Caffe Da Vinci's chef/owner Eric Druckmann knows his stuff. He also loves food. You can tell when his eyes light up as he explains how he uses liquid nitrogen to freeze vodka so he can use the normally non-freezable alcohol in a dessert recipe. Caffe Da Vinci is a very appropriate name for this restaurant.
"To take the traditional and give it a pinch, so that pow -- a person says wow! That's what I like."
He is a self-described "creator," and instead of rolling my eyes at what I would have otherwise considered to be a pretentious statement, I nodded in agreement. The man uses his knowledge of molecular gastronomy to create edible science experiments. The results aren't always successful, but for the most part they are.
"For the South Beach Wine and Food Festival I made 600 pounds of ceviche for 9,000 people. And I added pop rocks. It was amazing to watch everyone eating as the candy exploded in their mouths."
I was invited to dine (no charge) at Caffe Da Vinci to check out the restaurant after its remodeling a few months ago. The new décor is fabulous -- all red, white, and espresso - and the lounge area looks like something you'd find in New York City - stylish and subtly hip. The lighting in the dining area is a bit too dim though, making it hard to read the menu. Other than that, the formerly stuffy restaurant has a completely new look, and it works.
The bread that is currently served needs to be changed immediately. Most people love bread and at an Italian restaurant especially, you'd expect good dough. The mediocre stuff stands out even more because of the utterly amazing infused olive oil that is served alongside it. Apparently the herbs are left to soak in the oil for a decade or something, but that oil was just so good that you wondered why it was hanging out with that sub-par bread. It could obviously do better.
We started with the antipasto all' Italiana ($11) which was exactly what antipasto should be. The meats and cheeses were all top quality and fresh, as were the olives and roasted red peppers. The real reason that this is a must-order appetizer, though, is the choice of brown tomatoes. They are the most incredible tasting tomatoes I have ever had. Brown tomatoes still have a tomato-ey taste, but less acidic and more robust. I want these tomatoes at home.
For our entrées, we ordered the chicken parmigiana ($13) and the ravioli di aragosta ($15). The chicken parmesan was pretty good, but nothing outstanding. The lobster ravioli, on the other hand.... I still think of it fondly to this day. I made a mistake by asking for a combination plate of ravioli and gnocchi. The gnocchi was okay, a bit undercooked and the sauce was too cheesy, but the ravioli, oh my God, the ravioli. It has to be one of my top favorite restaurant dishes of all time. The sauce alone was so good that I would seriously eat it by the bowl as a soup. The pasta did not overwhelm the lobster filling, everything was in perfect proportion. Each bite was a preternatural experience.
The desserts were not the best act to follow the celestial ravioli. The cheesecake didn't taste like cheesecake. I didn't mind it, because it was less rich and less sweet (which is fine with me), but I know that true cheesecake lovers (like my companion) would be sadly disappointed. The crème brulee on the other hand, was decent. It was a nice, average, crème brulee, nothing more, nothing less.
There are two other things I should mention. The service was exceptional. We at Short Order gripe about bad service and it's true - Miami servers have an appalling lack of talent and skill. The service at Da Vinci's was friendly, attentive, and extremely helpful in regards to the menu.
The second thing I have to discuss is the "caviar" served at Caffe Da Vinci. I felt extremely stupid while eating the antipasto. Before it was brought to our table, the chef had explained there would be caviar on the plate because it brought a new flavor and texture to the traditional dish. As we ate the antipasto, I commented to my companion that I did not see any caviar. Apparently, as I found out when I asked the chef, the word "caviar" can be used to describe a round or oval shape. Meaning, that the word caviar in this instance referred to these grape-sized balls filled with a semi-thick liquid made from a fruit. This is another one of the chef's experiments and for people who love fruit, it is awesome. The ones served in the antipasto dish were raspberry and would explode in your mouth like a fresh fruit gusher. You live, you learn.
We ended the evening by trying another one of the chef's experiments. This was the tamarind juice and coffee vodka frozen with liquid nitrogen. As cool as it was to watch (see video below) it didn't taste that great. But I'm still dreaming about the lobster ravioli and the brown tomatoes.
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The end result: