Since the first time Juan Manuel Barrientos set foot in Miami, he envisioned opening a stateside iteration of his Colombian restaurant Elcielo.
Nearly nine years after opening Elcielo Miami in Miami's Brickell neighborhood, the chef — known to the gastronomic world as "Juanma" — has opened a third U.S. location at SLS South Beach in the space the Bazaar by José Andrés once occupied for nearly a decade.
"I love Miami so much," Juanma tells New Times from his home in Medellín, Colombia, where the first Elcielo opened in 2007. "About a year ago, I got into conversations with SLS South Beach. Now that we're open, it's an opportunity to reach a different public and offer a more casual experience."
Aesthetically, the restaurant is South Beach chic at its finest thanks to a wall of windows that look out onto the SLS South Beach's well-lit pool-scape, towering white curtains and bookshelves behind a glimmering bar, and a massive white chandelier at its center.
But what makes the newest Elcielo location extra special isn't its glitzy new digs. It's the a la carte experience you won't find at the Brickell restaurant.
While other Elcielo locations — which include Bogotá and Washington, D.C. — are centered around a multi-sensory tasting menu known as "the Experience," the SLS South Beach restaurant gives diners the option to create their own gastronomic journey. The option to dine according to the chef's set menu is still available, with standout moments that range from plucking tufts of yucca bread off branches from "the Tree of Life," a Bonsai tree meant to represent the lung of the world to bathing your hands in melted chocolate with the "chocola-therapy" dessert course.
"I’m very excited to have another version of Elcielo. I think it allows more people to go more often," says Juanma. "Miami is ready for it, and we are bringing the very best dishes in our history so we can have them every day. This location only has the best of the best."
Among the best new Elcielo offerings are warm truffle buñuelos finished with torched foie gras; crispy crab empanadas with dashes of Caribbean spice, guava-doused barbecue pork ribs, lulo fruit ceviche with passion fruit milk, and roasted quail packed with mushrooms and guanciale (cured meat from the cheek of the pig).
And a "must" to end the evening: Juanma's twist on merengón — layers of meringue, whipped cream, and fruit — infused with Colombia's beloved liquor, aguardiente. It pairs perfectly with the lip-puckering "Bogotá Sour," prepared with bourbon, lime, a dash of Malbec wine, and lemongrass, adds the chef, or the "Chimberito" aguardiente that blends cachaca, yuzu, and soursop.
"We've brought in the best local ingredients, and we've brought in the best Colombian products with soul," says Juanma. "It all comes together to be something really unique, and I think Colombian food really is some of the best food in the world."
Beyond the SLS South Beach opening, Juanma shares that new locations in Los Angeles, Veil, Seattle, and — in South Florida, West Palm Beach — are among the markets he's set his sites on for future Elcielo locations.
Elcielo at SLS South Beach. 1701 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-674-1701; ennismore.com. Open daily from 6 to 11 p.m.