In this series, the Beet Reporter aims to see whether Miami's tastiest restaurants are prepared to feed vegans with something more than boring garden salads.
Barceloneta, the Pubbelly crew's newest gastro-enterprise on 20th Street in South Beach, opened its doors less than a month ago. So, perhaps to publicize the new place, executive chef Juliana Gonzalez answered my vegan challenge.
The complimentary meal she prepared was taken directly from the normal Catalan-inspired menu, with simple omissions or alterations. That's good news for vegan diners. No advance notice is necessary.
Read on to see the gorgeous gourmet vegan tapas these rising Miami Beach culinary stars brought to my rustic "table" (actually a wooden barrel) on the restaurant's outdoor patio.
The first tapas item was the Ensalada de Alcachofa ($12 for the regular menu item, $9 for the vegan version), an artichoke salad in a lemon vinaigrette that usually comes with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese.
I didn't feel like I was missing anything. The fresh, firm, and delicate artichoke leaves curved around fragrant stems of baby spinach and the whole ensemble was slicked with a well-balanced mix of a house-made balsamic vinaigrette with a light touch of truffle oil.
Next, we sampled another tasy salad, the Ensalada Ferran ($10), composed of red and orange Florida-grown heirloom tomato wheels, watermelon, basil, and a sherry vinaigrette.
True to their heirloom pedigree, the tomatoes were juicy and pungent. The delicate Vidalia onion rings added to the complexity of flavors without overpowering. I would have preferred a bit more watermelon as I could barely taste the fruit, but the little bites were enough to balance out the acids of the dish. And the sprinkling of fresh basil and microgreens were deliciously essential accents.
The Pimientos del Padron ($9 for regular item, $7 for vegan version) offered an interesting departure from pretty much anything I've ever eaten at a restaurant.
Essentially a small plate of grilled shishido peppers accompanied by a grilled lemon for the squeezing, the dish was as tasty as it was novel. I'm not sure whether the bright green vegetables actually varied in heat intensity or whether the spice just accumulated in my mouth as I ate them, but the peppers seemed to get spicier with every bite. Usually this dish comes with Valdeon cheese and walnuts. I'm not sure why they omitted the walnuts for the vegan version, but I can see how a little fat would have helped to anchor this otherwise feather-light snack.
Next we received Espinaca ($8) from the De la Huerta (from the orchard) section of the menu.
On first bite, this very lightly warmed spinach dish made me nervous. It had what I initially characterized as a slightly salmon-y flavor. I soon figured out, though, that it was the densely flavorful oil of the toasted pine nuts that gave off the taste. Hidden at the base of the dish were sweet, heat-swelled raisins and a few plump chickpeas. All ingredients came together with a salty, earthy flavor, set off by the occasional burst of fruit sugar from the raisins. A sucker for sweet and savory blends, I named this one of my favorite flavor combinations of the night.
The Coca ($20 for regular item, $13 for vegan version) was, however, the true winner, and certainly the most visually impressive.
A piece of flat bread decked with an array of colorful vegetables, including peeled and salted cherry tomatoes, red and green peppers, caramelized scallions, and supple strips of eggplant, this gorgeous concoction bore a taste resemblance to a gourmet pizza with absolutely no need for cheese. (It's usually lined with foie gras -- yuck.) The vibrant flavors sang side by side and the variation in textures kept the dish interesting until the very last bite.
When the dessert arrived, my face twisted into an expression of grave concern. A dish of soft-serve ice cream was headed my way. Did the chefs misunderstand the definition of vegan? And if so, what other animal products had they slipped into the five earlier courses?
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To my relief and amazement, our server explained that this was a non-dairy soft-serve ($6) brought over from Pubbelly's kitchen next door. Who would have thought? In any case, the light-tasting soy-based swirl was garnished with crumbled candied hazelnuts and encircled by sweetened strawberries, making for a delicious ending to an impressive vegan dining experience.
Barceloneta's rise to my vegan challenge shows this new tapas joint is a spot where veg-heads and their omnivorous friends can dine side by side with equal ease and enjoyment.
Is there a restaurant you'd like to see rise to the vegan challenge? E-mail the Beet Reporter with your suggestions.