Quick question. Remember that swanky spot Tudor House at the Dream South Beach hotel? If so, you'll likely remember Jamie DeRosa, the chef who led the kitchen until the restaurant closed last year.
DeRosa, a portly 40-year-old with spiky brown hair and a toothy grin, made a name for himself with, among other things, his pea soup, a smooth purée of fresh peas, cream, and leeks. When you ordered the dish, a bowl arrived topped with house-made lime marshmallows, peppercorns, and little pea tendrils. A waiter poured the emerald broth from a pitcher into a tiny basin. It was theatrical and amusing.
If you sampled this dish at Tudor House, you will definitely recognize it on Washington Avenue at Tongue & Cheek -- DeRosa's latest venture, which opened in April. The setting is a study in contrasts. Rather than the Dream's tourist-congested Collins Avenue location, this restaurant thrives in a narrow building in South Beach's South of Fifth neighborhood. And DeRosa isn't working for celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian as he was at Tudor House. Instead, he's joined at the laid-back location by Michael Reginbogin, who was director of food and beverage operations at the Dream.
The current dining room melds loud music with funky art. Its walls showcase funny paintings by Deep Sleep Studio that portray suited horses wearing eyeglasses and a woman who's a half-octopus holding an umbrella. The kitchen offers fanciful treats like lemonade popsicles, pig ear lettuce wraps, and beef cheek burgers with cheddar pimento cheese. On some nights, there's a fish-and-chips special of fried grouper cheeks.
The chef proffers daily dinner specials called "family meals." They're available at happy hour, and for $10, patrons can nibble on the staff meal. Guests sit by the bar, sip sodas, and eat supper from scarlet TV dinner trays. On Mondays, there are Mexican-inspired carnitas. On Saturdays, it's green papaya salads with fresh summer rolls.
DeRosa carved out this easygoing approach as a contrast to the elegant American dining room of Tudor House. This is a neighborhood restaurant with a mishmash of pristine and playful food. Which is exactly what makes this novel venture so much fun.
The chef began his career under one serious chef after another, starting with James Beard Award-winning Allen Susser and then moving around the globe. He worked on the West Coast for Wolfgang Puck and Joachim Splichal and then overseas at the Fat Duck in the United Kingdom and Domus in China. But DeRosa didn't make a real splash in the Miami culinary scene until he took over the kitchen at Tudor House, which quickly garnered a reputation for pricey checks, small portions, and immaculate modern American cuisine. When the place lasted only a year, DeRosa fans were crushed.
So at Tongue & Cheek, he's reworked a few Tudor House classics. Pick from bruschetta snacks, braised lamb belly, or roasted branzino. DeRosa brines his lamb belly for 24 hours. Then he braises, sous-vides, and sears it to order. The result is a tender cut of meat so rich that pork lovers won't miss the swine. Octopus and roasted caponata -- with smoked tomatoes and eggplant -- pair with the lamb. It's a wonderfully successful plate. And so is the fish, which is cooked perfectly, then served alongside trumpet mushrooms. The petite branzino gets a lift from an ethereal jamón serrano foam, a smoky touch that complements the accompanying Castelvetrano olives. The result is impressive.
Same goes for service. At the start of each meal, servers in black T-shirts with hair pulled into messy buns plop down warm and airy cheese puffs. They also serve bulky pot pies with fillings that vary: chicken, quail, or pork belly. A generous serving, the chicken edition nestles poultry and chopped vegetables beneath a salted biscuit crust. But the filling contains excess liquid, and it resembles a disagreeable crème fraîche soup.
We didn't eat it, and when our waitress noticed the untouched concoction, she immediately informed a manager. The $18 dish was removed from the bill, proving that service at Tongue & Cheek may be casual -- but it is also very considerate.
The cocktail program, which was designed by DeRosa and mixologist Josh Morrow, is also good-natured. An order of Bourbon for Apples, a pun on "bobbing for apples," brings Buffalo Trace bourbon, thyme, muddled green apples, and three balls of frozen raspberry purée. There's also a molecular margarita that is dramatically prepared with liquid nitrogen and offered at an eye-poppingly high price of $19.
Desserts keep it more real. Valrhona manjari ganache encases an orb of dark chocolate ice cream. Candied kumquats and torched marshmallows ride alongside -- a tongue-in-cheek approach to rocky road ice cream. Frozen treats are a theme for DeRosa's desserts. The pastry kitchen assembles milk shakes and a salted pretzel ice cream as well.
Like many things at Tongue & Cheek, these nostalgic sweets might remind you of times past. Pickled cauliflower, uni, and American caviar crown a tiny tin can holding smooth cauliflower panna cotta -- a dish inspired by legendary Napa Valley chef Thomas Keller, who published a similar take in The French Laundry Cookbook in 1999. The cheddar pimento cheese snack and pig ear lettuce wraps resemble those served at Husk Restaurant, a famous spot in Charleston, South Carolina, helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock. Cookbooks, including one by Joël Robuchon and another from Noma, line the shelves by Tongue & Cheek's bar.
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Although the restaurant's website says the kitchen presents "innovative, honest food", DeRosa frequently toys with the recipes of great chefs. While his cooking is delicious, it's not exactly innovative.
But that doesn't stop patrons from enjoying his latest restaurant. Whether on Collins or Washington, this evocative chef certainly knows how to have a good time.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.