So far, Miami has barely acknowledged the pop-up-dining movement that has captured many other cities' imaginations. The concept is simple: A restaurant pops up in an unused space for a limited, specifically planned period of time. It allows chefs and restaurateurs to operate with far less financial pressure than in a permanent eatery. Miami's first real popup, Phuc Yea!, had a successful three-month run in the Ingraham Building downtown.
Our second "restaurant installation" comes via Giorgio Rapicavoli and Alex Casanova, a pair that opened Eating House on Ponce de Leon Boulevard in early February; the planned expiration date comes this August. Judging by the swelling crowds and critical approval this popup has thus far engendered, there will surely be calls for an encore.
Rapicavoli, a 26-year-old Miami native, came to national attention when he copped first prize on Food Network's Chopped competition. Afterward, he continued his three-year chef stint at 660 at the Angler's, but the $10,000 in prize money was burning a hole in his pocket just as surely as the notion of fulfilling his own culinary vision had seared itself into his mind. In January, he left 660 and turned his cash and fiery passion into Eating House.
By day, the locale is Café Ponce, an unassuming storefront luncheonette with an L-shaped counter and table seating for 48. By night (after 7 p.m.), street-art canvases are slapped onto the walls, the lights are dimmed, and the space is transformed into an unassuming storefront restaurant with an unpretentious neighborhood vibe. It's like a place you might come across in some small European town, where the décor is an afterthought but the food is meticulously focused.
Eating House's nightly changing menu is a compilation of 12 to 15 plates of food and three to five desserts. There is no specific ethnic motif, with a bill of fare laced with everything from nuoc cham to red curry to chimichurri to Korean barbecue sauce to fried chicken to French onion soup. If there is a theme that binds, it is fresh, locally sourced ingredients and a hefty handful of dazzling creativity.
What might seem gimmicky in print — say, frozen coconut milk in tomato salad — more often than not translates to "Why didn't anyone else think of that?" Of course it helps when the tomatoes are grown in Homestead, served at peak ripeness and room temperature (to better contrast with the cool coconut), and sealed with Asian accents of ginger, lime, nuoc cham, peanuts (plus the coconut), microherbs, and pungent basil. Even without the innovative icy touch, this tomato medley would be peerless; the frozen coconut makes it memorable.
Though dishes such as that pack a potent wow factor, the response provoked by "raw local carrots" was more of a "Huh?" The white oval plate, containing five unpared (and thus dull-hued) variously colored baby carrots with trimmed tops attached, looked like a lampoon of farm-to-table eating (a ranch-like buttermilk dressing with roasted garlic and lemon notes served as dip). The vegetables proved crunchy and sweet, as expected of raw carrots, but one can hardly say, "Compliments to the chef," unless it relates to Rapicavoli's savvy sense of sourcing.
Three meaty, silky squares of guava-and-hoisin-glazed Snake River Farms pork belly come aptly chaperoned by a thin circle of pickled radish and a pickled cucumber slice. Only white crumbles of sesame oil powder distinguished this version from other Asian-influenced treatments around town — a negative solely in the context of having so many more distinctive choices available.
Like, for instance, salt-roasted beets mingled with raw plums, ponzu, yuzu, and "tofuzu" — whipped tofu — on the side. Or crisply cooked broccoli rabe splashed with Korean barbecue sauce, Montreal steak sauce, and seven-spice togarashi and topped with a sesame-fried egg. Or a deconstruction of French onion soup involving sherried, caramelized onions in a supporting role alongside two smokestacks of fatty bone marrow and Gruyère cheese toast. This is a smart framing of classic flavors in a new format, something at which Rapicavoli excels. The only thing lacking was a small spoon to scoop out the marrow.
This chef is especially deft with pasta (he caught the love of cooking from his Italian mother). His orecchiette with asparagus pesto, fried prosciutto, and neat cubes of softly browned potatoes was a show-stopper at 660, and he does it again at Eating House with arguably the best pasta carbonara in town. The squares of clipped lasagnette noodles are composed rustic-Batali-style with thick sections of applewood-smoked bacon, toasted bread crumbs, softly grated Parmesan, a mild hint of black truffle oil, and an organic egg yolk nesting in the center. Toss it together, sample a forkful, and you are likely to pop up from your chair in excitement.
Fried chicken with waffles is one of only a few menu mainstays (as is the aforementioned tomato salad). Strips of dry-rubbed, buttermilk-marinated boneless thigh meat, drizzled with Vermont maple syrup shot through by a smoking gun, are interspersed on the plate with thin triangles of buttermilk waffle and chewy slabs of candied bacon; spicy ranch dressing is pooled alongside. Smoky maple and sweet bacon flip expectations; a taste of all the components at once defies them.
The best beverage for the fried chicken might be one of four craft beers on hand (such as Sweaty Betty from Boulder Brewing Co. and Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, $7 and $6). Four reds, five whites, and a rosé compose the wine list of boutique labels, mostly from California and Europe ($28 to $40 per bottle, glasses $7 to $11).
Desserts are cute, which can be good or bad depending upon your feelings about the final course (I prefer my dose of cuteness via babies and kittens). One of the three twee offerings was an "ice cream" of melted panna cotta with ice-cream-cone mousse and rainbow sprinkles, but we went instead with a trio of fried "b-day Oreos." The frying process softens the cookies to a consistency similar to the puffy coat of fried batter around each one. Contributing to the b-day spirit are crumbles and chunks of yellow cake surrounding a quenelle of cake-batter ice cream with sprinkles.
Three baby caramel apples with a little stick protruding from each are adorable too, but the flavors of sweet apple, fresh caramel, and a Cracker Jack/sea-salt crust should delight even the most mature palate.
There's a lot to like about Eating House: the cool-without-trying-to-be-cool ambiance; the friendly, knowledgeable, and generally efficient service spearheaded by Casanova; and more-than-fair prices (most plates $7 to $15, four or five larger composed plates $20 to $25). But what makes dining here special are the Whitney Houston moments. Just as the first time you heard the late singer, you knew she was a unique talent hitting notes few others could ever reach, you will almost certainly come across tastes in certain dishes that can't be found in many other places.
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Rapicavoli is a rising star. Eating House offers that rare chance to dine on food cooked by a chef who, not too long from now, will likely be too big to be constrained behind a line.
Pop in now. (Seriously, just pop in; no reservations are taken.)