Don't Say It! Okay, La Broche!

Many moons ago (about 98, actually), I pulled a culinary prank for April Fool's Day: I made up a restaurant called Tastes Like Chicken and wrote a review on it. In the text I tried to place as many weird and downright disgusting items as I could imagine -- I think stir-fried parrot beaks was one such dish -- and then commented on whether or not it did indeed fulfill the mission statement of the restaurant. To my surprise many readers took me seriously, believing that the restaurant really did exist, despite the fake phone number and address, and wanted to dine there. WSVN-TV (Channel 7) even called me, hoping to feature the eatery.

Were we that desperate for something new and interesting on the epicurean market? I suppose so, and it seems we still are, given the reaction I've been getting from my column about La Broche. For each food professional who agreed with me, there were about two who disagreed. I've also been receiving unsolicited e-mails from readers like Martha Rzadkowolsky-Raoli, who claims that La Broche gave her "a life-changing experience," and that she "will never again feel the same way about eel or lychee or garlic or pigeon or foie gras or apple. A shift has occurred in me." Then there's the author of The Sunburn, a Website about South Florida art, who used my article as the basis for saying, "Honey, welcome to the club. We here in the visual arts have been putting up with this for ages. We go to see art in handsome galleries that serve up visual concoctions that do to our eyes what confit of lamb tongue does to your taste buds, and are made to feel that something is wrong with our education or priorities if it repulses us."

What it all comes down to is that no matter how one feels about La Broche, it is clearly a controversial restaurant that has finally given Miamians more than a mere mouthpiece. Every time the words "La Broche" are mentioned, an immediate and heated debate ensues. Which is why I thought it appropriate to present both sides of the issue, with arguments written by the colleagues and culinary professionals whom I respect the most. And for the sake of perspective, both historical and contemporary, I'm not even going to make any snide comments. I've had my say; now I'm going to let them have theirs.

"I don't quibble with Jen's right to criticize La Broche; it is clearly not for everyone. Nothing radical ever is -- most schools use as example the chorus of boos that first greeted Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Besides La Broche boasts such a preponderance of wacky, eclectic ingredients, there are bound to be some combos that don't hit the mark.

"But to focus on whether cold cauliflower soup with raspberry foam and olive oil 'makes savory sense,' when we're in a town nearly bereft of international culinary talent, and stuck in the muck of repetitive Asian-tropical-Latin fusions (many of which truly don't make sense), is akin to a political writer turning a blind eye to government scandal in order to question the bow-tie selection of one of the few incorruptible politicians. This branch of La Broche is, after all, the sister of a two-star Michelin restaurant, which makes it the closest relative to gastronomic royalty we've got. That alone should be enough to propel every food writer in South Florida to yahoo from the rooftops with glee, even if they don't personally approve of every single dish.

"I take issue with another of Jen's assertions: 'I'll sample the stewed pig trotters and the confit of lamb tongue that La Broche routinely offers. But ... as a people and a culture, we stopped eating the less desirable -- i.e. tough and chewy -- parts of animals when we could afford to indulge in the more tender, fleshy areas.' An instructor at The Culinary Institute of America taught me that you could theoretically train a monkey to properly roast a rack of lamb -- add salt and pepper, place in 400F oven for 25 minutes, remove and slice (though I strongly advise cutting the meat yourself, as it has been my experience that an excitable monkey wielding a knife has a disturbing effect on dinner guests).

"In other words if you want a rack of lamb, you can go to any restaurant, or easily cook it at home yourself. If you want some confit of lamb's tongue, set aside a few days on the calendar and good luck -- or else dine someplace with a professionally trained chef who can turn these less-common cuts of meat into intriguing and delicious treats. This constitutes a large part of haute dining's allure, and we don't have as many local chefs capable of preparing such cuisine as some will have you believe."

