Call of the Mild
I’d imagined zookeeping to be a jaunty, tea-with-the-chimps affair— then they handed me the shovel
Some of South America’s most supremely talented chefs have opened up shop in Miami in the past few years. We point you in the right direction, whether you prefer grilled meats over a Patagonian spit, or being shrouded in fog at the table and washing your hands with chocolate.
Miami, Florida, United States
FEEDING THE SENSES
For the 13th and final course at Elcielo Miami, a server pours dry ice into a bowl of water, causing a white fog to billow over the table, engulfing the coffee plant centerpiece to evoke the misty mountains of Colombia. This is how the restaurant serves its joe.
Food-as-theater is nothing new, but Colombian chef Juan Manuel Barrientos backs up the showmanship with fabulous dishes—a marriage of traditional Colombian cuisine with dramatic gastronomic flourishes, manifesting in a prix fixe menu ranging from five to 13 courses, and with no rush to leave. (He only runs one seating per night.)
The 33-year-old Barrientos—who operates eight restaurants in Medellín, Bogotá and now Miami—opened the original Elcielo in Medellín in 2007. At the time, the city was on the verge of a renaissance, shedding its narco-crime reputation and becoming known for its energy, entrepreneurship and creativity. As one of the first modern restaurants in a sea of classics, Barrientos’ concept skyrocketed, and Elcielo was ranked as high as No. 30 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. A few years later, it was time for expansion.
Landing in Miami in 2015 made sense, Barrientos says, because of its status as the unofficial capital of Latin America. But there are differences. “I think people are expecting me to do anything in Colombia—once, I served onion soup with white chocolate, and a dessert with onions. Here, we use coconut and pineapple—we cook really nice, but we can’t go as far,” he says.
That spirit of pushing boundaries has been a trademark for Barrientos since his culinary school days in Argentina, and his internship in Spain under pioneering Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak. But with Elcielo, Barrientos added a surprising new twist. “I want to use the senses to create emotional peaks in your brain,” he says. “Those peaks we consider to be emotional touchpoints, and we think about those as we create the menu. Before I opened Elcielo, I connected with a top neuroscientist in Colombia who answered a lot of my questions. Then, we started bringing guests into the restaurant like guinea pigs, sharing new dishes with them and watching their reactions. It was like a scientific experiment.”
This ethos has produced Miami treats such as the restaurant’s signature item, the sculptural Tree of Life bread, where a traditional Colombian pan de yuca forms the leaves of a copper wire tree whose roots wrap around a rock. Sweets take the form of an ice cream that at first tastes smoky with hints of charcoal, but then progresses into a cool vanilla, and a “chocotherapy” wash, where servers pour an edible liquid of white chocolate and cocoa oil over guests’ hands, who then take the phrase “finger-lickin’ good” literally.
Despite all the theatrics, Barrientos has a surprisingly basic bottom line. “Ultimately,” he says, “if you cook well enough, the people who dine here will leave happy.” –By Fred Gonzalez
Miami, Florida, United States
Fire made Francis Mallmann famous. With nine restaurants around the world, the Argentine chef is regarded as a master of the asado, the classic Patagonian method of grilling meat over an open flame. Invented by Pampas gauchos in the 19th century, the practice traditionally involved skewering food on a metal frame and grilling it outdoors over a slow-burning fire. While such a primal technique may seem out of place in one of Miami Beach’s more resplendent dining rooms, Mallmann’s Los Fuegos restaurant exudes the theatricality and passion inherent in the style.
A native of Patagonia, Mallmann grew up in an intellectual family. After pursuing a music career in California, he returned home to his roots, studying the culinary techniques of his native country. Now, after a memorable episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, he has become an international ambassador for Argentine style. “I saw the power of taking our culture to Miami.”
As the flagship restaurant of the exuberant Faena Hotel—itself the center of the $550 million Faena District on Mid Beach—Los Fuegos is suitably eye-popping, with crimson carpeting, leopard-print upholstery and a massive circular chandelier that flickers when lightning flashes 4,400 miles away in Buenos Aires. Despite the extravagance, however, fire is still the star.
“Asado is the classic way to cook with your family and friends, and the center of the gathering is always the fire,” says chef de cuisine Cristian Menendez. “It is the soul of Mallmann’s cuisine: It’s about using fire to get different flavors and aromas. We use many techniques, such as cooking with the flame, the embers, the ashes or the smoke.”
To that end, Mallmann has installed a hanging grill for slow cooking, a cast iron plancha, which gives a nice crust to seafood and vegetables, and a traditional grill, which imparts a characteristic smoky flavor. Nearby, an 11-by-3-foot wood-burning oven—custom-built in Texas to Mallmann’s design—dispenses breads, pizzas, local fish and a cornucopia of meats, from rib eyes and lamb chops to skirt steaks and sausages. Fusing Mallmann’s many methods of cooking, the oven—dubbed “the piano”—is the only one of its kind in an urban setting.
