The Local Craft Food & Drink boasts well-crafted beers and bar snacks
Alberto Cabrera is one of Miami's more innovative chefs. His resumé reads like a recital of our most daring (and, excepting Norman's, ill-fated) restaurants: the Ferran Adrià-inspired La Broche; Norman Van Aken's original namesake venture with its groundbreaking New World cuisine; Robbin Haas's Chispa, which highlighted contemporary Latin plates; and the $25 million nightclub/supper club Karu & Y. Cabrera's cuisine at Karu was often terrific but got lost amid the media mockery of ownership's extravagant miscalculations. In fact, meals at Karu impressed more than those at Cabrera's latest venue, the Local Craft Food & Drink.
Admittedly, this isn't a kosher comparison. Karu was much pricier, and the chef's mission at the Local is as far removed from his task at that glitzy arena as can be. Here Cabrera uses fresh ingredients from American farms (occasionally local) to fashion a modern-day gastropub bill of fare. Originally divided into sections called "Snacks," "Plates," "Farm," "Sea," "Land," and so forth, the menu has since been revised. Most items are now squeezed together under two umbrellas: "Small Plates" and "Large Plates." Most could also fit beneath the narrow awning of "Honestly Sourced Bar Snacks." Whatever the categorization, the offerings are intriguing and the execution inconsistent.
There is no worker at the door to greet and seat diners when they arrive, and no bread or other predinner treat to keep them sated before the first course. Luckily, the series of small plates we ordered didn't take long to appear. Plump strips of lukewarm fried clams came bundled in thick, fluffy, barely cooked-through breading flecked with fresh dill. Thin slices of cornichon and three rings of fried lemon rinds served as garnish on top; the plate was cold. Smoked pimenton aioli alongside sounded tepid notes of garlic and smoke.
The enticement of salt cod chicharrones likewise proved to be a letdown — just a few fried chips of salt cod the wispy width of potato chips (but much larger in circumference) intermingled with rectangular strips of fried malanga. Guess this snack goes all right with a glass of beer, but it should be called "chips of salt cod and malanga" so expectations don't lean toward meaty nubs of fried bacalao.
Buffalo-style sweetbreads appeared just as advertised: fried, breaded nuggets coated with blue cheese-infused hot sauce and sprinkled with a julienne of chayote and green apple. It was undeniably tasty, but I kept thinking that if T.G.I. Friday's ever served sweetbreads, this is how they'd do it.
Tomato salad components were parsimoniously parceled: three little rings of palm hearts, a couple of orange sections, a light smattering of teeny ricotta salata cubes, and barely enough Meyer lemon vinaigrette to register. And the Rabbit Run Farm heirloom tomatoes had a pale, flat taste, as if the heritage was handed down from the Publix produce department. Perhaps the kitchen crew recognized this flaw, because riper cherry tomatoes were mingled into the mix.
Many locals belly up to the long, aged mahogany bar backed by a large mahogany-framed mirror and a full stock of liquor. The space, formerly housing Randazzo's Little Italy, features high-top and regular wood tables and chairs on a black-and-white checkerboard floor, with white tin patterned walls rising above a stained wood chair rail. Old, faded, enlarged black-and-white photos of Coral Gables hang on these walls — and that's about it in terms of décor. It has the comfortable feel of an unassuming neighborhood pub that has been around for years.
A chalkboard that hangs on a light brick wall behind the bar lists two dozen domestic and imported craft brews on tap (most $6). "Crisp & Refreshing" drafts include Leffe Blond Belgian ale and Magic Hat #9, a fruity pale ale from Vermont. "Bold & Flavorful" pours range from Brooklyn Brown Ale to Guinness to Harpoon Leviathan from Boston. Bottled beers, categorized in the same manner, range from $6 (Strongbow) to $11 (Gulden Draak) — to $3 for the requisite Pabst Blue Ribbon. Cabrera has mentioned that his Local partners — Jose Mallea and Mauricio Lacayo — are the beer experts in the house. They have composed an enviable list.
