Immature Miami

Just when we think it's gone and done it -- little Miami has finally grown up -- we get whacked in the baby teeth by yet another example of just how unsophisticated and clueless we really are.

Don't get me wrong. I've been rallying for this town since I moved here. My epicurean enthusiasm for the tidbits provided by the place brings me as close to a cheerleader as I'll ever be. But sometimes even I get fed up, and not with foie gras, either. For instance take the indigestion provoked by the inaugural World of Beer Festival. I was asked to be a judge, a task to which I gladly agreed. Always willing to help out a fledgling event. And little-known fact: I like beer. I just don't drink a lot of it because of the carbs; I'd rather feed my cellulite with solids.

Of course if somebody had shared with me the tiny, itty-bitty detail that I would have to devote an evening to a training session, I might have paused. If the PR folks had warned me I'd be tasting beer for two days straight for about six hours each day, I might have thought more about that all-important weight gain factor -- or at least the reality that, not being male, meaty, or into malt by way of the brewing trade like the other judges, I would very likely have had to hail a cab to spirit me home. If organizer Melissa Frantz had taken a second out of her busy schedule to call me the night before the second day of tasting/judging to confess that the casks hadn't arrived and therefore the competition would be postponed until Friday, I might not have been wandering around the half-constructed tents on South Beach with shoes in hand, wondering where the heck everybody was.

That Friday being, incidentally, the kickoff of the festival itself, the night after the winners were supposed to have been announced at the Smith & Wollensky gourmet beer dinner. When ineptitude looms this large, pessimism is its shadow. At press time it remains to be seen whether it'll be cheers or tears in our beers.

The upside, apart from my own newfound knowledge of the oh-so-tasty interactions of hops and fruity esters, is that I got to spend some time with the brewers from Titanic and Gordon Biersch, both cool guys who work out of genuine love for the liquid, and a couple of really beer-smart dudes from national companies like Sam Adams. Oh, and Asian chicken salad at Gordon Biersch, one of the only downtown venues for professional lunchers. I mean lawyers.

Sure, you could point to Miami's acquisition of La Broche, the much-ballyhooed avant-garde Spanish restaurant in downtown, as a mark of our increasing worldliness. But don't expect me to jump on that gelatin bandwagon. I don't want to disrespect any of the critics, especially New Times's own, who have hailed chef Angel Palacios for being innovative with his kitchen-as-laboratory techniques and esoteric with his products. My own experience at La Broche was a study of superb service, and as clinical as the dining space and robotic as the kitchen staff are, the subject-at-hand -- food and its many (dis)guises -- is clearly always in the foreground.

A couple of things, however, have been irking me. For starters, Palacios and his mentor Sergi Arola, who opened the first La Broche in Madrid, are not the first chefs to bring this technological deconstruction of cuisine to Miami. Barcelona native Jordi Valles, who debuted at Aria in the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne last year but has since departed, introduced it with his appetizers like Sauterne aspic with tiny bits of prosciutto and a melon foam. Nor is Ferrán Adria, the famed chef at El Bulli, the only representative of the Spanish wave. Yes, he invented the foam thing, with a canister he received as a gift in the early Nineties. True, he has disciples, ranging from Valles to José Andres of Jaleo in Washington, D.C., both of whom often return to El Bulli for inspiration.

But chefs all over Spain have slowly been going the postmodern route for 30 years, beginning with Adria's own mentor, Juan Mari Arzak, who is well-known for the dishes such as poêlée of langoustines and rice vermicelli with foie gras mayonnaise, which he and his daughter-partner prepare at Restaurant Arzak in San Sebastián. To get a taste of what these chefs as a group offer, you can head to Bizcaya Grill in the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, if you can still get a ticket, during the Wine & Food Festival. That's when the Basque regional chefs, such as Aitor Basabe from Restaurante Arbolagaña and Alvaro Martinez from Restaurante Cubita Kaia, will be showing off during the Sub-Zero/Wolf Dinner Series there with "octopus with almond purée and pimento juice" and "lobster with tea broth and red fruits" respectively.

Which brings me to my other point: the food itself. Every culinary wave has its promoters and its detractors. For those who loved nouvelle cuisine, there were probably twice as many who were disgusted with it. For the record, I am delighted it is Spain that has emerged with a global trend that will permanently shape our collective dining habits, in both good and bad ways. I have long thought it time for that country to rebel against the combined culinary power of Paris and the infinite regions of Italy. But the end result doesn't tempt me.

There will be those who say I just don't get it, that I'm not adventurous or educated or open-minded enough to enjoy it. Go ahead. I'll be your dumb American. The truth is, I hate Jell-O, always have, and you can call it Sauterne aspic but it's still a wiggly, texturally repulsive thing to me.

That's one element that gives me pause about the fare at La Broche: Gelatin rules, along with the variety of foams and infusions and caramelizations. Another one is the palate. Some items I believe worked really well, especially a sweet potato cappuccino with ginger and coconut and amusing amuses-bouches like the frozen "screwdriver" pop, to name just two. But I refuse to be so intimidated by the impenetrable nature of the gastronomic goods, or be so influenced by the critics who have claimed Palacios as some kind of savior, that I lose all perspective. I'll sample the stewed pig trotters and the confit of lamb tongue that La Broche routinely offers. But I just can't see myself craving them; after all, 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.

I might even admire the presentations, dramatic as they are, and order "fried frog legs with sweet potato purée and herring egg ravioli" to satisfy my intellectual curiosity, which I admit Palacios's combinations do arouse. To wit: The night I ate at La Broche, I dreamed that my spouse and I were being graded on our performance as patrons in two categories: whether or not we could identify the dish, and how we liked it. My husband, who was a bit more enthusiastic than me, received an "A." I failed.

Or maybe, in dream-speak, I succeeded. Yes, I felt challenged by La Broche. But I highly doubt anyone will ever be able to convince me that the cold cauliflower soup topped with raspberry foam and olive oil, or the candied "surprise" -- was it a mussel or a quail egg encased in a shell of hardened sugar? -- in the fish soup make savory sense. And sometimes, I get the feeling that Palacios is going to push this stuff just to see if we'll fall for it, bloated with the naiveté we keep misdiagnosing as erudition.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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