In a sea of gray, it's hard to miss the orange awning, patio furniture, and chic decor in the center of downtown's Southeast Financial Center.
Zest, owner/chef Cindy Hutson's newest restaurant, brings her signature "Cuisine of the Sun" vibe to a place that needs it most: Miami's concrete jungle. Its bright lights, vibrant colors, and hearty plates add warmth and pizzazz to the otherwise dull and lifeless business-dominated area (unless it's happy hour, of course).
The restaurant, which opened a little more than a month ago, attracts large crowds of industry professionals during early weeknights. Now, Hutson says, it's time to establish a business of local clientele to fill the 4,500-square-foot space at any given time, especially through the later evening hours past happy hour.
On a recent visit to Zest for dinner (New Times was invited for a taste), Hutson was busy at work — preparing, cooking, and overseeing each table's experience, making sure every diner was happy and sated.
With so many favorites on her menu, it was difficult for Hutson to highlight a few, which is why she decided to have New Times try them all. Though the amount of food teetered on excessive, the food-coma feeling was absent. Hutson has a good explanation: Each plate on Zest's menu uses the highest-quality ingredients, and those ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible. For dinner, she and chef de cuisine Mike Fischetti trim off every inch of fat from each cut of meat. Both can list every ingredient used in each dish too, proving Zest's menu to be simple and straightforward with twists of innovation and creativity.
Zest's dinner menu is large, allowing diners to choose from more than two dozen plates fusing Nuevo Latino, New World Caribbean, Carib-Asian, and Pan-Asian influences.
Every night, Hutson crafts a different ceviche special ($19), incorporating red and yellow peppers, local tropical fruit, and citrus juices. She adds homemade cilantro-and-avocado salsa and a handful of plantain chips to complement the plate.
Among Zest's small plates, Hutson's "big ass" meatball ($14) is one of the most popular. It blends 50 percent Niman ground lamb and 50 percent Angus chuck beef to create one colossal ball of meat. She places it in spiced tomato marinara sauce and drizzles goat cheese ricotta on top. At first glance, it looks too excessive to be eaten as an appetizer, but each bite proves different. The cleanness and freshness of the meat can't be compared to an ordinary greasy meatball. Bizarrely, the dish tastes and feels light and airy despite its rich and savory appearance.
Though Hutson says she can't single out any one entrée as the best, she recommends first-timers try the Cheshire pork tomahawk chop in fresh passionfruit and pomelo chimichurri ($38) or the coffee-and-cocoa-crusted salmon ($29), showered in a chipotle-agave glaze and served with creamy corn polenta. With both, each bite feels more tender than the last, bordering on a melt-in-your-mouth texture you definitely wouldn't expect from a hefty, bone-in piece of meat.
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Most important, end your meal on a sweet note with a homemade dessert, such as a warm and crisp personal apple pie or a handful of red velvet whoopie pies served with a light chocolate sauce.
Hutson says the idea behind making each dish not only taste good but also feel good is because she wants Zest to become a go-to spot for office workers and residents to eat and lounge. By creating plates that highlight flavor and healthfulness, she hopes diners will integrate Zest into their everyday.