Kris Wessel's arepa and fried green tomato deserves better.
Kris Wessel's arepa and fried green tomato deserves better.

Oolite Closes, Better Partners Needed

The past few years haven’t been kind to Kris Wessel.

First came the 2012 closure of his beloved Red Light Little River after his landlord jacked up his rent to unsustainable levels. Along with Michelle Bernstein’s Michy’s, the restaurant was a pioneer in the gentrifying MiMo District.

He soon hopped the bridge for South Beach and Florida Cookery at what was then known as the James Royal Palm Hotel. Wessel called the restaurant a “love letter to Florida." Frogs’ legs, alligator empanadas, and Puerto Rican pineapple rum cake tied together his Florida and New Orleans roots. But the place seemed troubled from the get-go. During four visits, former New Times restaurant critic Emily Codik found the food pristine but the service deplorable. In the dining room one afternoon, Wessel was spotted barking orders for an upcoming party over a cell phone.

Despite his troubles, the chef's vibrant, complex fare has always garnered a loyal crowd. Wessel is a New Orleans native with deep-rooted family ties in Florida. He worked for Mark Militello alongside Hedy Goldsmith and helped pioneer the early days of Lincoln Road with restaurants such as Paninoteca, which opened in 1995. Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni spoke highly of him in a travel piece in 2009, and a year later, Wessel nabbed a nomination for the James Beard Foundation's best chef in the Southern U.S.

So there was reason to hope when he announced a return with Oolite Restaurant & Bar steps off Lincoln Road in the space briefly occupied by Amir Ben-Zion’s Cooper Avenue. The gluten-free ethos may have seemed outlandish, but like green juice, kale, and cauliflower steaks, it’s a rising trend to be seized.

The limitations never hampered Wessel. His barbecued shrimp maintained their signature buttery, smoky flair. The dried-out chickpea roti, an Indian flatbread, that came with an early rendition was replaced by a spongy, crisp-crusted, focaccia-like bread that was a perfect medium for soaking up the dish’s sauce.

Everyone, however, should’ve seen the problems coming, including backers Roman Cherstvov and partners who now owe the city nearly a half-million dollars in back rent, according to an April 28 letter from the city’s attorney to the mayor and commission.

Oolite wasn’t a bad restaurant. It was a bad business decision. Ben-Zion, who still enjoys runaway success at Gigi, clearly tried to replicate that model in a space that was too large and too obscure. Despite its proximity to Lincoln Road, both Cooper and Oolite were modern-day equivalents of El Dorado for the throngs of gawking tourists only steps away.

The space also gave Wessel the long-sought, misbegotten opportunity to open a bar. Its existence was shorter than its name, A.I.R. (short for Artist in Residence). Even without it, the 200-seat limestone-covered space felt cavernous. When I visited for a review, nearly 60 guests couldn’t help break the silence.

Like many of the restaurants that close every summer, Oolite was missing a few elements critical to success. It was too big, too expensive a space, and too hidden for patrons to find.

Many of this summer’s casualties have struggled with similar problems. Fabio Viviani’s short-lived Siena Tavern on Fifth Street was also too large, with too varied a menu, to sustain. The Pubbelly Boys’ L’echon Brasserie, hidden in a Mid-Beach hotel, failed to garner the diehard fans its Sunset Harbour siblings enjoy. St. Louis’ Pi Pizzeria haphazardly opened with insipid deep-dish pies across the street from Big Pink in the pricey South of Fifth neighborhood.

Previous summers have also seen their share of high-profile closures. In 2013, it was South Beach's Bond St. Lounge, Bernie's L.A. Café, Yakko-San offshoot Little Lotus, the landmark Crab House, and Sushi Maki's fast-casual pan-Asian concept, Pao Town. The following year, Catch, Porçao Farm to Table, Latin Burger & Taco, Umami Burger, Brickell's Choices Café, Jerry's Deli, Liberty City's iconic Jumbo's, Lorenzo, and PB Steak all bit the dust. 

Throughout his ups and downs, Wessel has remained one of Miami’s favorite chefs for good reason. His food is an immaculate expression of Miami and its surroundings and also captures its soul. His arepa with fried green tomato with romesco, for example, was a perfect synthesis of Miami’s redneck and Hispanic personalities.

He needs to find better partners and begin making more astute business decisions to give his food a proper home. That means a properly sized space in the right neighborhood with the right visibility. Red Light, which enjoyed a four-year run, was a good example.

A year from now, no one will bemoan the loss of deep-dish pizza or Aventura’s Luca Bella in the former Chef Allen’s space. They’ll only ask where they can find some barbecue shrimp or a slice of oyster pie.

For more follow Zach on Twitter or Instagram.

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