Season Opener Part II: The Comeback Kids
I wish to retract the following statements: "Hardly anyone has come out of [Miami's] noted kitchens and opened, to either local or nationwide acclaim, an innovative restaurant. Yes, many of the chef-proprietors have 'placed' their people in high-profile positions or been on the hiring end.... But it still appears that for the most part, while our most beloved chef-proprietors are being proper mentors, they're not training people to go out there and be the competition we need to perpetuate our gastronomic identity."
Granted, I believed the words to be true when I wrote them in the summer of 2000. At the time, Nobu was threatening to open in the Shore Club, and other New York-based chefs were dogging his gastronomic heels down to South Beach. But with the notable exceptions of Michelle Bernstein and Kris Wessel, no local, young, Norman-Allen-Mark-trained celeb-chefs-to-be were taking chances and debuting their own exciting properties. And when Bernstein closed out her option on the Strand to take the helm at Azul in the Mandarin Oriental, and Wessel's unique but underappreciated Liaison went under, it seemed like negative reinforcement.
Still you know what they say about Miami: If you don't like the culinary weather, stick around a minute and it'll change.
So maybe "retract" isn't quite the right word. We've had three years of minutes. But now it seems that our patience has been rewarded with a flurry of new restaurant activity, almost all exclusively run by those fresh talents who had put in seemingly needless, extra months of toiling in other people's kitchens. After spending the summer and early fall dining around at a handful of such standouts, I now consider these chefs prepared much in the way of a farm in the planting stages: well fertilized.
After composting, the second lesson learned was apparently universal: Do not do what's expected, particularly when it comes to geography. Thus Pilar in Aventura, run by former Rumi chef Scott Fredel; Timo in Sunny Isles, helmed by Tim Andriola, ex-chef at Mark's South Beach; and a forthcoming venture from Marvin Woods, who originally opened the contemporary Southern eatery Savannah in South Beach. (The site that was Savannah is now Tuscan Steak; among other things, Woods's new spot used to be Biscayne Wine Merchants and Bistro before that restaurant was forced by construction to move to its 125th Street location.) Not to mention the deliciously triumphant return of Kris Wessel at Elia in Bal Harbour.
If determined to remain loyal to the tried-true-and-oft-failed theory of restaurant management, then aim to hit an unexploited part of South Beach or Coral Gables, the way Andrea Curto-Randazzo and Frank Randazzo did with Talula, located on the northern boundary of South Beach, and Carmen Gonzalez did with Carmen the Restaurant, established in the out-of-the-way David William hotel. Or simply make sure you're Emeril Lagasse, who will debut his newest spot on November 3 in the Loews Hotel.
If you can't channel Emeril, being Robbin Haas might be a fine alternative. A vanguard from the first wave of chef-proprietors back in the mid-Nineties, Haas has returned with gusto at Chispa (translation for us Anglos: "spark"). Designed by Carl Myers, the restaurant is a good-looking one, featuring exclusive (meaning Haas and company own the molds) Cuban tile floors and satiny, hand-carved mahogany fixtures so rich they look like leather, pointed up by actual saddle leather seats with baseball stitching. Servers are also dressed in mahogany colors, prompting Haas to quip, "Brown is the new black." So what can brown do for you? Deliver ceviche, of course -- aside from signature "mahogany" clams with chorizo, "baby" osso buco, short ribs over cornmeal stew, or wood-roasted shrimp, Haas is slicing, dicing, and curing a handy number of raw fish dishes.
"Ceviche" and "comeback" may be interchangeable words this season. Doug Rodriguez, credited with creating the Nuevo Latino movement at YUCA in Coral Gables before leaving to startle the taste buds of, in succession, New Yorkers (Patria, Chicama, Pipa, OLA, and Calle Ocho), Philadelphians (Alma de Cuba), and Arizonians (Deseo in the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa), is headed back to town. He's taken over the 5061 site, where I've been told by one source that "demolition has been completed," and a tentative debut date has been set for November 19.
It remains to be seen whether OLA Miami will follow the design elements of OLA original, but even if the tropical fruit-flavored palette of colors doesn't follow through, you can bet the palate-driven menu will remain consistent: In keeping with his Great Ceviche Book, Rodriguez will be presenting at least a half-dozen of them, along with items such as gazpacho topped with avocado ice cream, boneless marinated and grilled chicken with wild mushroom mojo and black truffle aioli, or churrasco with basil chimichurri, queso frito, and chunky crab salad.
And one more example that the band seems to have gotten back together: Norman Van Aken's Mundo, said to be delayed by typical Coral Gables construction roadblocks, is being anticipated for the end of 2003 or the beginning of 2004. Meanwhile Van Aken and wife Janet are also opening in Los Angeles, a project that actually might be ready to go before Mundo.
Of course these projected gains can't entirely offset the losses. Though I wasn't a fan of La Broche, which ranks tops among the summer's dearly departed, I admired the pluck and persistency of chef Angel Palacios. Rumors that he was headed back to his gurus in and around Barcelona proved both true and false: Palacios has indeed returned to that individualistic city in Spain, but he's found himself a new mentor in German master Roberto Holz, late of the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove. Executive chef Holz has gone to head up the company's Hotel Arts in Barcelona, and has taken on Palacios to be the restaurant chef for the hotel's Restaurant Arola (eponymous chef Sergio Arola is consultant).
Back home, R-CCG Bizcaya Grill restaurant chef Willis Loughhead forges ahead without the inspiration of Holz's lederhosen, crafting yet another festival menu (à la the spring's white asparagus and the summer's tomato-olive oil fetes) for December 12-24. This time around it's being termed "A Holiday Indulgence," and given the menu items so far -- chilled potato soup with caviar tempura and Beluga garnish; cobb salad of green apple, smoked bacon, heirloom tomato, red onion, quail egg, and oyster dressing with paddlefish caviar; sautéed filet mignon with oysters, foie gras, and black truffle sauce -- I'd say "indulge" is pretty apt.
Overindulge is on the ticket for Fritz & Franz Bierhaus, the latest concept to be lobbed by veteran restaurateur Harald Neuweg. On October 23 Gables Mayor Don Slesnick and Dr. Volker Anding, consul general of Germany, cut the ribbon on both the Neuweg-sponsored ninth annual Oktoberfest and F&F. The new German-styled eatery takes over for Da Capo, which served its last meal on September 25, a fact about which Neuweg waxes a touch nostalgic -- as does his accountant. "It was the most beautiful restaurant I ever had in my twenty years as an entrepreneur, and the only restaurant which did not work for me. What a shame. I lost a lot of money these last nine months."
Still Neuweg is "looking forward to this new project. The new restaurant is part Hofbrauhaus, part sports bar and people dancing on the tables and benches. Service is mostly bierhaus girls in lederhosen." Certainly that'll be a mite sexier than lederhosen-clad Holz peeling asparagus in the lobby of the Ritz. Indeed, Neuweg notes, "I am going to give Hooters a run for the money."
Nor is he the only one with his sights set on Hooters. Former Miami Heat player Tim Hardaway and partner Musaddiq Muhammed are launching Hardaway's House of Wings in Coconut Grove on November 1. The pair promise a chic take-out/delivery facility that offers 31 flavors of wings. We can only hope that this Baskin-Robbins of bird parts merits more positive attention than Hardaway's Firehouse Four, which is set to become a tapas bar under new ownership this fall. For now, like Neuweg, the House of Wings folks are already looking ahead to possible franchising. Well, why not. When it comes to season, we're all winging it.
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