To reach the best seats at Brickell's Quinto La Huella, stride through the main dining room, a raw-wood-and-tanned-leather expanse accented by rough pottery and orange lamps. Continue to the patio, where bushy hanging foliage helps hide each table and turns the small opening ringed by skyscrapers into a secret garden. Finally, pass through a pair of heavy glass doors and enter the grill room, where a dozen or so seats are set around a high bar made from a single tree trunk.
This is the beating heart of the long-awaited second restaurant from the team behind Uruguay's beloved Parador La Huella. The original beachside restaurant is in the tiny town of José Ignacio, about a two-hour drive east of Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. It opened in the early 2000s and quickly became a favorite among vacationing Brazilians and Argentines. The place excelled at simple fare: house-made breads, fire-roasted vegetables, and hefty helpings of beef grilled over open coals.
In 2013, the restaurant placed 20th on the inaugural list of "Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants." The following year, it rose to number 17, where it remained in 2015.
As celebrities and larger crowds began making the pilgrimage to the so-called restaurant at the end of the Earth, offers to expand began rolling in. So owners Martín Pittaluga, Gustavo Barbero, and Guzmán Artagaveytia partnered with Brickell City Centre developer Swire Properties to open the 359-seat Brickell restaurant inside the complex's East, Miami hotel this past May.
But transporting Parador La Huella to Miami was clearly a challenge. Upon arriving at the hotel, you find a brawny, pissed-off looking bouncer — tribal tattoos and all — stationed behind a black rope demanding to know your destination. Once he lets you in, you come upon a regiment of hotel staff. They are undertrained and little help in guiding you to the restaurant on the fifth floor. After you step off the elevator, the hostess is frazzled. When the place is slammed, the staff sacrifices niceties to handle the crush. Service is uneven. Waiters are courteous enough but seem to forget about tables waiting for food to arrive. There is no sweeping ocean vista to distract from what's wrong — as there is at its beachfront birthplace.
Have a seat, order, and out comes the gazpacho. It's a thin, underseasoned gruel that tastes of little more than tomatoes that have been pulverized, strained, and topped with a swish of olive oil and a turn or two of black pepper. The accompanying croutons, red onions, and green peppers do little to help. An escarole salad also needed a pinch of salt and was so overdressed in olive oil that it was halfway to becoming some kind of chimichurri. That's even worse considering the kitchen didn't make good on the menu's promise to grill the greens.
Complimentary starters fare better. A small dish of good olive oil and a basket of house-made bread show what pastry chef Florencia Courreges, on loan from Uruguay, can do. The crackers and bread sticks are pleasingly starchy, while slices from a grainy country loaf with just a bit of sourdough tang coax you to sop up the oil. Sometimes a pair of bulging empanadas appears. Do whatever is necessary to get them, particularly the shrimp ones, plumped up with a blend of tomatoes and garlic. They should be added to the menu to bolster what the place does well.
What the place — and the nation of Uruguay — does well is beef. Opt for the flap steak, a relatively inexpensive cut from grass-fed Uruguayan cattle. What the menu calls "vacio" has all the ribbons of melty fat of a good rib eye, along with ruby-red flesh. It bears a delicate, almost musty aroma found only in cattle whose caretakers shun corn feed. Despite the delays, the parrilleros have little problem hitting a medium-rare that yields a steak with a gorgeous char and a vibrant, borderline-bloody interior.
A large red snapper is a more daunting challenge because the fish is so prone to drying out. Nevertheless, the beast makes it out of the fire sweet and silky. But take note: Flipping it over to savor some of the charred, crisp skin will end with a mouthful of scales. They're left on so the fish remains intact on the grill and as it's transferred to a wooden board. Call them a necessary evil. Like many places that home in on unpretentious, elemental cooking, Quinto La Huella offers proteins à la carte.
Sides must be ordered individually. Try the crisp-outside, buttery-and-soft-inside smashed potatoes called papas escrachadas. Large yellow spuds are wrapped in foil and cooked until tender. The magic happens when they are split open and brushed with clarified butter, then popped back into the heat. The skin bubbles and pops as it gathers an aggressive char, creating an addictive textural contrast.
Beyond the beef, there's a pair of oval-shaped pizzas with pockmarked crusts bearing the wood oven's sweet aroma. The kitchen grinds pork shoulder with a fragrant blend of fennel, sage, and thyme into a fatty sausage the menu offers as chorizo. It meets its match on a pie littered with pleasingly bitter rapini and just enough chili flakes to cut through milky mozzarella and fatty meat. This is a perfect trio.
Also solid is the arroz negro. Uruguayan sushi rice, cultivated by Japanese immigrants who brought the seed with them, is toasted and then cooked in a fragrant broth of squid ink including a heap of garlic. The dish is laced with buttery-soft curls of squid and topped with a handful of tender shrimp and a dollop of pale-yellow allioli.
Still, many of the better dishes are marred by poor pacing. Sometimes as much as 40 minutes pass between courses. One night, a manager sought to make amends with a few glasses of Malbec and a profusion of apologies. But considering the competition from places such as Francis Mallmann's recently opened Los Fuegos and even Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, servers and the kitchen must better work together.
There are no calming ocean waves here, only the grinding sound of construction at nearby towers that will soon house other restaurants. Those places might steal the well-appointed customers who currently crowd into this raw, wood-wrapped space.
Quinto La Huella
788 Brickell Plaza., Miami; 305-712-7000; quintolahuella.com. Monday through Thursday 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday 6:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 6:30 a.m. to midnight.
Escarole salad, $15
Arroz negro, $27
Red snapper, $29
Chorizo pizza, $18
Papas escrachadas, $9
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