On a few occasions since my mother's death, I have attempted to re-create her renowned kugel. You would think a clearly written recipe for noodle pudding would be easy to replicate, and in fact it is. I even resist the temptation to deviate a bit say, for instance, substituting fresh pineapple for canned and strictly adhere to the delicate proportions of the dish. Yet my wife's review always reads the same: "It's just like your mom's only not as good." That is sort of what I think about OLA on Ocean, Doug Rodriguez's new South Beach outpost. The cuisine is precisely what you'd expect from the talented and innovative Rodriguez and, like my kugel, very tasty. Only it's not as good as it would be if the hand of Doug were more directly involved.
Rodriguez is a first-generation Cuban-American. He learned to cook traditional island foods from his mother and further satisfied an inherent culinary curiosity during travels in Europe and Latin America. But he mines rather than mimes the meals of his childhood, spinning them into brashly inventive and flashily flavorful foods that are less homespun than the originals but more appealing to contemporary American diners. He made his name at the first Yuca in Coral Gables, then at Patria in New York, and eventually worked his malanga magic back in Miami with OLA (Of Latin America) on Biscayne Boulevard, which has since departed; OLA Steak in the Village of Merrick Park; and most recently at OLA on Ocean. Rodriguez is the mother, so to speak, of Nuevo Latino cuisine and has passed his knowledge to the cooks and chefs who reproduce the recipes at his various venues. What can't be handed down is that ethereal, intangible touch. OLA on Ocean is Spago without Wolfgang. Emeril's without Emeril. Queen without Freddie Mercury.
Still there are plenty of thrilling eats, beginning with the single puff of Colombian cheese bread pan de bono parceled to each patron. I have, in the past, taken issue with OLA's stinginess concerning these rolls, which are forged from yuca flour and mozzarella cheese, but they roll out so slowly because they're freshly baked in small batches throughout the evening. Plus, if they placed baskets of these sweet, warm, and rather addictive little buns on the table, by the time starters arrived, appetites would already be sated. That would be a shame, because to visit OLA and bypass the half-dozen marinated fish selections would be like returning from a summer in Maine without having sampled any lobster. Rodriguez's ceviches are ingeniously playful and startle with delectable contrasts. Who else would put a scoop of Guinness sorbet over corvina, pickled poblano peppers, and spiced corn kernels? You'll have to visit OLA Steak to try that one, but OLA on Ocean's offerings are no less unique. Exquisitely delicate slices of pompano ceviche, for instance, arrive draped over a rectangle of ripe red watermelon and bathed in a creamy, piquant lemon-horseradish sauce primped with strips of Thai basil and dark drizzles of pumpkin oil. Presumably Doug didn't learn this from his mother. Salmon and green apple in tarragon-accented lime juice is another sparkler, as is a medley of shrimp, bay scallops, and calamari marinated in lime juice and aji amarillo peppers and then wrapped in thin slices of octopus. Can't decide which one to order? A sampling of three is available, or you can try the whole six-pack for $75. A better deal: The same money will bring an entire five-course tasting dinner consisting of a ceviche trio, hot appetizer trio, fish trio, meat trio, and dessert trio; $68 buys the four-course version.
Nonceviche starters include old OLA favorites such as "mystery meatballs" (made with oxtail) and "oysters Rodriguez," which are fried and topped with spinach, fufu (mashed plantains flecked with bacon and onion), horseradish cream, and hucacatay sauce (derived from the pungent Peruvian black mint leaf). Smoked marlin salad is a welcome newcomer the rum-and-vanilla-cured fish tossed with mayonnaise, capers, and shallots and then tucked into a quintet of minitaco shells made from fried malanga, each capped with shredded lettuce and a single pickled circle of jalapeño. Lobster salad was likewise luscious plump lumps of claw bathed in a smoky and buttery vanilla vinaigrette, with a too-puny pile of frisée leaves, jicama, and toasted almonds on the side.
The 70-seat main dining room is tastefully furnished with white leather chairs and white linen-topped tables neatly spaced over darkly patterned carpeting. It's a clean, simple, elegant look that befits the Savoy Hotel in which OLA is housed. An outdoor patio and private rooms provide additional seating, and due to open soon is Chocolate Bar, which will serve the eponymous sweets, cordials, and cigars. Let's hope the music will have improved by then. During one visit, our dining soundtrack consisted of repetitious techno thumps more appropriate for grinding hips than eating or conversing (though the decibel was kept to a discreet level). Another time, there was no music playing at all. Much better.
One of Rodriguez's signature creations, which subsequently became a staple at global/fusion restaurants, features a juicy square of firm-fleshed mahi-mahi crusted in crushed green plantain chips. It still satisfies after all these years, more so than ever, in fact, atop sweetly braised oxtail stew. An escabeche of tomatoes that tasted as though plainly sautéed also accompanied the fish. A tomatillo version of the escabeche served beneath seared Hudson Valley duck breast contained the proper vinegar kick, which played well against the rare, lean slices of meat. Part two of this duck combo is raspado de pato, a hot pot of rice flecked with raisins, pine nuts, edamame, and shreds of the remaining bird cooked confit-style.
I'd venture to guess that OLA's "crackling crispy pork" is the first time pork, clams, and dulce de leche have been merged in one dish. Pork has long been paired with sweet ingredients, so "roasted garlic dulce de leche," though unusual, doesn't seem out of bounds. It became conceptually shaky only when the garlic didn't materialize, so the meat sat in a pool of what tasted like straight caramelized milk. Clams and pork are a common Portuguese pairing, but clams and dulce de leche? Luckily the mere smear of "chunky oregano clam mojo" was too insubstantial to register. Julienned threads of pickled radish proved the best partner for the sumptuously tender morsels of meat. Capping the pork was a perfectly chop-shaped crackling, so shiny it looked shellacked. Fried pork crackling is one of my guilty pleasures, so it's difficult to fully describe my disappointment upon discovering that this particular crackling was rancid.
I was poised to report the staleness to any waiter querying about our satisfaction with the meal, but the question was never tendered. Hardly surprising, for servers seemed to be operating on emotionless remote. Rather than projecting a knowledge and appreciation of the cuisine they were presenting, it was as if they had successfully memorized a list of culinary ingredients and hospitality clichés. When our waiter dropped the check at evening's end and told us "It was really our pleasure to have you here tonight," the words rang insincere perhaps because he was already three steps from the table before the sentence ended.
I finished with a soupy coconut-milk version of tapioca contained in a coconut shell and accompanied by two very fresh butter-crumb date bars. It was delicious, if worlds away from my grandma Blima's snow-white, meringue-fluffed pudding. I wish I could be eating my grandmother's tapioca today. Or my mother's kugel. Or food from a restaurant where Doug Rodriguez is the hands-on chef. But sometimes we have to make do with the next best thing, which for fans of Nuevo Latino cuisine is precisely what OLA on Ocean represents.
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