A plump arugula salad in a round, glossy white bowl resembles a giant sunflower. A dollop of creamy white burrata sits at the center, surrounded by slices of golden mango that look like bright petals. On top are sprinklings of sesame-seed brittle and small pomegranate pips, which alternate between crunchy and sweet.
Thus begins the show at Malibu Farm inside the Nobu Eden Roc Hotel (4525 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-674-5579). The California-cool restaurant, which opened this past April, is reminiscent of the Pacific Coast town for which it's named — call it upscale beach-shack style. The menu offers cauliflower-crust pizza, chicken-ricotta burgers, and cucumber-infused vodka cocktails — not exactly what one would expect inside a swank Nobu-owned hotel at one of Miami Beach's most historic properties.
Created by private-chef-turned-restaurateur Helene Henderson, a bronzed and lanky 55-year-old with a bright smile, the restaurant is nearly 2,800 miles from the flagship, situated west of Los Angeles on the historic Malibu Pier.
The Miami location bears a striking resemblance to the original but offers a more luxurious setting and views of the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Pacific. Both are near Nobu restaurants, which at least partially explains how an outpost of Henderson's quirky beach joint ended up in Miami.
"One of my very first customers in Malibu was Nobu's co-owner, Meir Teper," Henderson says. "I always wondered how he found my tiny café, but then I realized it was right next door to the pier. He introduced himself and kept coming back. We talked a lot about doing something together."
The Swedish-born Henderson, who spent her late teens as a model in New York City and moved to Los Angeles in her early 20s, had never wanted to open a restaurant. In 2008, after she married film director John Stockwell, she began to host farm-to-table dinners in her two-acre backyard near the Pacific surf. As she plucked ripe tomatoes and tended to her goats and chickens, the chef garnered a cult-like following. It wasn't long before she created a catering company, Lavender Farms, and began cooking for celebrities such as Madonna and Barbra Streisand.
As Henderson's dinner parties grew to include more than friends and family, she was introduced to Malibu Pier. She opened a tiny pop-up café called Malibu Farm in 2013 at the pier's far end. Though expected to last only six months, it soon ended up expanding into a much larger sit-down restaurant space near the entrance of the pier. The Los Angeles Times called it a spot with "first-rate food in a setting that lets the surfers and sunsets entertain you."
Around the same time, Teper, a Hollywood film producer, invited Henderson to open a place at a Nobu property. So in early 2016, she debuted a Malibu Farm next door to a Nobu restaurant on Lanai Island in Hawaii. Shortly after, the two decided to open a third location, at Miami Beach's Eden Roc Hotel, which was in the midst of an expansion that included a Nobu Hotel inside the storied property.
"You don't want to eat Nobu five nights a week," Henderson says of the restaurant. "They needed something else. Our waterfront settings are similar, but the vibe is different. It works, though."
In Miami Beach, a large, $1-per-hour parking lot less than a block north of the hotel is a short stroll to the restaurant via the back boardwalk, which bears a sign for Malibu Farm.
Located on the beach side of the hotel, the restaurant is utterly gorgeous. Customers dine on a wooden deck facing the ocean and offering glimpses of neon-hued lifeguard stands and sun-drenched tourists. There isn't a bad seat in the place. On a blisteringly hot and humid day, the mostly alfresco, whitewashed space, outfitted with wooden tables and cozy banquettes, can be too steamy to enjoy outside, but an air-conditioned indoor dining room with large floor-to-ceiling windows faces the water.
Henderson's menu, which is mostly described in her 2016 cookbook, Malibu Farm: Recipes From the California Coast, celebrates locally sourced items and ingredient-rich plates. Right now, she receives bread from Wynwood's Zak the Baker, meat from Larry Kline in Deerfield Beach, and fruits and vegetables from Produce Kingdom in downtown Miami.
"It's still a process," she says. "It's not as easy as Malibu, where you're minutes away from tons of farmers."
Before you begin, cool down with a watermelon cocktail ($16). Served icy, it uses Ketel One vodka infused with cucumber juice, as well as watermelon, lime, and a hint of basil. It strikes a favorable balance between sweet and sharp.
Lunch and dinner menus are similar. Standout medium-size plates include moderately fried crab cakes crowned with a ball of rich caper aioli ($20), and a skillet of "Swed-Ish" meatballs, which are made with a blend of chicken and ricotta as an alternative to beef or pork and served with cranberry for dipping ($15). Free of grease and oil, both dishes burst with a light and meaty piquancy and will leave you with room to continue.
Not available in the evening is a savory fried egg sandwich, in which two nicely crisp slices of country wheat toast come slathered in an oozing egg, havarti cheese, bacon, and tangy lemon aioli ($16). On the side comes a scoop of Henderson's favorite: broccoli mash. Loaded with a creamy and salty butter, it's actually a simple blend of golden potatoes and broccoli florets. "I came up with it years ago as a private chef working for a family with small kids... 50 percent broccoli, 50 percent regular mashed potato," she says. "That's all."
The Miami outpost also offers a perk the Malibu location lacks. A pizza oven churns out vegetable-centric pies adorned with ingredients such as avocado, jalapeño ricotta, hummus, and feta ($18 to $25). Guests can choose to swap traditional dough for a cauliflower or zucchini crust, which comes smothered in mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes. Both are markedly different from classic pizza dough. They boast an unusually moist texture and a flaky consistency that, during a recent visit, caused the crust to break apart with each bite.
Chicken and ricotta are combined for a burger hugged by a brioche bun and topped with bacon, tomato, red onion, and a spicy aioli ($17). Though white meat in a patty risks a dry finish, Henderson's addition of ricotta and bacon produces a favorable amount of moisture.
Among the large plates, brightly colored miso-poached shrimp achieves a harmonious balance of sweet and peppery with miso tahini dressing, ginger, and maitake ($38). Or find Miami flavor in vegetable paella — a mingling of saffron couscous, a rotating batch of vegetables, tofu, and artichoke ($22).
The largest items fall under Henderson's family-style section. They include massive portions of lobster, fish, roasted chicken, slow-roasted lamb, and dry-aged rib eye. Prices aren't cheap, reaching $75 for steak. But portions, which also include sides such as Brussels sprouts and crisp potatoes, are sizable enough to comfortably fill three to four diners.
Though the dessert menu includes sweets such as chia pudding and saffron ice cream, order the grilled chocolate cake ($12). The recipe, which dates back to Henderson's farm dinners, calls for throwing a cooled slice of cake on a sizzling grill. The outcome is warm, moist, pleasantly crisp, and a tad charred. Then comes sea salt, salted caramel, and a whiff of whipped cream.
"I needed to find a way to keep cake without refrigeration," she says. "So I'd put it inside a cooler and grill it right before serving."
About five years after Henderson opened the first Malibu Farm, her restaurant empire has reignited the Nobu Eden Roc just as it revitalized the Pacific Coast pier. Her attention to detail and passion for local food make the oceanside restaurant much more than a typical beach-hotel haunt. And its accessibility to locals, with an entrance that allows them to avoid setting foot inside the hotel, is just as unique. If Henderson's cuisine and service remain topnotch, Miami should be as successful as California.