There are few cities in the Americas more international than Miami, Florida. The city is perhaps the major gateway from North America to the Caribbean and South America, a fact which permeates this city’s culture. From its tropical visages of palm trees and island fruits to art deco designs and pastel color palette, Miami is a city unique in North America. Cuba supplies the single greatest international influence, but the rest of the Americas as well as Europe, Asia and Africa add significant touches as well, especially when it comes to the culinary world. These facts, as well as a relative dearth of quality, artisanal, small farm product has meant that some major global culinary trends, in particular, the noma-fed rise on the emphasis of natural, local product and new regional cuisines resulting from that, haven’t really found much of a home there. At the moment, there isn’t anyone re-developing a hyper-local cuisine, though Miami and South Florida, to a great extent through the work of my friend, Norman Van Aken, was responsible for integrating flavors from Latin America into a mainstream south Florida cuisine. This works well with what has been an abundance of top notch Caribbean, Atlantic and Gulf seafood as well as tropical fruits and vegetables of the area. It remains the linchpin of the region’s cuisine, but international imports from ethnic cuisines to high-end dining concept chains, have filled in around the edges.
I wasn’t planning on visiting any of the Miami restaurant transplants on this trip, if only because I typically prefer to pay more attention to the original concepts in their original locations, but one of those high concept “chain” transplants received so many “must-do” recommendations that we had to try it and so we did on our last night in Miami. It happens to be a major representation of one of my favorite cuisines, Peruvian, which also happens to be one of the most rapidly growing cuisines in Florida. Gaston Acurio is one of the world’s great chefs and despite its flaws and ultimate demise, I had a superb meal at La Mar Cevicheria in NYC. So we visited La Mar by Gaston Acurio at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Brickell Key.
One of Acurio’s main proteges, chef Diego Oka, is the chef in the Miami location. Born in Lima of Japanese and Peruvian descent, Oka started working for Acurio at a young age and rose rapidly through the ranks, having been Executive Chef of a number of La Mar restaurants throughout the Americas despite his relatively young age.
The space itself is large, but broken up with indoor and outdoor as well as bar seating in several locations. We left ourselves in Chef Oka’s hands and he buried us under an avalanche of Peruvian dishes using Peruvian products imported specifically for the restaurant. The dinner comprised a tour of the multicultural influences on the Peruvian kitchen from the products of the Andes to Chinese influenced Chifa to Japanese styled Nikkei cooking to African inspired grilling techniques. Peru remains one of the foremost melting pot cuisines in the world with its own incredible native larder and a multitude of native and immigrant cultures that melted together within its borders.
Oka cooks with flair, which was evidenced in my favorite dishes of the evening. His gorgeous opening act of a king crab causa was colorful, full of flavor and couldn’t have been a better example of the non-locavore aspect of the Miami dining scene given the use of arctic king crab rather than the local stone crab claws. Of course, the very nature of a restaurant like this, with much of its product necessarily imported from Peru, is not in the least locavore. I didn’t expect nor want it to be that, since I was looking towards and expecting Peruvian product for key dishes.
Cebiche (Peruvian spelling), perhaps my favorite class of Peruvian dishes and the original basis for the La Mar restaurant in Lima, was excellent as expected, with an added twist of this one, the Criollo, carrying fried squid as its centerpiece and a variety of seafood to go along with its leche de tigre base.
Another personal favorite sub-group of Peruvian cooking is the African influenced grilling of anticuchos. Beef heart is the most well known and classic form of anticucho and Oka sent these out along with grilled sweetbreads. These savory bites were my favorites of the many dishes tried.
Peru is laden with Asian influence in its cooking, especially from China and Japan. Oka covered these with a Nikkei style tuna tiradito, an off-the-menu Korean style, spicy, fried chicken wing and Chinese influenced Chaufa Aeropuerto fried rice and a fried yellowtail snapper with its meat fried as bite size balls and covered with an oyster sauce. This came out impressively sculptured, though the impressive and festive presentation did not translate well to either my Canon or my iPhone. The truth is that few of my food photos came out well enough to post, even though I had asked for and been provided with the best light in the restaurant.
The meal ended on a high note with a superb chocolate mousse underneath a canopy of crispy quinoa and along side, a dish of chicha morena ice cream.