The same chalkboard notes some of the night's thoughtfully sourced artisanal American cheeses and cured meats, served on wood boards with garnishing accompaniments. Among the options are famous Humboldt Fog goat milk cheese from Cypress Grove in California, and Tomme, a Parmesan-like semihard cheese culled from raw milk and made in Florida's Winter Park Dairy ($8 each, $20 for three). Some of the charcuterie is made in-house, such as merguez sausage and head cheese. Others are brought in from respected national producers, including San Francisco's Molinari mortadella and country pâté from Palmetto Creek in Florida.
The Local's real strengths are the cheese/charcuterie/beer selections — along with a quartet of menu items aptly categorized "In a Jar." That's how they are served, whether it be potted duck rillette with red wine jam; chicken liver mousse with ham bits and pickled shallots; or dark wedges of grass-fed flank-steak jerky delectably dried with soy, gochujang (a pungent Korean condiment), and sweet brown sugar to counter. It probably pairs better with drinks than dinner, but this jerky definitely gives diners some good flavor to chew on.
Don't rely on your server to explain the finer points of the charcuterie; the staff here is a nice bunch, but well informed they are not. In fact, the most notable aspect of the service team here seems to be inattentiveness. On both visits, our main plates arrived while finished appetizers were still on the space-limited table; we had to remove our old plates while the waiter placed the new ones down. This was especially galling during our second dinner, when the staff had about 30 minutes to clear the table — that's how long it took for our entrées to be served. No explanation or apology was offered during our wait. There were only two waiters and two buspeople to take care of a full house that night — and no manager in sight. Service needs to improve.
The real victim of the aforementioned delay in dinner was a sliced flatiron steak, served slightly overcooked and very underheated. The entrée plate contained gratifying but likewise lukewarm accompaniments: squares of potato gratin; mushroom-studded, red wine-imbued Bordelaise sauce; and a roasted bone marrow alongside.
The flatiron seemingly had to wait for our suckling pig porchetta to finish cooking, for the hot, fresh-from-the-oven pork arrived with the steak. The crisp disk of skin gets wrapped around a delectable blend of trotters and pork leg-and-shoulder ground with spicy, chorizo-like seasonings. Savory sauce pooling the cylinder of meat is a smooth purée of calabaza and cooking juices from the pork.
We also liked a trio of crisply caramelized chicken thighs, boneless and braised Mediterranean style with nubs of ground fennel sausage, soft dumplings, and a sunny mix of olives, tomatoes, and lemon confit in an herb-flecked chicken gravy.
Fish and chips are made a bit more chic via use of sweet, tender grouper cheeks. Unfortunately, the petite pearls of grouper were encased in bulky coats of lightly fried, slightly undercooked batter — each cheek like a pearl in a popover. The "chips," in this case fairly thick homemade fries, were exceptional — darkly cooked outside, soft potato inside. Malt vinegar and herby homemade tartar sauce was served alongside.
Chocolate pot de crème arrived in a square, shallow dish, invisible beneath a blanket of blackened baby marshmallows, bits of candied pineapple, and caramel corn. This dessert gratifies some nostalgia-induced inner-child craving: I've always been a fan of blackened marshmallows, and the crunchy, salty add-in of caramel popcorn is a welcome garnish (the sprinkling of finely minced pineapple got lost). Yet the sweet composition also exemplifies a downside of gastronomic daring: A light, textbook-creamy chocolate pot de crème, by itself, would have been preferred over this dark, dense, almost ganache-ish version — regardless of how cleverly dressed it arrived. Stick to the goat cheese flan: a firm, tart/sweet treat topped with aptly sharp caramel sauce.
The intensely clamorous acoustics here had us clamoring for the exit — followed by an immediate and exuberant relief at the relative silence of Giralda Avenue. Only about half of the 50 seats were filled (though there was one rather boisterous table), yet Florida Marlins officials should hope crowds at the new stadium next year will generate this sort of roar. The Local's owners should enlighten service, tighten execution, and perhaps pad the ceilings so that the eats here can generate as much hubbub as the eaters.
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