-- Lee Klein, New Times restaurant critic

"I've never been to La Broche here. I've eaten a lot in Europe, though, including two parts of Spain where [chef] Ferrán Adria had a huge early influence: Catalonia right around Barcelona, the area where his restaurant -- or laboratory, as it sometimes seems more appropriate to think of it -- El Bulli is located; and the Basque country, including San Sebastian, which has long been considered the New Spanish cuisine capital ... By [the time I took] a trip in 2000, I don't believe there could've been a chef left anywhere close to the Spanish/French border without a syphon. Adria's influence has totally changed the whole Barcelona restaurant scene, and all his shock-rock-type 'you're expecting this but you're gonna get that' unexpectedly flavored gelées and hot/cold juxtapositions were all over San Sebastian, too. I even found foam in a little mom-and-pop place in St. Jean de Luz, above the border in France.

"What I've experienced there at The Source supports both Lee's rave and Jen's rant. Um, make that 'close to The Source.' Unfortunately I've never been to El Bulli itself. But chefs and other trusted foodie buddies all say that on any given visit, somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of Adria's dishes per meal are almost unbearably exciting, about the most inspiring stuff that's happened in the food world in our adult lifetimes. And the remainder range from simply weird to outright repulsive. (Not surprising. Laboratory experiments don't always work in other sciences.)

"Anyway, of the Catalan and Basque places I've been to run by disciples of Adria, I'd say about the same percentage holds true -- somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the dishes I've tried have excited me, or at least I thought they worked, and the rest were just weird, sometimes so weird they were very annoying (particularly when they were pricey). In Valencia I wouldn't exactly say I thought that the Rice Krispies paella was an improvement on the original paella Valenciana. I wasn't all that thrilled to order 'chicken curry' and get curry-flavored ice cream with hot coconut soup, apple Jell-O, and some powerfully evil raw onion rings.

"On the other hand, in a tapas bar I knew was Adria-influenced, 'Irish coffee' that turned out to be two glass cups of savory soup, one hot foie gras topped with corn foam and the other hot corn topped with cold foie gras foam, was really fun. And a shrimp tempura with several Asian foams (wasabi, curry, and peanut) instead of standard dipping sauces was absolutely brilliant! But then you've probably heard about the famous place in Madrid that does considerably less successful -- one might even say appalling -- peanut foam dishes, like this virtual joke [of a] dessert where it's in curry sauce sprinkled with these crumbled Cocoa Puffs? It's the original La Broche."

-- Pamela Robin Brandt, New Times restaurant critic

"Serrano ham cubed as perfectly as grains of salt, savory foams that are light as air but with a subtle flavor of citrus, and frozen libations that definitely amuse the bouche. These are the reasons, in my opinion, that the food of chefs like Angel Palacios is worth exploring. No, it is not for everyone and it is not for every day. Neither does this kind of cooking always work. For every one dish that was a revelation, there was one that was met with a shrug. There is never a reason to make tuna-flavored gelatin as I tasted in the Ritz-Carlton in Naples. But a Jerusalem artichoke foam actually does work for me.

"It's sort of like the raw food thing. In my opinion if you want to eat raw food you should just grab an apple or an avocado. Don't make food something else. But for those who want their meal to be a theatrical experience, La Broche is nirvana. I wonder if this science experiment will take flight. Probably not. But not because Miami's diners are not sophisticated enough. It just doesn't fit our aesthetic. It belongs in New York or Berlin, where performance artists flourish and the avant-garde is commonplace. Still, I am not afraid to say if the emperor has no clothes. In this case, I think he is just a bit overdressed."

-- Victoria Pesce Elliott, a Miami Herald restaurant critic

"My experience at La Broche was delightful; however, I was predisposed to like it. I've been eating and investigating the 'new Spanish cuisine' for a while and was just thrilled to find an outpost in Miami. It is true that Angel Palacios cooking is very intellectual, requiring a lot of effort and thought to understand and appreciate. It is a lot to ask from people like us who have no gastronomic culture as such. On the other hand, there is a strong argument for just enjoying food and not having to analyze it.

"I liked almost everything that I tasted, [though] I thought some things really didn't work that well. But then again, I have never liked all the designs in any couturier's collection. Some [pieces] are made specifically to grab attention. The others, the more wearable [outfits], are quieter for the wardrobe of 'real people.'"

