How many people took Geology 101 in order to fulfill their college science requirement? "Rocks for Jocks," as it was known, came recommended as a "gut" course A passing grade guaranteed. You may assume I am not gifted in the physical sciences. You may also assume I was misinformed about this particular course. Even as the football players tackled this bulky bag of stones with a certain finesse, I found myself struggling for hours building effluvial stream beds in which the water refused to flow.
But my time (and grade-point average) was not completely wasted. I discovered volcanoes, a geologic phenomenon that truly captured my interest. Mountains in flux, rocks on fire, lava spilling like blood from fissures in the Earth's crust, Dante's Lucifer grinning from his throne in a steaming caldera. What drama!
Furthermore, I learned that volcanoes had more to offer than hellishly destructive violence. Soil fertilized by their ash can produce lush crops. In certain areas of the globe, geothermal energy (the heat of the Earth) holds promise as an alternative to petroleum. And some volcanic stones have unique and valuable properties. Because cooled lava, especially the Semirami stone (a commercial rather than geologic designation) is a poor conductor of heat A meaning it tends to hold heat inside rather than release it quickly A it makes an excellent cooking stone.
No one knows this better than Yolanda and Ingrid Hoffman and Olivia and Marie-Louise Booi, the mother-daughter teams of Rocca, Coconut Grove's newest dining entry, where the dense and heavy volcanic Semiramis are employed as the exclusive cooking medium. From Black Angus rib eye to Colorado lamb chops, all entrees emerge from the kitchen still sizzling on the stone, splitting the night with platters of splatters.
Meet the contemporary stone-age family. Yolanda Hoffman, former owner of the successful Bogota, Colombia, restaurant Casabrava (and a chef in her own right; she trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris) has been in Miami just six months. She still owns two catering businesses, one in Curaaao, the other in Bogota. Yolanda's daughter, Ingrid, also owns and operates the Grove boutique La Capricieuse with her retail partner, the husband of Marie-Louise Booi.
Late of Aruba, Booi and her mother, Olivia, still operate two busy restaurants on the island, precursors of Rocca. They've been using the stones for five years with successful results, which they hope to replicate in Miami. Some tourists and residents, says Yolanda Hoffman, have already returned several times for succulent prawns cooked to order, or the simplicity of a chicken breast prepared on this most unusual grill. Given that the restaurant has only been open since the first week in January A six months late because of Hurricane Andrew and subsequent construction delays A she's pleased with the response.
Perhaps what's most appealing about Rocca's presentation is the low-calorie preparation. Some cuts of meat are marinated A in a light vinaigrette as opposed to a heavier oil-based treatment A but that is the extent of disguise. And the stone's rapid cooking seals, like a layer of ash, the true flavors of meat and fish.
Using volcanic stones may appear to be nothing more than the latest culinary gimmick, but in fact ancient cultures used nothing but flat stones for cooking, ancestors to the frying pan and the griddle. Gimmicks, though, tend to wear on a neighborhood, especially when they are as pricey as Rocca's. Yolanda Hoffman seems to understand this, and admits that the Miami market is still a mystery to her. Fortunately, the streamlined, earth-toned restaurant, designed to suggest the cool, clean edges of stone, is in a heavily trafficked part of the city. Tourists, much like the ones who visit Aruba, will be enchanted by this pre-Columbian dining experience. Eating from stones is an instant replenisher of the magic gardens of carefree youth. However, what works well with vacationers who bring with them a "try anything" mentality may grow tiresome for workaday residents.
And the disadvantages, at least to the restaurateurs, may outweigh the attractions. Because the stones are first heated in reinforced ovens, then over open flames, they rise to temperatures of 800 degrees and maintain substantial warmth for three hours. Problems, including burns and breakage (the stones, for all their heaviness, are brittle), can occur during any step of the service procedure. Although we emerged unscathed, my party's arms and elbows were often reminded of the rocks' incredible internal heat. Cleaning is also a hassle. The Semiramis have to be soaked overnight, then scrubbed with a steel brush to rid them of stains and food particles. On a busy night at this hundred-seat, multilevel cafe, this could lead to sinks that look more like rock quarries at the end of the evening.
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However, the biggest problem, at least from our experience, was the comfort factor. This is not a meal over which one may linger. The stones do not shut off, and the more cuts you place in your meat, the faster it cooks, even if you don't want it to; you can start rare and end up well done if you're not quick enough. I moved my jumbo shrimp to the side of the serving plate (on which the stone arrives), away from the Semirami, piling them over the baked potato and unimaginative sauteed summer squash, to save them from burning. But my companions' strip loin and wonderfully juicy veal chop were too large to be moved aside. (According to Hoffman, the veal chop, presented as a special the night of our visit and easily the best cut of meat, will become a permanent offering.)
Dolphin, an uninspired choice for catch of the day, didn't stand up well to stone. But like an active lava flow, the menu is in movement, and a variety of fish are being explored. The salmon may be better at holding your attention; it is excellent grilled, as barbecue enthusiasts will attest.
Appetizers, the only menu items not served on Semiramis, are also in transition. A good thing, too, as the exotic shrimp seemed no more interesting than a mayonnaise-based salad dressing with a touch of curry. Other starters, such as the lobster vol-au-vent, had already been deleted. But two extremely pleasant surprises were the forestier mushroom escargot, a delicious display of garlic-topped snails and woodsy mushrooms, and an excellent lobster bisque. Perhaps Fernando Echeverri, the new chef imported from New York City, can be persuaded to keep these on the menu as he undertakes his anticipated innovations.
And for those who simply must have it, the Semirami stone will at some point be for sale. Throw away those electric woks and sandwich makers; there's a new kitchen catch in town. The price, though, will likely rival that of gourmet skillets such as those made by Grand Cuisine; in Aruba the stones sell for $90, duty-free. Of course, a carrying case, special handling tongs, and instructional brochure will be included. Otherwise, we might prepare nothing more than a good stone soup.