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Upstairs, Upscale, and Uplifting

Chef Jordi Vallès's culinary inventions are accessible and exciting
Jonathan Postal

Like a great lover who is both thrilling and comforting, the food at Mosaico is a combination of care and passion. And it is excitingly accessible.

Please repeat "accessible" 50 times. As you do that, I'll tell you that Mosaico's chef, Jordi Vallès, formerly cooked at the Spanish restaurant La Broche, which specialized in the shocking cuisine of Ferran Adrià.

French superstar chef Paul Bocuse has said of Adrià: "He is doing the most exciting things in our profession today." Adrià himself says that what he hates most is monotony. To avoid boredom, he deconstructs food. That is, he experiments with tastes, temperatures, and textures to present diners with exactly what they most do not expect from whatever they ordered. Imagine ordering a churrasco steak with chimichurri, for instance. What arrives at the table is a mound of quivering hot garlic/parsley Jello squares topped with cold beef-flavored ice cream. Or beef foam. (Anything with protein in it -- eggs or dairy as well as meat -- can be emulsified and aerated into foam.) Foams are especially big in the world of deconstructed food. In Barcelona kitchens for the past half-dozen years, spuma siphons have been as vital as stoves.

This all proved entirely too exciting for Miami. Even as La Broche head chef Angel Palacios, an Adrià disciple, was hailed in Food & Wine magazine as one of America's hottest new chefs, his Brickell kitchen closed less than a year after opening. Actually Adrià doesn't even call his kitchen a kitchen. It's a "laboratory workspace" in which cooking is chemistry and diners are the laboratory's test animals. Which is why, for every food critic who finds Adrià-inspired experimentation exciting, there's another who finds it methodical and cold. It did sometimes seem at La Broche that the priority was on using food to screw with diners' minds rather than to delight.

This is decidedly not -- and I emphasize not -- the case at Mosaico, though Vallès, a 30-year-old Barcelona native, has worked under Adrià as well as at La Broche, and his food is unquestionably exciting. The difference is this: Where many deconstructionist chefs seem mainly interested in alleviating their own boredom by inventing the most outrageous dishes imaginable, Vallès uses a few carefully chosen but unexpected elements in dishes that are largely comfortingly familiar friends.

The result is that over the course of a dinner at Mosaico, you find yourself repeatedly thinking, "Now I remember why I've always loved this dish," then catching yourself with: "But wait, I've never had this before!" By the meal's surprise grand finale -- a spectacular complimentary tray of assorted bite-size, second desserts, customary in Michelin-starred European restaurants but uncommon here -- diners feel not like lab rats but like guests who have been treated to a memorable experience that was more than simply a meal.

The royal treatment began at the door. The employee who escorted my party up to Mosaico's urban-tropical outdoor rooftop terrace -- definitely the preferred space -- was so eager to explain the entire venue that my companions worried that I'd been recognized as a food critic. But our guide was just clearing up confusion since I'd been wandering around looking lost before my friends arrived. (The expansive restaurant, located in the historic brick Firehouse Four building, is actually a complex: Mosaico upstairs, and downstairs the tapas/salad bar Salero, the casual Café Salero, and Spanish food/wine retail shop La Tienda.)

While trying to find Mosaico, I'd noticed some quite reasonable wine prices on Salero's menu, such as $22 for a refreshingly dry Spanish albariño. It seemed unlikely the price would be as low at the upscale Mosaico, but it was. Even tastier, however, was the Belondrade y Lurton boutique white the circulating sommelier was pouring generously as a free sample. The wine's lively complexity, hitting different parts of the palate with little explosions of varying flavors, matched the food perfectly.

Lobster esqueixada was a good example of paired but contrasting flavors. Tender fresh lobster tails (small but a lot for the money) came with a scoop of smooth, rich avocado sorbet that substituted wondrously well for melted butter. Both rested atop a velvety tomato "consommé" bath that was greenish gold, not red, but the full flavor screamed "vine ripe!" The saltiness of briny Kalamata-type olives around the plate's edge added a little jolt, but not too much.

Grilled vegetables, too often boring, shone vividly in the dish called grilled vegetable Mosaico. I'd worried that the Idiazabal cheese mentioned on the menu would overwhelm the mélange, but each vegetable's flavor seemed intensified, as if it had been put under a magnifying glass. The smoked sheep's-milk cheese from northern Spain added intrigue. This item was one of the few at Mosaico featuring foam, but it wasn't a weird one. "Foamy green pea" was rather a mild, light sauce that gave the otherwise rustic dish a major touch of class.

Though chef Vallès is well aware of the latest strange salad trends in Spain (these days a caesar salad is frozen lettuce granita topped with sardine foam), his field greens salad is considerably more approachable. Described as having "pear in different textures," it was more interesting than the typical pear-garnished affair, a result of the fruit slices being dried in-house. My party did wish there had been more of them, however. Subtly sweet cider dressing was applied lightly but thoroughly; I can't remember having a more deftly dressed salad. Cabrales, an artisan Spanish blue-green veined cheese, provided sharp, tangy contrast.

The substitution of potato for pasta can be clunky if the potatoes are not thin enough, but here the potato-and-bacalao cannelloni was delicately wrapped, enclosing a wondrously airy cod mousse filling. The trio of little stuffed cigars was sauced with sweet/tart piquillo pepper pil-pil (an emulsified, olive-oil-based concoction like aioli but more sauce than mayonnaise).

Since dinner so far had included a substantial amuse-bouchée (fish in a lovely, nutty romesco sauce), three of us decided to share two entrées. These were split in the kitchen and presented beautifully on three separate plates -- no awkward tabletop trading -- and more than enough food, even though too much of such good things is really never enough. Oven-roasted monkfish came with an old/new Catalan duo of intense seafood potato foam that resembled a whipped bouillabaisse dotted with truffle essence, and trinxat, the region's famed traditional dish of potatoes, cabbage, and bacon (like home fries but more interesting). Even better was a daily special of turbot with wild mushrooms, sauced with a saffron sabayon that not merely covered but seemed to permeate the moist fish fillets.

Though stuffed, we were happy we decided to split a dessert of dried pineapple cones with "five-spices light crema Catalana" -- light meaning that the citrusy custard was a foam of whipped-cream buoyancy. Then came the free dessert tray, an assortment of traditional pastries plus homemade ice creams and foams -- all of it supremely accessible, all of it leaving us delirious.


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