.
At the center of the restaurant sits "a new chef's table — a 17-top marble table that came two weeks ago." Oka said that after the anniversary, the table will feature exclusive place settings and can be booked for large parties. There, guests will be treated to family-style meals such as whole-roasted cuts of pork, large bowls of pisco punch, and other delights. That's not all.
This Thursday, a new menu will be rolled out. "Some of the new dishes for sure are a three-pound osso buco cooked for four hours, braised in chicha morada, with potato purée, ají amarillo, and toast for the marrow. We're going to change the empanadas to ají de gallina with manchego cheese and Parmesan cheese. We're going to do pulpo al olivo, which is a classic," said the chef, clearly beaming with excitement about what lies ahead.
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As for the first year, Oka says it has been a welcome challenge. After opening six La Mar locations with Gastón Acurio in Lima, Mexico, Colombia, and San Francisco, the young chef was challenged by the move from independent restaurants to a corporate environment; he was forced to become more organized. "We have a great team — in the kitchen, an amazing team. I've opened six La Mars now, and I think these are my most efficient, fastest learners. The best attitude and professionalism is in Miami. When I moved here, all my friends told me: 'You are going to suffer. You will not find cooks.' But, in my experience, this is the best team I've ever had."
As one of the most talked-about openings of 2014, La Mar seems to have a bright outlook for 2015. The evening of March 19, diners will be treated to a special cocktail of champagne, guava, lucuma, and cherimoya. After tasting it, we can say with confidence that a birthday reservation is in order.