The 1990s were a heady time for the culinary stars in this town, as the creative talents of New Worlders, Pacific Rimmers, Nuevo Latinos, Mango Gangers, et al., catapulted South Florida onto the nation's culinary map. Champagne corks flew, flashbulbs popped, puffy personality pieces appeared, heralding the unique fusion of Latin and tropical flavors into a new and exciting regional cuisine. The veteran chefs who accomplished all of this are still around, and continue to dish out impressive fare. Yet there's an old Yiddish saying that might still apply to many of them: "He with a reputation for rising early can sleep until noon."
This reflection arises not out of the blue, but out of La Broche, the new, cutting-edge Spanish restaurant on austere Brickell Bay Drive in downtown Miami. The original La Broche is chef Sergi Arola's Michelin two-star restaurant in Madrid. Arola had previously worked under überchef Fernan Adria at El Bulli, the radical restaurant that revolutionized haute Spanish cuisine. Chef Angel Palacios trained at both Bulli and La Broche Madrid before taking over the helm at this new Miami branch, and the influences are as loud and clear as the food -- and the food is VERY loud and clear, as well as ingeniously esoteric, and so charged with vitality and passion you fear the plates may crack from sheer amazement.
You can observe chef Palacios and his talented assistants tending to their titillations via a floor-to-ceiling glass panel between kitchen and dining area. Glass opens another wall to views of Biscayne Bay; the rest of the room is stark white. Too coolly minimalist for my tastes, but admittedly it warms when the 85 seats get filled. Plush white leather chairs and a red pomegranate-bourbon screwdriver with orange-lemon foam put one even more at ease. But there is little time to sit back -- the relentless parade of stimulating tidbits begins before you can even lick the foam off your lips: a small stick of "screwdriver" sorbet, seaweed crackers, sugar-coated pumpkin seeds with smoked salt, cayenne-dusted potato chips, beet lollipops, and oyster crackers filled with olive oil that pop in your mouth upon biting them.
These constitute the first tide of bold flavors in an epic gastronomic journey. Next come tapas: a demitasse of velvety cauliflower soup topped with raspberry foam; fried egg with bits of Serrano ham and crisped onions; gingered sweet potato soup capped with coconut cream; a neat square of eel caramelized in Asian barbecue sauce, with seaweed salad, in sake broth, sided by a separate cup of salted cucumber gazpacho; and thin noodles nestled around seafood and garlic sorbet.
You're almost ready for appetizers, but first a tough decision: the regular menu with its half-dozen appetizers and ten main courses, or the equally seductive degustation menu? On one occasion we went with the former, starting with duck liver "in two textures" -- one way thick, succulent, and seared, a port wine gelatin under it, a crackly, transparent corn wafer on top; the other duck liver in foam, wrapped around a piercing bullet of artichoke sorbet. This starter exemplifies the serious-yet-whimsical cuisine presented by Palacios and Chef de Cuisine Francisco Heras, and also exhibits their enchantment with sorbets, gelées, and above all, foams. Muy Bulli.
There is a symphony of contrasting tastes, textures, and temperatures playing on every plate, but not a false, overworked, or unclean note among them. Flaky rock fish shipped from Spain sings with a slice of grilled melon, thatch of lightly dressed arugula, and steamed lychees lined up and filled with an ethereal butter sauce redolent of vanilla, star anise, and cinnamon. Other entrées include duck liver with pears and cinnamon-scented milk; rabbit with mini squids; and confit of codfish with almonds, mango, ginger, and tea. Palacios (who was heralded as one of Spain's finest pastry chefs) and pastry chef Sergio Navarro craft some crafty desserts as well, like ripe, caramelized figs with passion fruit cake, chocolate sorbet, and the alluring perfume of rose water. A selection of Spanish cheeses is another postdinner option.
Let those who quibble with prices here hold their special-occasion dinners at Houston's -- the degustation menu is, at $85, a bargain. After aforementioned tapas, we were presented with a white plate dotted with confit of lamb tongue, bite-sized pieces of smoky-sweet meat topped with one-inch long baby squid. Dazzling dabs of carrot purée alternate with the meat; a small mound of paper-thin fennel salad sits in the center. The next degustation delight was a moist square of pork turbot in a bowl of bright green pea sauce flecked with sea urchin and "empanadas" of trout egg. The final savory dish finds a trio of cured pork tenderloin disks, each the size of a thick quarter and rich in succulent taste. On the other side of the plate, five cylinders of confit apple, arranged in descending order of height, each rolled around a different filling -- walnuts, goat cheese, and fruit purées.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Dessert isn't one course but a series of seductive sweets: a glass of honey, gingered buttermilk, and puréed mango; ripe cherries filled with Campari (and a snippet of oregano), accompanied by blanched almonds and yogurt sauce drizzled with coffee; and chocolate peanut butter ice cream with a dark chocolate cylinder filled with softer chocolate. Topping off the meal are "petit fours," a goofy but still irresistible array of treats like raspberry sorbet in a tuile, fried noodles with chocolate dipping sauce, a teeny kebab of tomato and watermelon wrapped in a sheet of basil gelatin, and raspberry yogurt lollipops.
Needless to say, wine director Albert Omajen has a tricky job in matching so many foods with appropriate grapes, but the process is made easier by knowing one can hardly go wrong with any of the savvily culled Spanish wines on the compact list.
The waitstaff, too, has an enormous task in tackling all these courses, and they perform admirably. Nary a hitch, really, thanks to evidently tough training and a tight system of teamwork and communication. It is a very good staff, accommodating, hard-working, and so earnest you find yourself silently rooting for some of them to improve their English pronunciations and for others to achieve more polish. Given some time, this group could develop into a GREAT waitstaff.
Bravo to Arola, Palacios, and the team at La Broche for offering a wildly ambitious, ebullient dining experience. As for Miami's own überchefs: It just might be time for them to set their alarm clocks.