-- Viviana Carballo, food writer

"[My boyfriend] Michael and I had dinner there and it was like we ate in two different restaurants. I was liking the foam when it was kiwi on the little whiskey cocktail, but the foam on my fish soup was crying to be skimmed off. The killer for me was the coddled eggs in hardened sugar jackets that went with the fish soup -- I ate it but it almost did me in.

"I almost felt the dishes were booby-trapped -- a gorgeous list of ingredients and flavors with a scary thing at the end, [like a] brain or entrail. Guess I'm not nearly as sophisticated as I'd thought. Oh well!

"I might add that the service was impeccable and the sherries offered at the beginning were just right, and I truly enjoyed the tiny bites served before and in-between courses. Michael, however, thought it was a religious experience."

-- Nisi Berryman, director of business development for Design District developer Dacra

"After a dinner at La Broche, I came home inspired and exhilarated by the creativity of the chef, by his subtle way of proving that there are no limits except in the mind, that not all that jiggles is a disgusting worm, and by the fact that even stuffy people can be enraptured by whimsicalities like the tingling bite of pepper in the delicious after-dinner chocolate.

"The young chef is shaking the foundations of fine dining in Miami in more than one way. While my taste buds resisted the far-flung combination of cauliflower vichyssoise with berry foam, I couldn't bring myself to actually hate it. And the next dishes reminded me that while the world necessarily divides in camps, La Broche is still a thrilling place to eat in.

"The remarkable turbot fillet with pork trotters over 'pil-pil' sauce and sea urchin accompanied by 'trout egg empanada' was superb. The jellylike (sorry!) wrapping of the 'trout egg empanada' just melted in the mouth as the fish roe exploded into a tide of sea flavor. Both my companion [food writer and author Carole Kotkin] and I smiled ecstatically after the first spoonful of a dessert, which combined delicate and robust flavors -- dices of exotically fragrant jellied (again, sorry) rose water were the 'fake spiced bread' soaking in the passion fruit mousse and the unsweetened natural fig sorbet.

"The chef may be young and experimental, but he dares to explore (or rather take calculated risks with) basic cooking techniques, [bringing to them] a deep knowledge of the taste and the strength of each ingredient, and ... imagination."

-- Simone Diament, editor and publisher of The 2003 South Florida Gourmet Guide to Best Restaurants & Wine List

"I have in my library a book called Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome by a fellow named Apicius. [Apicius de re Coquinaria, reputedly the oldest known cookbook.] The recipes in there read much like La Broche's menu selections: variously weird, incredibly complicated, and annoyingly affected. Both book and menu could easily provide a source of harmless after-dinner amusement, to be read out loud to the company, while enjoying a glass of Calvados and some crisp almond cookies.

"Both book and menu also give the idea that the chef has way too much time on his hands, or thinks his patrons have jaded and corrupt palates. Couple that impression with La Broche's sky-high prices, and you can't but be slightly suspicious that the chef at that expense-account emporium is having a good belly laugh at diners' expense."

-- Doralisa Pilarte, food editor

"A heated debate -- this is exactly what makes great cities! One of the things I find so interesting is when we travel in a city where citizens become passionate, even heated in sending us to their favorite places to eat, whether the food is fancy or 'down home.' To witness a spirited game of will indicates true enthusiasm. The long-time problem with most cities is that people just don't care and they settle. [But] a Parisian, a New Yorker, or someone from Barcelona settle? 'Never!'

"The point of the matter is not initially whether you are intrigued with Chef Palacios's (or others that have inspired his) creations, but whether our 'body politic' is mature enough to simply go and experience it. Then, and only then, can one judge. I have traveled to Spain and dined at El Bulli and have had a great deal of time to consider the seemingly radical nature of this way of presenting food. Too much is made out of the foams and jellies. It is the same blunt instrument of oversimplification with which we are bullied within the fat-phobic neurosis that drives Americans to fear butter and cream. And yet, paradoxically, [we] have never been fatter.

"I say to La Broche, 'Bravo. Hang in there! At least you have their hearts beating.' And that is all an artist should ever hope for."

-- Norman Van Aken, chef-proprietor of Norman's

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