Mike Mayta begins by searing a heap of chicken livers in schmaltz. Then come cognac, garlic, onion, paprika, and cayenne. The result is something like Jewish deli chopped liver. Next, the 30-year-old chef adds a dash of ginger and celery salt, confit garlic, and shallots, which make the concoction more like a French bistro's foie gras torchon. In the end, it all goes into a blender to become a luxurious emulsion paired with minuscule flaky biscuits, pepper jelly, and the fermented Central American slaw called curtido.
The result is a brilliant chicken liver mousse that sells for $10.
This simple treasure, served at the three-month-old Lutum (1766 Bay Rd., Miami Beach; 786-733-3149) in Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour, is just what the area needs. Despite a years-long honeymoon as South Beach's go-to neighborhood for locals, Sunset Harbour has become increasingly dominated by expensive and fashionable restaurants. Lutum, whose name in Latin means "dirt and soil," is the antidote to this malady.
The former Burger & Beer Joint space was taken over in late summer by partners Antar Sosa and Washington Charles, who spent years with Morgans Hotel Group, the W South Beach, and the Freehand Miami before joining Steve Santana to open the wildly popular Collins Avenue taqueria Taquiza.
In early 2017, Charles and Sosa debuted the mezcal-focused bar El Grito. When the neighboring space became available, it seemed the perfect opportunity to roll the dice on their first sit-down place. The space now boasts inviting dark wood tables surrounded by metal chairs in a room of whitewashed, exposed brick. Hanging plants adorn the dim dining room, and bright lights shine on a Cuban-tiled bar that automatically becomes the focal point.
Lutum is a welcome-back for Mayta, who ran day-to-day operations at Michelle Bernstein's now-closed Cena by Michy and briefly helmed the pop-up Dusk inside her Crumb on Parchment space. The hope was that Mayta and pastry chef Keily Vasquez would translate Dusk into a full-time spot, but it never materialized, and they returned to catering work.
Eventually, however, weekends searing chicken breasts for weddings became too much to bear. Some of Dusk's dishes, like that chicken liver, are here. Let's hope others — such as their caesar salad croquetas, ratatouille with eggplant gnocchi, brisket saltado, and ajiaco potpie — make appearances.
In the meantime, the falafel scotch egg ($10) is a fine choice. A delicate soft-cooked egg is encased in a toothsome blend of ground chickpeas spiked with fragrant cumin, coriander, cilantro, and parsley. The resulting sphere is deep-fried and plated with roasted butternut squash hummus and pickled beets. The trio makes for an ingenious combination; the egg's runny yolk, the velvety hummus, and the tangy beets all create a rich sauce for the falafel.
Similar balance can be found in an escarole salad ($13) in which lime-hued leaves of the bitter green are paired with sugary mango cubes, roasted carrots, avocado slivers, and a mustard vinaigrette. Oh, and before you dig into that accompanying order of chicken liver mousse, request the wings, which seem to be the finest version of poulet frit outside of Little Haiti.
On a recent night, the pasta choice from a list of a half-dozen entrées was the ubiquitous cacio e pepe ($21) — homemade fettuccine in a delicate sauce of little more than Grana Padano cheese, pasta water, and black pepper. The opaque mixture clung to the al dente pasta, and each bite prompted thoughts about what other pasta dishes might emerge from the kitchen.
A rotating Florida fish was a meaty, crisp-skinned red snapper fillet paired with creamy polenta ($27). It seemed a risky choice, but the juicy fish in combination with creamy grains fortified with chicken stock and cream worked beautifully. Mushrooms lathered in miso butter added a touch of savory, while a lemony showering of puffed barley gremolata lent some additional crunch and freshness to each bite.
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Of course, being in the former Burger & Beer space comes with expectations. When someone strolls in wanting a burger, Lutum's offers a double patty bearing a crisp crust and slight char ($17). The combination of a house cheddar cheese sauce and a so-called dirty sauce give each bite the fatty, sloppy deliciousness of a fast-food burger with only a fraction of the guilt. Mayta, a fan of the animated sitcom Bob's Burgers, also proffers rotating burger specials with clever names. Take, for example, the Romesco Was Not Built in a Day, which capped a pair of patties with romesco sauce, broccoli, Gouda cheese, and crisp shallots.
And Vasquez's desserts are always worth a second glance. She was the driving force behind the pair's Illegal Bakery, which sold stunning macarons in flavors such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Fruity Pebbles, as well as strawberry and champagne, and chocolate and cardamom. Her chocolate cake ($11) is a beast of a treat akin to an oversize dark-chocolate truffle crowned with homemade peanut butter ice cream and blueberry sauce.
The question is whether these first-timers can compete with the Pubbelly Boys, the Brooklyn-born pizzeria Lucali, and Chef Bee's star-studded NaiYaRa. Flavor-wise, Charles, Sosa, and Mayta are often better. Let's hope the menu will expand this fall and they'll be given a shot to establish themselves among the city's young, exciting talent.