Simple Fare at Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann Conjures Magic in a Billionaires' Playground

The sweet scent of smoke assaults your senses long before you catch sight of Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann. If you're acquainted with the gaucho chef who was reared on the edge of Patagonia's windswept plains, you'll know that intoxicating perfume comes from his love and calling card: fire. It's the focus of his cookbooks and restaurants, and it's how he unearths striking flavors from all manner of flora and fauna.

At Mallmann's restaurant inside the Faena Hotel Miami Beach, orange flames lick a multifunctional grill he designed and built in Texas. Oak and charcoal fuel its plancha, parrilla, and smoker. It's also the source of scalding ash for rescoldo, a process in which vegetables are gently roasted in the fire's refuse.

There's also an open pit where cooks string up whole chickens that bob to and fro. It's a method Mallmann often deploys while cooking in remote parts of Argentina or Uruguay's rolling hills. But there's no such rustic scene here. Instead, the mostly hidden kitchen debones and splits the birds from Murray's Chicken. Then they're rested face-up on a cast-iron platter to show off crisp, fire-kissed skin. Dashes of sour grape and vinegar are a punchy counterbalance for the birds' rich juices. Soon the fowls are paraded to tables in the restaurant's opulent crimson and cheetah-print expanse. A sprawling chandelier of concentric circles of light hangs overhead, bathing the room in a golden glow. In the evening, music from a live jazz trio in the neighboring lounge is piped in, offering French tunes alongside down-tempo Michael Jackson classics.

A stirring disconnect occurs between the meal and the environs. This is roast chicken, among the humblest of meals (despite its $42 price tag). Yet it comes from the kitchen of a world-renowned chef inside a new hotel trying to redefine extravagance. The Faena's cathedral of a lobby is guarded by a gilded mammoth skeleton courtesy of Damien Hirst. Next door stands a stack of eight-figure condos, which are third or fourth homes for the Masters of the Universe. Across the street is a forthcoming artistic and cultural hub. Yet Mallmann's simple, deeply satisfying cuisine is an ideal foil for the Faena's palatial excess.

The proof is in the menu, which you'll find only after reading through a lengthy wine list that's heavy on reds. A full page of bottles from Bourdeaux offers only a half-dozen options below $1,000. The rest soar past $2,000. At last, the food fills just two pages, which are mostly white space. There's meat, fish, pasta, and vegetables — all prepared with ascetic simplicity.

The kitchen marinates plump sweetbreads in lemon and chimichurri, ubiquitous ingredients throughout the menu, and roasts them over low heat for two hours. Just before they're served, they pick up a hard sear from a hot grill, leaving them creamy inside while crisp and charred outside. A squeeze of grilled lemon lifts each bite to perfection with richness and acid.

The same deft hand folds and seals a pair of beef tenderloin empanadas that draws large charred spots from the wood-fired oven. Each bite gushes with paprika, olives, and green onions. A dash of cumin accentuates the oven's char. An almond soup isn't quite as assertive but works well as a delicate respite. A light vegetable broth is fortified with ground nuts until it becomes silky. This isn't the creamy, garlicky ajoblanco that diners might expect. Instead, small cubes of watermelon and dashes of fruity olive oil and sherry vinegar lend a flash of brightness. The lone miss is a beef carpaccio, which tastes closer to a sliced roast from a deli counter than a prime steakhouse cut. It might have sufficed had it not been piled onto a kaiser roll and lined with ketchup.

Finally, it's time for steak. The kitchen's crown jewel is a 48-ounce tomahawk rib eye that sells for $195. It's a popular choice. And after the ruby-red slices of meat are gone, many patrons strike a pose for an Instagram photo with a Fred Flintstone-size rib clenched between their teeth. Meals here are peppered with the blue-white flashes of cell-phone cameras.

A 16-ounce Black Angus rib eye is a far more reasonable option at $42. It arrives with a hard char emanating that stirring smell of smoke. Inside, it's ribboned with luscious fat that melts as it's grilled to a perfect medium-rare.

All of the proteins come à la carte, so pair your steak, branzino, or smoked prawns with either a potato trio or a luscious ratatouille with layers of sweet squash doused in grassy olive oil and roasted in a ripping-hot oven. The former, meanwhile, comes three ways: first as smashed and grilled yellow potatoes called papa aplastada. Then there are domino potatoes: buttery, rectangular slices pressed together and charred at the corners. Last are potatoes similarly sliced but stacked in a sweet column that's crisp outside and tender within. Mallmann also pays homage to Argentina's vast Italian influences with a set of half-dollar-size ravioli called sorrentinos filled with a luxurious combination of Vermont cheddar cheese, sage, lemon zest, shallots, oregano, and mascarpone.

Those options segue nicely into dessert, which tempts throughout the meal as servers roll around a heavy wooden cart topped with bronze trays overflowing with chocolate and raspberries. On any given night, there are three profiteroles in the offing, and it's difficult to pick just one. A choice of chocolate maiano brings tender pâte à choux wrapped around more mascarpone and raspberries. The whole thing is then cloaked in a thick bittersweet layer of chocolate ganache.

In spite of the alluring sugar bomb, it's the meat at Los Fuegos that you won't forget and what best satisfies your animal instincts. Mallmann's cooking is all about hitting those deep-seated pleasure points. This is eating in its most elemental form — never mind that it's being served with a billion-dollar backdrop. Yet you'll pine for that simplicity the moment it's over. You'll consider a one-way ticket to Argentina with a bag containing little more than a coal-black Zorro hat, a woven poncho, and some knee-high rubber boots. The plan is to find Mallmann, wherever he may be, and master that fire so you too can carry its spark everywhere you go.

Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann
3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 786-655-5600; faena.com. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight.

  • Almond soup, $14
  • Wood-oven empanadas, $14
  • Sweetbreads a la parrilla, $21
  • Prime beef carpaccio, $22
  • Butternut squash sorrentinos, $24
  • Hanging chicken, $42
  • Black Angus rib eye, $42
  • Potato trio, $14
  • Ratatouille, $10
  • Profiteroles, $14

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