While navigating Miami Beach's treacherous construction traffic, you zip past the Hilton Cabana. Damn! You circle the block for another pass. The red pin on your cell phone's map must be out of place. It's doesn't seem possible that a hip restaurant sits amid the dozens of hotels on Mid-Beach's chopped-up Collins Avenue. As you turn the corner and creep up the street a second time, you see it. There, on the hotel's white-stucco façade, is a cartoonish pig-head logo bathed in a halo of blood-red light.
It's easy to miss the Pubbelly Restaurant Group's latest creation, L'echon Brasserie. The French-style bistro is hidden about four miles from the restaurant company's birthplace and spiritual home in Miami Beach's now über-trendy Sunset Harbour. It is also starkly different from its predecessors -- Pubbelly Sushi, Barceloneta, and four others. L'echon is the group's first foray into French cuisine and also its maiden effort in a hotel.
The place sits in the rear of the stark-white lobby. A squat pig statue, tuxedoed and holding a "Bienvenue à L'echon Brasserie" sign, greets you. A hostess guides you past a bar where a seemingly endless array of French red wines are tucked away, and then you spot Pubbelly's signatures: the meticulously inscribed chalkboards rehashing the menu, the open kitchen, and the funky light-bulb trios with blinding filaments. The view out to the ocean is more tourist than urban hipster. And though the place is only a few weeks old, it's jammed.
L'echon is the both the beginning of a new chapter and a big test for the blossoming restaurant group. There are plans to open restaurants on Miami's mainland soon. And the company recently announced it would open four places across Mexico, from Monterrey to Mexico City. It's clear the Pubbelly formula is successful, but there is a risk of repetition and uniformity with such breakneck expansion. It won't be easy for three Miami guys to keep tabs on almost a dozen restaurants at home and abroad.
Since launching their Asian-themed namesake in 2010, Andreas Schreiner, Jose Mendin, and Sergio Navarro have opened a handful of gastropubs as multicultural as Miami itself. Pubbelly Sushi began proffering clams and pork belly rolled up in sushi rice in 2011. Barceloneta, their ode to Spanish tapas, came the same year. In 2012, Macchialina, an unctuous-small-plates twist on Italian cuisine, opened with former Scarpetta chef de cuisine Michael Pirolo, who a year later bought out the restaurant. PB Steak launched in the early days of 2013. That restaurant shuttered in late July owing to the landlord tripling rent, though Schreiner says it will reopen elsewhere sometime this year.
Like its predecessors, L'echon, which opened in late June, prominently showcases pork in all its glory alongside interpretations of French bistro fare. The menu, however, speaks more about Pubbelly's obsession with powerfully flavored, pork-fat-glazed, multiethnic dishes than the brasseries of Paris or Lyon.
Take, for example, the steak frites. At L'echon, the classic preparation of grilled beef and French fries features an aggressively seasoned and seared 16-ounce sliced strip whose succulent marbling and spot-on medium-rare preparation make it worth the $36 price tag. The kicker is the dug-out canoe of beef bone marrow. You can chop some up for French-fry dip. You can smear it on the crusty baguette that lands on the table shortly after you're seated. There's so much it could double as styling gel.
Little about the pan con L'echon -- besides its warm, slightly sweet, and toasty brioche holster -- is very French. No matter, though, because it's the perfect platform for a patty of fatty ground suckling pig topped with lavender and piquant pickled shallots and then slathered in a creamy aioli tinged with a touch of tangy sour orange.
It's quite certain that a French family somewhere right now is making a summertime lunch or dinner of octopus. At L'echon, one of the cephalopod's long tentacles is buttery soft with a crunchy char from the open kitchen's wood-burning grill. The poulpe grillé is nestled into a grainy green romesco that is more reminiscent of Spain than France. Nevertheless, it's executed flawlessly and served on a well-balanced plate.
A similarly Frenchified name is applied to veal brains that are parcooked in court bouillon and then plucked from their bubbling tub, dusted in seasoned flour, and pan-fried with plenty of butter. The cervelle de veau meunière, however, is an ode to Puerto Rico, where Schreiner and Mendin were raised and where veal brains, in a far less elevated iteration, are beloved.
"Andreas' dad did the most famous veal brain in Puerto Rico," Mendin says.
The brains at L'echon aren't presented in a clinical manner. After being fried, they have a delicate, creamy texture similar to oysters without the ocean notes. They're a dish for all, devoid of the mineral tang that turns many away from liver and other offal. Three knots of it come atop a creamy emulsion of sweet blue crab studded with briny, lemony capers and crowned with a bright mixture of microgreens that add a slight herbaceous, grassy note.
The Pubbelly Boys, however, are famous for their menus' richness. Their -palate-smacking, mouth-coating dishes are the raison d'être for their legion of followers. These devotees gleefully trek up Collins Avenue to pack the place on a Saturday night and leave walk-ins stranded in waiting. They gobble down the Nutella toast, a $14 hunk of thick-sliced country bread halved and lathered with the thick, chocolatey hazelnut spread. Each piece is speckled with crushed candied hazelnuts and comes with a small metal ramekin holding a dollop of shiny, smooth duck-liver mousse that quickly becomes the table's object of affection.
If you grumble that Pubbelly cooks with too heavy a hand, you probably order with too gluttonous an appetite. Coquilles St. Jacques is a light, brightly flavored plate offering thin coins of Atlantic scallops wading in a puddle of verjus blanc -- the pressed juice of unripened white grapes -- and tart Japanese citrus. Each buttery, opaque disk is topped with a nickel-size chip of radish and an even smaller sliver of red grape that adds just the right touch of sweetness to the dressing's puckery pop.
Still, L'echon doesn't eschew traditional French fare. There are moules frites, with a dozen huge, jet-black Washington state mussels holding tender, barely salty bivalves. Their viscous, aggressively seasoned sauce is made with shallots, garlic, celery, and white wine. Mendin can't help himself from throwing a dash of soy sauce and tart yuzu into the mix, but they play nicely with the rich sauce and buttery shellfish.
The dense one-page menu also offers a six-pack of house-made charcuterie, duck confit à l'orange, and escargots that are shelled, doused in garlic butter, and hidden under a fluffy yet satisfying potato-leek espuma that is more a light mousse than molecular cuisine's wispy, purposeless foam. Of the charcuterie, a candy-bar-shaped slab of chicken liver mousse is neither too heavy nor too light. It's cleverly topped with a trio of fried chicken livers providing textural contrast you didn't know you needed. Add a small ring of pickled shallots and delicately woody celery leaf to compose one of the menu's best bites.
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Similarly, L'echon's croque-monsieur shows what the team is capable of when sticking to straight French fare. It transported me back a decade to the moment I arrived in Dijon for a monthlong stay and was greeted by my host family's youngest daughter, bearing a tray of bubbling-hot, crustless sandwiches with a euphoria-inducing aroma created by nutty Gruyère playing with sweet toasted egg bread and warmed lean ham.
Though plenty of L'echon's dishes prompt flashbacks, many don't get past 2010, when Pubbelly's first gastropub helped alter Miami dining forever. What made Pubbelly exciting in the beginning was how it changed the formula. Let's hope growing up doesn't mean the Pubbelly Boys won't be able to change their own.