Curious guests can sidle up to an outdoor counter to watch the kitchen’s choreographed bustle:
“It’s an authentic experience for our diners,” Menendez says. “They enjoy the contrast of elegance and ruggedness.” –Eric Newill
Miami, Florida, United States
“Back in the ’80s, when I was a kid growing up in Lima, if friends came to town, you took them to a nice French spot, never Peruvian,” says Diego Oka, executive chef of Miami’s La Mar by Gastón Acurio. “Now, it’s a crime to not take them to a Peruvian restaurant!” He credits his mentor, Acurio, with the tectonic shift.
Acurio, who these days runs a global 45-restaurant empire, skipped out on a law program in 1989 to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Upon returning to Peru, he and his wife, Astrid, opened a French restaurant (“Those were the rules, for both chefs and customers,” says Acurio), but soon turned their attention to the country’s underappreciated bounty—microclimates in the Amazon, Andes and the Pacific that offer an array of flavors, and culinary traditions from indigenous to Japanese to Chinese and African. “We needed to embrace Peruvian culture as our flag, doing fine dining,” says Acurio. He became a sort of flavor anthropologist for the well-to-do of Lima, and soon the world. “He was the bible of Peruvian food for me,” says Oka. “He showed me my country.”
Acurio and Oka launched the cevichería La Mar in 2005 amid the mechanic shops of the Miraflores neighborhood in Lima, elevating what was once street food to celebrated heights and earning a No. 15 spot on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017. “There were lines forming at 11 a.m.,” says Oka.
They brought La Mar to Miami in 2014, where the 35-year-old Oka now runs the show. He sees the elegant ceviche-focused eatery as a small Peruvian embassy. “This is a first door to make people interested in going to my country, and we are proud of that.” He’s swapped Pacific seafood for Florida varieties (snapper, grouper and flounder), but does ship in essential flavors from Peru: earthy black mint, exotic corns, an array of funky peppers.
Oka has free rein to tinker with the menu. A delicious example is his unconventional Tiradito Quemado, wherein a medley of snapper, octopus and grilled calamari are marinated in a leche de tigre turned black with ash from charred onions and Peruvian peppers. It’s refreshing, almost gazpacho-y at first, then takes off in a lower smoky direction.
His Tiradito Bachiche, inspired by an internship at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, contains a highly unusual leche de tigre made with 24-month-aged Parmesan cheese and topped with basil oil and wisps of “fake fish skin” that’s actually black pasta. The Parm is immediately strong, but gracefully gives way to the clean snapper, the tang of citrus and the crisp of the pasta.
But Oka still beams with pride over traditional offerings, such as his carretillero, a street-style ceviche with ramped-up flavors. It’s a roller- coaster ride: chili heat, high citrus, a balm of sweet potato, delicate snapper, crunchy calamari, a plump of corn. After watching nearby customers smile as they eat, the chef beams, “La Mar is like my baby.” –Bill Kearney
Miami, Florida, United States
Some of the most celebrated grilled meat, fish and vegetable dishes in the Southern Hemisphere can be found in a wooden seaside shack in the village of José Ignacio on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast. The digs might be unassuming, but Parador La Huella, which sits at No. 22 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant’s list, is a sensation.
The restaurant’s second outpost, Quinto La Huella, opened two years ago on the fifth floor of the sleek East, Miami hotel. The location might seem a world away from the original eatery, but its co-owners—Martín Pittaluga, Gustavo Barbero and Guzmán Artagaveytia—have gone to extreme lengths to ensure that the rustic charms of their beach shack are “duplicated but not diluted.”
The parrilla, a traditional open-flame grill, is so crucial to their mission that the team flew in the designer who built the Uruguayan grill to oversee the construction in Miami, resulting in the 12-foot-by-4-foot grill, which can handle up to 12 whole fish and 30 steaks at once. They’ve also brought in battered, years-old skillets and pans from Parador La Huella, along with the mother dough they use in Uruguay to bake their breads and pastries.
“I just tried to soak up all the spirit,” says Quinto La Huella’s executive chef, Nano Crespo, who trained in Uruguay before opening the restaurant in 2016 in Miami’s Brickell Neighborhood. During the training Crespo was overwhelmed by the simplicity of La Huella’s cooking technique. The fainá, a chickpea flatbread common in Uruguay, was especially arduous to master. “It was very simple, a few ingredients, and I couldn’t get it right at first,” Crespo says. “Eventually, I learned how to make it thin and crispy, yet keep the edges thick and soft.”
Since the focus is on local ingredients, recipes from Uruguay couldn’t be perfectly duplicated. Crespo, who has worked at Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, and other Soho House restaurants in Toronto and Chicago, swapped corvina rubia, a fish found off Uruguay’s shores, for red snapper, and added a Miami-only tuna tartare to the menu. However, staples such as the volcan de dulce, a cake with a molten dulce de leche core, can be found in both spots.
While watching Crespo work, it’s clear he enjoys Quinto La Huella’s element of grill-as-entertainment. Sometimes, as the restaurant buzzes around him—the sizzle of snapper and rib eye, the staff busily prodding the coals—he’ll see “a snapshot of Parador” and he knows he’s brought the restaurant’s spirit to North America. “It’s dinner and a show,” says Crespo, “or more like dinner and a telenovela!” –Jess Swanson