Like many successful owners, R House's Rocco Carulli and Owen Bale were happy with their restaurant's business. Their weekly drag brunches packed full houses, and dinner service was generally brisk. Sure, there were projects yet to undertake, like finally do something with the vast, underutilized outdoor space and tweak the menu, but that was for sometime in the future.
When COVID-19 forced restaurants closed for several months, Bale and Carulli, partners in work and life, decided the future had arrived.
"We used the time to reinvent ourselves a little bit," Bale tells New Times.
They revamped the outdoor area, which now seats a little over 120 people.
"We always wanted to do something with the patio, but when this big reset button was pushed, it gave us the kick we needed," says Bale, adding that they were incredibly lucky to have that outdoor space to work with.
"With the outside patio, we can now operate at 100 percent capacity," Carulli adds.
The partners then spruced up the inside, adding new lighting above the bar and live plants to warm the space up.
"We polished and shined the inside," Bale says.
Once the space was done, it was time to take a hard look at the menu and how the team wanted to move R House forward. For years, the restaurant had offered a menu of classic American dishes based on Carulli's days as a chef in Cape Cod. But in his six years in Wynwood, Carulli became embedded in the city's culture and learned what Miamians want to eat. Last year he incorporated some Latin-inspired dishes that proved popular, and the partners decided to go with what was working.
Carulli says he did a lot of research about dishes like ropa vieja and carne asada.
"I didn't want to do a Cuban menu. I'm Italian, and I knew I could never compete with dishes that came from abuela's kitchen," he explains.
Describing his menu as more "Latin/Miami inspired" than traditional, Carulli says, "This way, I was able to do whatever I wanted without worrying about breaking the rules."
Carulli also enlisted his kitchen staff when it came time to test and tweak recipes, especially leaning on sous chef and kitchen manager Diana Rodriguez for input. When Carulli was looking for a good steak marinade, Rodriguez called her aunt for her recipe. The marinade, of Honduran origin, is made with bitter oranges. Another chef, from Venezuela, helped Carulli perfect his arepas.
"He makes his arepas in 30 seconds, and he guided me through the steps," Carulli says.
Carulli says the teamwork not only made the food better, but it further forged his relationship with his staff.
"People say that a restaurant becomes a family, but this process has really brought us together," he says.
The new menu offers a host of dishes that riff off traditional Latin-American recipes. Ropa vieja ($32), for instance, is made with a coffee-rubbed short rib, braised with peppers and onions. Carne asada ($28) is served with tostones, and there's a wild mushroom-stuffed arepa. Vegetarians should seek out the veggie paella bowl, made with cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and wild mushrooms.
Carulli's moqueca ($30) — a Brazilian seafood stew made with local fish, Florida shrimp, scallops, ginger, coconut milk, tomatoes, and peppers — is one original R House dish that lives on in the new menu.
The cocktail menu was given a refresh as well. New drinks include the "Wynwood Bartender" ($15), made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, lemon, basil, orange-blossom water, and strawberries; and the "Frisky Rabbit" ($15) with Beefeater gin, Aperol, carrot juice, yuzu, egg white, and a marigold garnish. For an after-dinner drink, the Uncafecitoporfavor hits the spot with its blend of Stoli vanilla vodka, Kahlúa, and espresso.
In the coming months, R House will host live entertainment. Carulli envisions live music during the week, with different programming nightly.
"We would love to have some Latin bands, salsa dancers," he says. "There is so much talent in Miami, we're just trying to lock some down."
The wildly popular drag brunch will continue on weekends, but Bale wants R House to be known for more than that.
"We were inspired by our realization that our brunch was on so many people's Miami bucket list, for both locals and tourists," Bale says. "We want to achieve the same thing for the restaurant as a quintessential Miami dining and entertainment destination."
R House. 2727 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-576-0201; rhousewynwood.com. Dinner is served Wednesday and Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday 4 to 11 p.m., Saturday 4 to 11 p.m., and Sunday 4 to 6 p.m.; brunch seatings Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
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