Cindy Hutson spent the first lunch shift at Zest in tears. In late February, the downtown office crowd descended upon her 285-seater in a ravenous fury. Soon a kitchen crew that had barely worked together was slammed. "I had 41 orders for lamb burgers," the 58-year-old Hutson says. "I didn't have enough space on my burners to cook them. One hundred eighty lunch orders later, the bandanna-wearing chef realized she needed to change her menu.
The lamb burger was scrapped, and today the kitchen handily manages a crush of lobster and scallop quesadillas. Chunks of the sweet, tender crustaceans are combined with a snappy corn salsa that includes spicy flecks of charred jalapeño peppers. Florida corn is just coming into
Zest is her first downtown Miami project and a throwback to Hutson's frantic early days in the restaurant business. She moved from New Jersey to Florida in 1979 to become a charter boat captain. Later she sold coffee and high-end Jamaican products to restaurants around town. Then, in 1994, her business and life partner, 45-year-old Delius Shirley, threw her into the kitchen of his mother's namesake Lincoln Road restaurant, Norma's on the Beach. And there, in what she described as a shoebox of a kitchen, she broke down. "I thought I could do eight different entrées with eight different starches, sauces, and vegetables," she says. "The first night we got busy, I just stood there crying."
The panic was short-lived. Norma's enjoyed a five-year run on Lincoln Road during the outdoor mall's renaissance. In 1999, Hutson and Shirley decamped to Coral Gables to open their now-iconic Ortanique on the Mile. There, she made a reputation serving what she has long described as "Cuisine of the Sun." It's heavily Caribbean-influenced but also possesses Asian, Indian, and Latin American influences. That one restaurant spawned outposts in Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; and Grand Cayman, plus a lengthy list of consulting gigs and television appearances.
Those worldly sensibilities from Ortanique are on display at Zest. If you were to dine at the former and then do a blind test here, you might easily guess it's Hutson's food. The plantains, yuca, and bounty of seafood give it away. But so too does the delicate balance of sweet tropical flavors that never overpowers the plate.
At the same time, Hutson is pivoting toward a variety of cuisines in both the main restaurant and the attached grab-and-go lunch counter. Here, in what's called the Zest MRKT, a daily shawarma offering rotates sweet shaved Korean beef with pickles and a kimchee slaw and Mediterranean-style lamb rubbed with za'atar and served with tzatziki in a homemade pita.
In Zest's orange-and-wood-hued dining room, Hutson seems to have India on her mind. There's a pungent lentil curry built on toasted coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, and allspice simmered in an anise-infused vegetable stock. If you're craving curry but your dining companions are too fancy for bare-bones downtown Indian joint Raja's, this is a fine replacement, albeit pricier. This curry's heat comes from a sticky tomato chutney, tempered by a cooling raita punched up with mint and cucumber.
Then there are fat octopus tentacles braised for nearly an hour in similar curry spices. It's tender and full of flavor. Plumped-up golden raisins add a bit of sugar, while an intoxicating pilau, a rice dish similar to pilaf, takes on a special richness thanks to chunks of roasted cashews.
Still, Hutson hasn't abandoned her Caribbean foundation.
Her fish dip, whose main ingredient changes with availability, is a simple pleasure. It combines homemade garlic aioli, rémoulade, and a "woo sauce" made with Scotch bonnet peppers, carrots, and vinegar. Made with
Cobia makes for a pleasant, refreshing midday ceviche. It is roughly chopped and tossed with ginger, coconut milk, and shreds of green mango. However, it's a small portion, less than a palmful of fish, for $19.
Hutson's chef de cuisine, Mike Fischetti, shows off his boss' teachings with a seared wedge of cobia perched atop coconut-Scotch bonnet jasmine rice. The fish's sweet flesh has a delicate bouquet that could easily be overpowered by an overly aggressive tropical concoction. Instead, just a slight touch of coconut brightens it up, while the growing heat of the Scotch bonnets draws you back for bite after bite.
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There's a similar pull in a New Orleans-inspired bowl of creamy cornbread-crusted bay scallops served atop luscious grits. Its highlight is a potent creole sauce made with clam stock and smoked tomatoes seasoned with smoked paprika and sea salt. Just before it's served, the plate is punched up with thyme and fresh corn cut from the cob.
Hutson finishes a meal with simple choices like sugary dulce de leche profiteroles. The delicate pâte à choux collapses in your mouth like a piece of cotton candy. It's a simple bite that epitomizes Hutson's cooking. Sure, her menu is laced with ingredients such as vanilla bourbon demi-glace and truffled oxtail jus. But break it down into its constituent parts, and it's the kind of food you'd be thrilled to eat every day. Be happy it's available for lunch, and don't forget about it for dinner.
200 S. Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-374-9378; zestmiami.com. Zest MRKT Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Zest lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Wednesday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Fish dip, $12
Buttermilk scallops and grits, $14
Daily ceviche, $19
Lobster and scallop quesadilla, $22
Curried octopus, $26