At Oolite, Kris Wessel Takes Florida's Culinary Influences on a Healthful, Delectable Jaunt
A half-dozen fat, sweet barbecued shrimp arrive bathed in a fragrant, rust-colored sauce.
One bite reveals that their tingling spice is cut by the rich smack of butter as well as lemon and floral rosemary. The plump crustaceans are perfectly cooked, with crisp exteriors and tender, briny interiors. They come with a few triangles of crumbly roti, an Indian flatbread.
You wouldn't know it, but the dish is gluten-free. Chef Kris Wessel's addictive barbecue sauce, which doesn't contain Worcestershire sauce, is often made with soy. And the roti is prepared with chickpea flour instead of traditional whole wheat.
Indeed, nothing at Oolite, Wessel's new place just off Lincoln Road, contains gluten -- including the toothsome cornflour penne pasta encased in a gooey cheese sauce. It's a big bet on a huge space by an established chef in the midst of a rough run. Wessel took over the restaurant's lease from Gigi owner Amir Ben-Zion, who for a short while ran the space as Cooper Avenue.
Its 5,000 square feet hold more than 200 seats. It would be even larger if Wessel hadn't turned half of it into a bar and nightclub. It's only a few steps from tourist-flooded Lincoln Road, but once the outdoor mall's din fades, Oolite feels miles away. Wessel, however, says he's confident his menu -- tropical, healthful, and satisfying -- is a good fit for body-conscious South Beach. He's also hoping to lure private parties after they've spent the day across the street at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
The idea for Oolite, named for Miami's porous limestone bedrock, began three years ago after Wessel learned that his then-8-year-old daughter, Anais, was allergic to gluten.
"We went into three months of deconstructing sandwiches, going with gluten-free pastas," he says. "I didn't lose the flavor spectrum, and even cooking for her I started realizing you don't need it in your diet."
The one-page menu, which offers meats, vegetables, and plant-based starches à la carte, started in Wessel's home kitchen, where he practiced making bread with alternative flours and boiling gluten-free pasta. The offerings are rooted in Florida's culinary traditions while celebrating the flavors and cultures that give the region its multicultural vibrancy. Wessel makes ample use of jackfruit, avocados, and mangoes in a lineup that also includes slow-cooked goat, ropa vieja, and rotisserie duck.
Yet on a recent Friday, the space felt empty despite the 60 people sitting in the warmly lit dining room, swathed in solid walnut wainscoting. A troupe of affable servers hovered around a limestone-wrapped counter, where the kitchen proffered its creations. Diners sitting at pale-green tufted banquettes glimpsed the kitchen through small square windows framed in walnut and limestone. Volleyball-size hunks of coral hung in recessed spaces between each opening, whose backlit panes emitted a Photoshopped-like glow.
Wessel, along with many of Miami's most celebrated chefs of the moment, is a Mango Gang acolyte who worked for Mark Militello in the late '90s. His greatest success came in 2008 when he opened Red Light Little River in Motel Blu on Biscayne Boulevard. There Wessel honored his New Orleans roots with dishes like a savory, warm oyster pie alongside products of his Florida upbringing usually made with local ingredients. He was forced out in 2012 when the motel changed hands.
In 2013, Wessel spent a short time at Florida Cookery, named for his grandmother's 1940 cookbook, inside the chic James Royal Palm Hotel. Its cuisine was praised, though the high-end restaurant's service left some wanting.
In his latest venture, Wessel snuffs out service issues and plates pleasing combinations that don't leave patrons uncomfortably full. A crunchy, queso-blanco-filled arepa studded with kernels of sweet summer corn is quartered and layered with thin slices of tangy fried green tomatoes. It's presented alongside a green-tomato ceviche with perfect, tiny cubes dressed in lime juice. The three together create a balanced bite with equal parts sweet, salt, and acid.
Wessel's coconut-conch chowder could be called Caribbean chili thanks to the intense heat of Scotch bonnet peppers and the heap of tender ground conch meat in each bite. He tosses the shellfish in Jamaican curry powder, cumin, and guajillo chilies before browning the meat and adding corn, coconut milk, shrimp, and a touch of cornstarch in place of a roux to help thicken the mixture.
While proteins are served solo, the menu offers a number of side and salad items that change daily, including a fresh vegetable, a three-grain salad, and a three-squash hash. The last, on a recent night, included chayote, zucchini, and summer squash. Each was well seasoned and roasted until tender without losing its slight crunch. More texture came courtesy of flaxseeds, as well as intensely sweet dehydrated Vidalia onion.
A three-quarter-inch-thick piece of Atlantic swordfish is the most composed of Wessel's 15 protein offerings. The fish spends just enough time on the grill to develop those smoky-tasting crosshatch char marks without being overcooked. A spot of sugary, pale-yellow jackfruit sauce would be cloying on its own but blends perfectly with a grassy pea-shoot salad and crunchy almond slivers. Shaved fennel provides a wispy anise perfume that gracefully accentuates the meaty fish.
Wessel also shows off with a bowl of curried goat that matches the meat's gaminess with sweet guava. He does this with a deft hand -- the dish has two intense flavors that somehow emerge from the kitchen delicate. The otherwise utilitarian meat is coated in Jamaican curry powder before being browned and slow-cooked for hours until it slips effortlessly off the bone. A house-made guava paste with turbinado sugar and allspice is mixed into the braising liquid, which is blended, strained, and ladled into the bottom of a massive bowl with a slanted opening.
In addition to smart pairings and interesting techniques, the kitchen is also adept at the basics. A chicken from Joyce Farms is roasted sublimely, with the breast and thigh perfectly cooked. The crisp skin is a treat that can be eaten without guilt. The tart, sweet key lime sauce flecked with parsley is smartly deployed, with only a drizzle on the bird to preserve the skin's crunch.
For a gluten-free restaurant, dessert can be the most precarious course. No traditional pastry techniques or ingredients are allowed. In the beginning, Wessel brought on Pamela Wasabi, the pastry chef at Choices Café, for three days a week to begin developing the sweets. She's now there five days and turns out a rich light-green avocado pie that's tart and sweet with key lime juice and a crackling crust made of pumpkin seeds and oats. It's a smart rendition of the classic key lime concoction that loses nothing without the graham
The best part of the meal comes at the end. After dessert is polished off and the bill is settled, you don't yearn for more. You're not half-full from a rabbit's diet of green vegetables, and there isn't a hint of longing for more sophisticated, satiating flavors.
Instead, you emerge from an hour or two that condenses decades, if not centuries, of Florida's cultural and culinary evolution into a few delicious bites. You will also be ready for a brief jog and, most certainly, your next visit.
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