There are probably more Peruvian restaurants in Miami than anywhere else in the United States and perhaps anywhere else in the world outside of Peru. The same can probably be said of South American restaurants in general, though few are as upscale as La Mar by Gaston Acurio. My friend, Javier, who is Nicaraguan and knows his food, had recommended La Mar to us and he also insisted that we try Doggi’s Venezuelan Cuisine. We didn’t have a chance to try at as a group, but my friend, Charles and I stopped there on our way back to Miami airport to head home.
We started with tequeños, which reminded me of a Venezuelan version of mozzarella in carozza or mozzarella sticks minus the marinara dipping sauce. That is not meant to compare them to the mass produced garbage that one finds in subsistence level cafeterias, but to the real thing, which coming from this Italian-American is a compliment. Yet, while reminiscent of the melty, cheesy goodness of MY heritage, they managed to convey something of their own character.
The arepas were superb, justifying Javier’s recommendation. We had two different ones. The first, the arepa de pabellon, was delicious, but a carb bomb that would require a boat load of insulin were I to eat it regularly. It is an arepa corn cake filled with shredded beef, black beans, white cheese and the major carb culprit, fried plantains. In earlier non-diabetic days, I would have scarfed this down greedily, but here I was content just to taste it.
Still carb-heavy, thanks to the arepa itself, the arepa santa barbara, with marinated churrasco (grilled meat – here skirt steak), white cheese, avocado and tomato, was less directly lethal for me and every bit as marvelous. The arepas were fresh and hot and well worth the glucose spike for an occasional treat.
The South American influence in Miami is probably second within the world of Latin America only to that from Cuba, but Mexican cuisine is beginning to make itself known in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the evening to sample a full breadth of the tacos coming from Taquiza on South Beach, but what we did sample was evidence that Chef Steven Santana is doing things the right way there.
By the right way, I mean sourcing good, quality ingredients such as this blue corn from Oaxaca via Masienda, the same people that provide heritage Mexican corn to restaurants like Cosme in NYC amongst others. Santana and his crew grind the house-nixtamalized corn fresh into masa in the very back of the restaurant each day.
The masa also serves to make the tortillas, which are the base of their main products – tacos. The tacos are constructed of quality ingredients with a condiment bar available for finishing them according to one’s personal preference.
Many of their specialized products including huitlacoche and chicatanas are imported directly from Mexico.
These are utilized in a variety of tacos. The chicatanas were actually quite good and better than those I had experienced in Mexico. This is a great spot for a casual meal while strolling through South Beach, but it is clearly better to come early rather than late, if interested in the full gamut of their offerings.
While Latin America represents the most dominant international force in the Miami culinary scene, it is by no means the only one. Europe is clearly well represented, but won’t be addressed here. Asia, however, with its multitude of styles and cultures, plays an extremely important role in Miami dining, both directly and indirectly as with places like La Mar by Gaston Acurio with its strong Japanese and Chinese influences. One Asian based cuisine that we made a point of trying was the Thai cooking of rising star Cake Thaiga and his Cake Thai Kitchen. Currently in a hole-in-the-wall location, Cake will soon be moving into more spacious and well-equipped digs. We never did actually get to visit the current restaurant, but instead got a two-for-one experience with Cake doing a glorious Sunday afternoon guest chef appearance, collaborating with another rising star, chef Alex Chang of The Vagabond Restaurant at The Vagabond Hotel‘s poolside bar with a Thai themed cookout.
The Vagabond Hotel and restaurant are design showstoppers with the sleek, ultramodern restaurant space centering the refined retro style of the revamped motel. Chef Chang’s menu at the restaurant, though internationally influenced and very attractive, is not an ethnic oriented spot. While we didn’t dine here on this trip, my personal interest was piqued enough that it is a place I want to try when I next return to Miami.
Though the food was a collaboration between the two chefs, the focus was on Cake’s Thai flavors. The item identifying “whole fish” for $12 was a little confusing. One was not getting a whole fish for the money, but a portion of a fish that had been cooked whole. At this price, the ambiguity was nothing to get bent out of shape over, especially when all of the food was as delicious as it was.
We tried a bit of everything with all of the flavors bright and balanced. This was not Thai food made to appease an American palate perceived as sugar addled, the way so many Thai restaurants in the USA do. The food had a controlled heat that was present without swamping the boat.
This was by no means an extensive look into Miami’s deeply rooted international cooking styles, but it was enough to get a sense of just how worldly Miami is in a culinary sense. There are probably only a handful of cities in the USA that can match its depth in international cooking, especially with cuisines working with tropical ingredients and Latin American flavors. No culinary visit to this city should overlook experiencing what Miami has to offer in this regard.