Local fish, heirloom beans, and fennel salad
Local fish, heirloom beans, and fennel salad

Coconut Grove's Ariete Hides a Bit of Cuba

Wisps of Cuba hide in everything Michael Beltran cooks. You'll find them when you push aside the green spigarello leaves and shaved radish curls — a plantain sliver here, a dash of sour orange juice there.

Such touches are natural for the stocky, goateed 30-year-old who was raised in Little Havana. Born into a family of cooks, he grew up awestruck by his grandparents' ability to whip up a meal in no time. "I always said I wanted to be able to do that," Beltran says.

In college, he washed dishes, waited tables, and manned the fry station at a couple of mom-and-pop places before returning home. Then things got serious. He worked for a year at Casa Juancho before moving to Coral Gables' Red Fish Grill. There, he rose to sous-chef, which paved a way to some of Miami's best kitchens. He did two stints at Norman Van Aken's short-lived Norman's 180 in the Gables, and he helped Alberto Cabrera open Local Craft Food & Drink.

In 2013, he became sous-chef at the Cypress Room, Michael Schwartz's first foray into fine dining, in the Design District. Though that concept eventually faltered and late last year was converted to the more casual and gently priced Cypress Tavern, it proved fruitful for Beltran. There, he and then-chef de cuisine Roel Alcudia took Schwartz's dedication to pristine sourcing and applied spotless, classic techniques.

Chef Michael Beltran (right) and co-owner Jason Odio (second from right) with their kitchen crew.EXPAND
Chef Michael Beltran (right) and co-owner Jason Odio (second from right) with their kitchen crew.

Now, his 3-month-old Ariete in Coconut Grove bears the name of the place his grandmother once ran in Cuba's Pinar del Río. Here, he melds his fine-dining resumé with the kitchen tricks he learned as a kid. The result is nothing short of spectacular: Sophisticated-looking plates are adorned with dainty microgreens from Harpke Family Farm in Dania Beach.

At first glance, they seem to be updates of classic French cooking. But something is different. There are hints of salty pork, the eye-popping acidity of ceviche, and the delicate, nutty sweetness of root vegetables. The subtropical sun shines into the kitchen and onto every plate.

The room is sparse but welcoming thanks to an open kitchen and Outkast blaring over the speakers. Off white subway tiles line the walls, and exposed air conditioning ducts snake across the ceiling. Lacquered wood tables are set with wine glasses and cloth napkins but no tablecloths. The one-page menu begins with a section called "Snacks" that includes bits of growing-up Cuban. Tea sandwiches come in several varieties: There's a pair of crustless white bread triangles smeared with egg salad speckled with briny trout eggs and decorated with shavings of the cured fish roe bottarga.

Agnolotti of stinging nettle with heirloom tomato, lila onion, and ricotta
Agnolotti of stinging nettle with heirloom tomato, lila onion, and ricotta

The fillings of these homages to bocaditos bounce between the WASPy, high-tea varieties and those you may have devoured during your primo's birthday parties. Or try the trio of oxtail nuggets that come with a sweet, piquant tamarind ketchup vaguely reminiscent of croquetas. The luscious, fatty oxtail and tangy sauce are also redolent of the finest raboencendido.

Maybe you have a yearning for the velvety chicken liver mousse blended with dark rum, usually Zacapa, that's spread onto crisp toast adorned with a lump of sticky red pepper jelly. The mousse provides the meaty tang, while the jelly's sweet spice helps temper and amplify it.

The plate of fried plantains propping up a creamy hunk of pan-fried foie gras is new territory. The fattened livers are often served with some kind of sweet compote, but at Ariete, ripened plátanos are smoked, crisped, and then glazed in the classic sugary Cuban concoction temptation caramel. A hefty infusion of cinnamon, cloves, and sherry wine push it beyond simple sugar. A jab of sour orange vinegar sweeps it all away and readies you for the next bite.

