Rocco Carulli frantically darts among large canvases smeared with thick blobs of richly hued oil paint. His smile is infectious like that of a born entertainer, but there's also the nervous quiver of a new restaurateur. He sports a shaved head, a meticulously trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, and a spotless white chef's coat. As he nears a table, he bends into a slight bow and lays a hand on a patron's shoulder in the restaurant's dim dining room.
"Everything OK?" he quickly asks. "Can we bring you anything else?"
Seconds later, he moves to a table of women sipping brightly colored drinks from frosty martini glasses.
"Can we clear these plates out of your way?" he inquires.
Then, with two arms full of dishes, he disappears into the kitchen for a few minutes, only to emerge carrying a dinosaur-size lamb shank scented with a fragrant cinnamon-coriander rub. The slow-roasted meat is covered in a rich yet pleasantly puckering port wine reduction.
As a waiter, Carulli is a natural. He spent 13 summers running the kitchen at Edwige at Night in Cape Cod, followed by winters as a server at Wish, Tony Goldman's now-closed Miami Beach restaurant. He moved to Miami full-time in 2012 hoping to open a restaurant.
R House, which began serving in January at the northern end of Wynwood's NW Second Avenue, is part restaurant, part art gallery, and unabashedly inspired by the neighborhood the Goldmans helped build. "I love the vibe here," Carulli says. "It's got the kind of energy I want to be involved in."
An exterior wall of the 4,300-square-foot warehouse is covered by a geometric rainbow mural featuring Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí's unmistakable wispy mustache and wide-eyed stare. Inside, the restaurant is like a dark artist's 1990s opening. Bright spotlights shine on German painter Dietmar Brixy's abstract oil works that hang on large concrete panels framed in thick black steel piping.
In the dimness, heavy, oak-topped tables surrounded by smoke-gray chairs reflect off a polished concrete floor. Nearly two-thirds of the interior space serves as a lounge. A stainless-steel bar stands in front of tempered glass shelving that holds spirits and liquors. Chocolate-brown banquettes and oversize cushioned ottomans sit between more panels of Brixy's swirled, bright paintings.
Art attacks from all angles. Teals, blues, greens, oranges, and yellows provide an explosion of color. In a courtyard, a mural with a massive pair of squinting, fire-red eyes glares at diners while a pigeon carries a string of triangular flags in its beak.
Carulli, who waxes about his Italian heritage and upbringing, has steered the menu toward what he calls contemporary American. Its fewer than 20 options include an array of world cuisines on a brief list of appetizers and main plates. Much of it is available in half or full portions, offering the ability to create a de facto small-plates meal.
On a recent weeknight, the patio was full, leaving a mostly empty dining room inside. The buzz seemed too much for the kitchen and staff to handle. The place opened in mid-January and is still working out the kinks. Multiple waiters and Carulli himself offered to take orders. It took 20 minutes for a gamey pair of duck spring rolls to arrive with nothing inside the crisp fried rolls other than a few mouthfuls of grayish, underseasoned meat. After a 40-minute wait, entrées emerged from a kitchen that was clearly overwhelmed by a nearby table of 12, whose dishes were also arriving piecemeal.
A rub of chili and coffee were a stellar foil to meltingly tender, succulent short ribs. Jalapeño scalloped potatoes lacked any of the pepper's promised spice, though the paper-thin slices were soft without losing their texture; they were also unbelievably rich after being parboiled in heavy cream. Moqueca, a Brazilian fish stew inspired by Carulli's trips to the Amazon, was packed with tender chunks of cobia, large shrimp, and plump scallops. A combination of garlic, ginger, and cilantro in a seafood broth with coconut offered a delightful aroma but came together as a bit underseasoned.
Our server, who insisted she didn't need to write down our order, regrettably forgot to include an order of sweet pea falafel. When it finally arrived, the fried dish had all the deep, satisfying flavor of its chickpea-based cousin. And the bright-green color and sweetness contrasted happily with sweet, tangy chunks of tomato and fresh cucumber cubes.
On a second visit — during a busy Friday night — R House was a completely different restaurant. The well-executed food and spot-on service became Carulli's saving grace. He later said he's had trouble getting a good crew in place. "It's not the easiest thing to find really, really great people. When I worked at Wish, everyone there was a pro. That's what I thought I was going to find."
Servers were as peppy and attentive as Carulli himself. An oversize ivory-white bowl arrived with a decadent, coral-colored lobster bisque at the bottom. At its center sat a fresh heap of creamy avocado, a sweet-spicy roasted corn relish, and sweeter bits of lobster meat. Though the corvina ceviche came in what looked like an oversize Tostitos Scoops tortilla chip, fat chunks of meaty, fresh-tasting fish were dressed in a lime juice marinade with crunchy bits of green pepper, red onion, roasted corn, and tiny cubes of tomato.
Carulli said the menu is only a start. He plans to expand. And he said he likes to get out of the kitchen when diners stop in so he can be the face of the restaurant.
Though R House is packed during art walks, a restaurant can't survive on one busy night per week or month. Carulli's place has potential. The next year or so will show if he can keep the service and cuisine at a consistently high level. If he does, R House could be a cornerstone of Wynwood, Miami's SoHo.