A generous slice of salmon is cooked sous vide and flash-heated for a minute inside a wood-fired oven. The fish is heavily coated in a crunchy everything-bagel seasoning and then perched on a plate of the French white cheese fromage blanc, smeared in the shape of a half-moon. A tangy caper vinaigrette is added; then the whole thing is garnished with green and orange concasse tomatoes, delicately peeled and seeded. The fish's seasoning bursts with crisp flavor, and the flesh is juicy.
This is the Skuna Bay salmon, the highlight of any visit to Habitat inside the 1 Hotel South Beach (2395 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-604-6700; habitatmb.com), the newest restaurant by the five-time James Beard-nominated chef Jose Mendin.
"It's straightforward," Mendin says, "but it shows our style. It'll make you remember eating that bagel dish as a kid, but now it's more than that."
The 39-year-old, bearded Puerto Rican chef and his Food Comma Hospitality Group partners — Sergio Navarro and Maximiliano Silva — are the Pubbelly Boys. (Andreas Schreiner and Juan Fernando Ayora are not involved in the Habitat project.) They got their start in 2010 in Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour. First, Pubbelly (now Pubbelly Noodle Bar) was a hit. Then, in a span of eight years, the boys expanded with several nearby restaurants that highlighted Mendin's style of Latin, Asian, and Spanish cuisine.
Today, Pubbelly Sushi locations can be found in Brickell City Centre, American Airlines Arena, Dadeland, Aventura Mall, and a resort in the Dominican Republic. There's also PB Ysla in Puerto Rico and Food Republic on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. Last summer, they debuted a food truck-style concept, Baja Bao, inside Veza Sur Brewing Co. in Wynwood.
Mendin and his partners were also behind two now-defunct hotel restaurants. French concept L'echon Brasserie opened in summer 2014 in Miami Beach's Hilton Cabana. A year later, it closed. Then came PB Station in April 2016 inside downtown Miami's Langford Hotel. It was shuttered about a year later for renovations. There is still no reopening date.
"Mishaps happen," Mendin says, "but our philosophy is still the same."
So in October 2017, the boys announced the opening of Habitat in the former Beachcraft space. This is the same place where Top Chef host Tom Colicchio failed in July 2017, even while serving above-average food.
And things didn't begin well for Mendin and company. Though they had announced that Ángel Palacios, the Spanish former chef de cuisine at the Michelin-starred La Broche in Madrid, would helm the kitchen, he pulled out shortly after the restaurant opened in November 2017. That left Mendin in charge, overseeing breakfast, lunch, dinner, and room service. Even without Palacios, Habitat has something other hotel restaurants don't: Mendin's prized, elevated comfort food. But unlike his other restaurants, which are located on quiet side streets or in shopping malls, Habitat is not locals-friendly. Parking is scarce, and dishes are expensive.
The indoor-outdoor space exudes a strikingly warm glow through rustic, wooden decor and gold and copper accents. Anchored by a large bar, the dining room includes more than 200 seats. Outside, a tree-canopied patio draped in dangling lights features a small camper stocked with cafecitos and cocktails. There's also an upstairs lounge with a second bar and a small outdoor area. It's a massive space, but so far Mendin has somehow kept the restaurant teeming with customers on weekend nights.
The menu is divided into "Land," "Sea," and "Fire." Overall, it's a mixture of recognizable plates and more experimental items. Most are the size of appetizers, though prices average $20 to $25 per item. A table of two would be hard-pressed to spend less than $100 — and that's before alcohol and dessert. There's also a $90 tasting menu that brings the table a choice of eight plates to share.
Toward the back of the restaurant, the kitchen is so open that diners could accidentally walk into it. Here, you'll see a dance of concentrated cooks wearing checkered shirts and backward hats. They're busy preparing items such as cobia sashimi ($18). The dish consists of four thin slices of fish laid on a brown-butter soy dressing and finished with pools of seawater bubbles that quite literally taste like the ocean. It's served lukewarm, because no one likes the taste of cold butter, but the sensation of tepid fish is equally peculiar.
The octopus a la planxa ($21) makes up for the cobia's high price, odd temperature, and small portion. Coated in pine nuts and almonds, the octopus is cooked on a searing griddle, creating burnt edges that provide a pleasantly smoky aftertaste. Squid ink lines the bottom of the dish, which also includes bite-size potatoes and a light romesco negro dressing.
The "Land" portion of the menu lists some of Habitat's most memorable plates. The croquetas ($20) are fried to a golden brown and served in groups of five. Wrapped in fine slices of jamón ibérico, they maintain a crisp shell and a warm, creamy center. It's one of the most satisfying and filling items you'll taste.
There's also the Habitat egg ($20). A large oval basin is lined with crisp prosciutto topped with an oozing poached egg, a large scoop of manchego foam, and truffle shavings. The combo is flavorful, but not for everyone. Comparable to a creamy soup, it will leave your belly warm and full.
Then comes Mendin's interpretation of a milanesa ($18). Constructed like a carpaccio, a bed of Wagyu beef is layered with a mélange of colorful ingredients, such as large tomatoes, edible flowers, and pickled romaine. It's finished with a bitter black garlic soy and pieces of fried garlic. The Wagyu's smooth texture couples nicely with the crunchy toppings. And though the meat is raw, the garlic gives the plate a cooked flavor.
"Fire" is the menu's crescendo. The most expensive item available is the Japanese A-5 Kobe beef. It's served raw along with a searing Ishiyaki stone. The cost is $27 per ounce, and customers must order a minimum of four ounces. The meat is exceptional, but it's still at least $108 for food you must cook yourself. For $99, the table can share a 47-ounce, dry-aged tomahawk instead. Brought out on a large board with the bone intact, the steak is tender and tasty. For a family of four, it's well worth the price.
Of course there's a burger ($18). A thick puck of ground Wagyu is draped with havarti and onion soy jus. It's better than the average hotel patty. But at the end of the day, you didn't come to Habitat for a burger.
Go for the ibérico pork ribs served with a sweet and spicy red gochujang paste ($25). A few kimchee apples lighten up its overwhelming savoriness. If you're sharing, pair it with the black truffle risotto ($35). The rice is cooked in a dry shiitake broth, to which Mendin adds a small amount of truffle. It's finished with an egg and a handful of small wild mushrooms. Enough to fill two, the duo won't break the bank and will leave you content.
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The finale is dessert, when you'll be greeted with a half-dozen items by pastry chef Maria Orantes. The Barba-Papa ($12) stands out. A pineapple-dill sauce is poured tableside over a cotton-candy-like fluff and quickly melts into the pineapple sorbet base. It's light, refreshing, and an ideal palate-cleanser.
Pineapple reappears in the popular tequila cocktail the Fifth Element ($15). Cilantro, avocado, agave, lime, and egg white are blended with the tropical fruit and rimmed with citrus sea salt. It's one of 11 cocktails, along with wine and local craft beer from Funky Buddha and MIA.
Habitat is decidedly more luxurious than Mendin's other restaurants. The food is consistent, but the prices are too high for the average customer. Though it's not as welcoming as Pubbelly Noodle Bar, it's located inside the five-star 1 Hotel and certainly Mendin's most glamorous concept. What remains to be seen is whether those pluses will be enough to bridge the gap between his longtime Pubbelly success and more recent hotel hiccups.
Correction: Habitat opened in November 2017. A previous version of this story stated it opened in December 2017.