Bask in the Glow of Excellence
The idea of organic, nutritional, sustainable cuisine, first replanted in this country by Alice Waters, has since sprouted into a whole-food movement that has widely affected the American diet. Anyone who doubts this observation need only note the crowds strolling through the gargantuan Whole Foods Market. In recent years, raw foodists have taken the purity notion to its extreme, and other cutting-edge culinary concepts, from Ferran Adrià's deconstructions to Heston Blumenthal's molecular gastronomy, are similarly radicalizing our long-held assumptions about cooking and eating. Afterglo -- a new South Beach venture by owner Tim "Tantra" Hogle and chef Michael Schwartz, formerly of Nemo -- huddles under the same revolutionary umbrella.
The food here is called "international beauty cuisine." It's grown without chemicals and pesticides, rates low in acidity and on the glycemic index, and high in everything else: proteins, vitamins, minerals, alkalines, antioxidants, living enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids, and flavor. It is healthy. It is pricey. Much of it is raw, all is outrageously inventive, most everything extremely delectable. Afterglo stands poised to illuminate Miami's way into the world of 21st-century dining.
Let's hope this isn't the face of future design. The 120-seat dining room fuses Tantraesque and Arabesque stylings (Moorish or less-ish), the result looking a little too much like a New Age Caesars Palace. A more organically chic décor would better suit the culinary concept, but Afterglo is also aiming for the indulgent late-night crowds of Tantra -- or maybe of Mezzannote, the popular party spot that previously inhabited this space (mercifully, there have been, thus far, no reported incidents of tabletop dancing).
The authors of the Raw Food, Real World cookbook write that raw foodists emanate "an unmistakable shine, like a pregnant woman in her second trimester." Many will scoff at such notions, but medical and scientific studies repeatedly confirm that incorporating raw fruits and vegetables into the diet is beneficial to one's health -- and I don't think it's open to debate whether salubrious people are more radiant than sickly ones. Although Hogle and Schwartz are true believers in the new gastronomic gospel, they aren't out to preach: Afterglo serves everything from meat to martinis.
Those who eat wholesomely not only glow outwardly but also claim to achieve an inner high. Clearly the person who conjured up the name "shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen" for a salad was feeling a little elevated. The dish is composed of arugula, watercress, warm egg, hair seaweed, flying fish roe, sunflower sprouts, wild mushrooms, and hemp, poppy, and pumpkin seed dressing -- followed by a freshly squeezed shot of baby green apple juice. Hemp seeds sprout throughout the menu, but Afterglo is more hip than hippie, with neither a tofu treatment nor a veggie burger in sight.
"A beautiful mind" salad brought a brainstorm of tantalizing textures and tastes. A base of baby romaine leaves was fortified with blueberries, walnuts, Brazil nuts, sun-dried goji berries (from the Himalayas), tender Thai coconut meat, pomegranate-chia seed jelly, and ground raw cacao -- all splashed with rosemary, ginko, and gotu kola vinaigrette. Smart and gorgeous, with great body -- everything desirable in a mate, and way more than you'd expect from a salad.
Schwartz relies not only on exotic ingredients but also on good old gastronomic ingenuity to excite the senses. Most local kitchens have ready access to red grapefruit, radish, bok choy, fresh mint, honey, and olive oil, but only he has thought to combine them into a bracingly buoyant salad -- heightened by use of eucalyptus honey and the addition of red clover sprouts and crushed pink peppercorns.
Appetizers include a ceviche of bison, tataki of wild venison, tartare of sockeye salmon, gazpacho of yellow tomato with hemp seeds, and carpaccios of East Coast fluke and raw artichoke, paper-thin shavings adroitly accented with aged goat cheese, lemon, olive oil, milk thistle sprouts, and Celtic sea salt. There are also cooked sashimis of "live lobster" (meaning freshly killed per order, which certainly pumps up the guilt quotient) and "wild Japanese horse mackerel," as well as a scrumptious tosaka sushi roll with avocado, daikon, carrot, pea shoots, and a "rice" of parsnip and pine nuts -- further heightened with nama shoyu (smooth, unpasteurized soy) and real wasabi, a fiery radish that makes the fake stuff seem as mellow as mayonnaise.
Two other worthwhile starters are grilled Mediterranean sardines, butterflied and buttressed by sweetly roasted tomatoes and crisp elephant garlic chips, and the signature "beauty pill," a plump patty of wild-caught sockeye salmon, seductively speckled with fennel, apple, walnuts, garlic, green onion, hu zhang, curry, and fresh tumeric -- a rarely used spice that whispers hot, gingery suggestions. The only ugly note was a very salty salad on the side. Good thing the staff was quick at refilling water glasses.
Waiters were as down-to-earth as the produce, exceedingly friendly and intimately knowledgeable about the food, which is especially admirable when you consider that the dessert menu alone lists a mind-boggling 67 different components (our waiter had to pull out his cheat sheet only once, having been momentarily stumped as to the seventh and eighth parts of a "chocolate eight textures" dessert). They also know their wines, an abbreviated list interspersed with a few organic selections -- none thus far available by the glass.
Carnivores are confronted with plenty of alluring options too. Grilled rib eye of American grass-fed bison (among the most tender and least gamey of game meats) is accompanied by an apricot beggar's purse filled with spiced hazelnuts and yogurt cheese, while grilled rack of lamb, also grass-fed, gets garnished with green papaya slaw and piquant peanut chutney. A sirloin of wild Nilgai antelope was leaner, chewier, more fully flavored than its cow counterpart -- tasted a little like venison, and indeed is often marketed as such. The ruby red meat was served with a tasty tartlette of vegetables and "ricotta" made from versatile pignoli.
Pan-roasted breast of wild pheasant was a bit dry, and the more subtle aspects of chanterelle, lobster, and trumpet mushrooms on the side were masked by an overly potent vinegar marinade, but a raw chocolate mole sauce painted across the plate vibrated with sassy seasonings (cardamom, cumin, almond) and sweeteners (dates, raisins, carrot juice). The sole pasta offering, homemade saffron-almond penne, was robustly pepped with pesto, portobellos, slivered artichoke, sun-dried tomato, toasted almonds, and shavings of aged, raw goat cheese. A sumptuously soft, pristinely steamed slab of wild Alsaskan halibut came sparked with mint, lemon juice, and preserved kumquats -- so ethereal it practically floated atop champagne grapes dotted with sprouted quinoa.
Pastry chef Alejandro Briceño's desserts are as stunningly creative as the rest of the fare. I'll admit I wasn't keen on the chalky pink peppercorn mousse that topped an otherwise creditable carrot cake, but purists will purr over the "honey pot," a raw, sugar-free walnut tartlette with dreamy banana cinnamon cream, sliced bananas, orange segments, hemp seeds, and a drizzle of honey and organic chocolate sauce. Those who prefer their treats baked are sure to be pleased with the eight chocolate textures -- although, not to quibble, I counted only six. No matter, the three main elements are brownie, ice cream, and sauce, all deeply dark and chocolatey. Didn't try the milk chocolate cremoso, topped with Celtic sea salt and olive oil and served with sourdough toast and coffee parfait, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were designed by those wacky molecular gastronomists.
After finishing the meal, my wife broke the news to me gently: I was no closer to resembling Orlando Bloom. Still, Afterglo offers honest, compelling, delicious cuisine. And that's a beautiful thing.
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