In 2011, Sanjay Dwivedi was one of the world's top toques. He had worked in kitchens at London's the Ivy, Le Caprice, and the Greenhouse and cooked for the Rolling Stones during one of their tours. What's more, the Delhi-born chef's restaurant, Zaika, had become the first Indian eatery to earn a Michelin star a decade earlier.
Despite his sterling resumé, Dwivedi was an unlikely choice to run the show at Coya, a modern Peruvian concept that investor Arjun Waney was developing. Dwivedi had little experience in a South American kitchen and didn't know Peru well.
But Dwivedi and his business partner at the time had fallen out, and he was ripe for a change. So when Waney offered him the opportunity, he embarked on a culinary exploration of Peru. While there, he got a taste for the local culture and was able to observe the country's uncontested culinary king, Gastón Acurio.
"When I went to Peru, I was like a kid in a sweet shop I was so impressed," Dwivedi recalls. "They have so many different fruits, veggies, and ceviches. I was hooked, and I knew this is what I want to do."
One year and 25 menu revisions later, Coya finally launched in London toward the end of 2012. Three months after its opening, Zagat named it the world's hottest restaurant. Next came a Dubai outpost, and earlier this year, Coya Miami began serving on Brickell Avenue. For Waney, a millionaire retailer turned restaurateur, the decision to open in South Florida was obvious. Zuma, the Japanese restaurant he founded in London in 1999, had enjoyed immense success since its debut at the Magic City's Epic Hotel more than five years earlier.
Coya Miami is an expansive establishment. After passing a leafy terrace, you're met inside by a pisco bar fit for drinks and casual dining. Farther in is the high-ceilinged main space, which features a ceviche and tiradito counter that's ideal for solo dining. Aptly called the Gold Room, the majestic space is reminiscent of an Incan palace. Details include antique furniture transported from Peru, mustard-yellow velvet chairs, and titanic pisco jars crafted in France by a specialty glass blower. Toward the back is a discreet members-only lounge.
Both the restaurant and its patrons are impeccably styled, which is unsurprising given that entrées hover in the $30 range. The bulk of the menu, however, consists of small sharing plates averaging $12. They're divided into categories such as ceviches, tiraditos, anticuchos (marinated skewers cooked on a charcoal grill), vegetables, and fish and meat mains. Three to five per person is the suggested number of small plates, so it's possible to dine here for around $50 sans alcohol. Ask Dwivedi, though, and he'll say the best way to get acquainted with Coya is via its $90 tasting menu offering a half-dozen courses.
The Formula 1 fan describes his food as "bursting with flavor" and "not for the faint-hearted." He says he uses modern tricks to create his version of Peruvian fare. Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese influences are inherent in the South American country's cuisine, thus easily opening it up to interpretation.
For example, Dwivedi draws parallels between sushi and ceviche, saying the former features raw fish served with soy sauce and wasabi, while the latter is prepared using chili and lime. "It's another way to have fish in a very healthy way and different kind of way," he explains before casually throwing in that "ceviche is the new sushi."
Seven varieties of ceviche are offered at Coya, and I tried four, each bowl seemingly more colorful than the last. One of the bowls holds sea bass accompanied by slivers of red onion, chunks of sweet potato, and kernels of crunchy white corn. The base is a deliciously pungent leche de tigre (tiger's milk), the Peruvian term for the citrus-based marinade used to cure the seafood in a ceviche. Called the clasico, it's the most typically Peruvian version on the menu, and the marriage of sweet and acidic flavors is flawless.
A swordfish ceviche is more Asian in nature; its base is a Japanese cooking stock called dashi. The broth has a delicate creaminess that, combined with a hint of truffle oil and chives, adds complexity to the fish. Next is a Chinese-inspired yellowfin tuna ceviche in soy sauce with sesame seeds and a rice cracker. Nothing newfangled here, but like the others, this raw dish is fresh and bold.
Then it's on to a small plate of tasty golden beets with goat cheese and hazelnuts. Apart from the desserts, this is the only item on the vast menu to contain dairy, Dwivedi boasts. Coya is also virtually gluten-free. Indeed, Dwivedi attributes the healthfulness of Peruvian cooking, as well as its diverse culinary influences, to its growing popularity. And it's true — on this year's San Pellegrino list of the world's best restaurants, three Peruvian eateries earned a spot among the top 50.
"I also think people's habits are changing," Dwivedi explains. "Japanese food is the number one food in America, and I think there's enough of Japanese now, and Peruvians have a way to move forward."
The night I visited, most diners ordered the tasting menu, which Dwivedi says is more popular in Miami than anywhere else. Also favored locally is the octopus. First it's prepared sous vide and then cooked in a very hot pan inside a Josper, a charcoal-fired oven by which Dwivedi swears. The mollusk arrives meticulously arranged with potatoes, basil, and Peruvian olives. It's toothsomely tender, but compared with the vibrant ceviches, the octopus comes across too timidly. It would benefit from additional seasoning and more interesting plate mates.
Something that needs no improvement is the Chilean sea bass. Dwivedi's team lets the fish rest in salted water for a day before allowing it to marinate in miso and tamarind for 48 hours. Finally, it goes on a robata grill to give it a caramelized flavor. This best-selling dish is served in a cazuela (iron pot) alongside paella-style rice, sweet corn, and pea shoots. The idea is to blend all the components. The chef explains the tamarind is responsible for the entrée's umami taste, which leads to a burst of flavors in the mouth. He's right — the dish is a sensory experience.
A simple chili-infused corn salad blends Peruvian corn, local sweet corn, and crunchy corn prepared in the Josper oven. There's no faulting it. Another vegetarian hit is a dish of incredibly juicy forest mushrooms fired on a charcoal grill and spiced with ají panca chili pepper. Conversely, the chicken skewers are a touch too sweet and undercooked.
The kitchen's tiger prawns taste like a boring afterthought, but fortunately, this isn't the case for the filet mignon. Coya's Chinese-inspired beef has been aged and marinated in spices for 12 hours, and it emerges succulent and perfectly seasoned. What's more, the gently fried onions atop it are a delightful add-on.
For dessert, I ordered the salted caramel ganache, a helping of caramelized bananas, and plenty of raspberry sorbet. And just like nearly everything tasted here, the final course is both light and dynamic. Dwivedi knows what health-conscious food lovers want, and he gives it to them without compromise.
No chef de cuisine has been appointed yet, though Dwivedi says he's training someone whom he declines to name. He will be in town most of July working with him or her. He asserts it's a challenge for a London-based chef to find top culinary talent in the 305, but service was on its A-game the evening I visited.
Where will Coya sprout next? Waney previously told New Times the plan was to open in Tokyo and then in cities across the United States, beginning with New York. But Dwivedi is focused on a more imminent task: "I want to create the best brunch in Miami," he says of Coya. "I don't want to reveal a lot, but I'm very excited about it."