Roasted oyster
Roasted oyster

Beltran's so-called green salad is an ever-changing dish from which you could draw a line back to Schwartz. Of course, Miami's sultan of sourcing doesn't have a monopoly on the ever-changing bounty of the seasons. Recently, Beltran's offering was a mix centered on thinly sliced Romano bean pods. Their crunchy flavor fell somewhere between a long bean and snap bean. A few leaves of broccoli spigarello, an heirloom variety considered the forebear of broccoli rabe, matched the sweetness, while spinach feathered in a grassy note. A punchy orange vinaigrette added bursts of sour, while shavings of hard, pungent Midnight Moon goat cheese amped up the richness and acidity.

The bulk of the accoutrements that encircle the entrées will also change with the seasons. For example, the fennel, heirloom beans, and herb-infused wine that accompanied cobia on a recent night might be swapped out for a mélange of peas, shallots, and lardons warmed in a sour-orange beurre blanc.

Beltran's smoked pork chop, a hulking affair reminiscent of offerings at Hialeah Cuban barbecue joints like Mesa BBQ, comes perched atop orange squash triangles and farro doused in a chicken jus fortified with blended calabaza. It's just as his grandparents taught him. The grains and squash soak up the rich sauce, but it constantly replenishes itself as you slice through the chop that's been brined, smoked, and lightly charred on a wood-burning grill.

Cheesecake
Cheesecake

Meat lovers can also rejoice in the short rib that's prepared pastrami-style and served on a long rib bone, making for an impressive presentation. Beltran brines the meat in a pink curing salt for nearly a week and then rubs it with a pungent combination of black peppercorn, cumin, coriander, brown sugar, and paprika. It's smoked for four hours, oven-roasted for four more, and then grilled and baked again before it's finally ready. The result is far greater than the sum of its parts. The rib's rich meat, interlaced with fat, takes perfectly to the brine and spice. It's smartly served alongside a knot of shaved vegetables such as zucchini, radishes, fennel, and turnips tossed with aromatic caesar dressing. Too often, short rib is served with a heavy starch that turns the plate into a gastrointestinal siege weapon. In this case, there's nothing to distract from the rib's richness.

Beltran's agnolotti toes a similar line. The homemade purses, tinted green with stinging nettle, are filled with ricotta cheese and fennel softened in milk. The packets rest atop a combination of herb-infused ricotta and bacon puréed with vinegar. Together they form a rich yet well seasoned and biting sauce. Cheese and bacon aren't often considered light, but they are here. A smattering of herbs, delicately sweet cherry tomatoes, and lemon juice often make you forget you're eating pasta.

Dessert receives just as much thought and attention, courtesy of Dallas Wynne, a Hedy Goldsmith acolyte. Beltran luckily lured Wynne from catering back into the kitchen. Here, her finishers, such as crème fraîche cheesecake, easily avoid being too sweet. There's a delicate balance between sugar and the dairy's addictive tang, making for a balanced finish. The accompanying minty quenelle of basil ice cream makes the dessert disappear even faster. Her ice-cream sandwich squeezes malted-milk ice cream between two crisp cookies laced with molasses, coconut shreds, and dulce de leche. They don't look like anything you'd find in a Cuban bakery, but somehow that's the first place your mind goes.

Such comforts draped in elegance have quickly become Beltran's trademark. His training has given him the ability to conceptualize and create polished, refined dishes. But at heart, he's more laid-back. You can tell by the black flat-brimmed cap he wears every night. He'd probably be more comfortable cooking these recipes in huge batches at home and dishing them out family-style. Yet he's one of a new generation of chefs serving smart, inviting food in a Coconut Grove that's rapidly shifting from a place to get drunk to one of the city's most promising dining neighborhoods. An outpost of Schwartz's Harry's Pizzeria is down the street, and Giorgio Rapicavoli's latest project, Glass & Vine, recently opened in Peacock Park. Beltran should be able to hold his own. His food has homestyle touches rooted in family tradition that surely make abuela proud.

Ariete
3450 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove; 305-640-5862; arietemiami.com. Tuesday through Saturday noon to 3 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.; Sunday brunch noon to 3 p.m. and dinner 6 to 10 p.m.

  • Tea sandwich $5
  • Ariete nuggets $9
  • Chicken liver mousse$2.50 each
  • Green salad $15
  • Smoked pork chop$28
  • Agnolotti $25
  • Short rib $25
  • Crème fraîche cheesecake $12
  • Ariete ice-cream sandwich $9

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