On the first night of my trip to Miami a few weeks ago, I begged my dinner companion to take me to a place representative of the cliché Miami experience. My flight had just barely made it out of Boston because of what at that point had been the 5th or 6th slushy, disgusting snowstorm of the season, and I was still wrapped up in the black cotton mentality, poised to contract my muscles and shiver reflexively at the slightest sea breeze that licked my overly sensitive, goose-bump riddled body. I needed to shed this miserable and frigid exterior, slip into a dress and heels, drink something fruity, all while seeing and being seen by tan machos and their white blazer and gold bracelet toting trophies. And I got just that at Juvia. Careful with that link… yes, there is mood music and flash fade-ins in the background of their website.
I must preface this article by clearly stating that the Juvia penthouse is a stunning place. Blessed with a top-floor, panoramic view of Miami Beach from Lincoln Road, the deck feels very open, with those gentle sea breezes wafting through and no longer making me shudder in the least. The restaurant is divided into two parts. Upon leaving the minimalist chic and slightly Japan-hinted elevator, one enters the open lounge and outdoor dining area, with hardwood floors and a living vertical garden of vines that give it a natural feel. A massive retractable roof is drawn over the top on windy evenings. Comfy sofas with pillows, heat lamps for extra warmth, and that dramatic terrace overlooking the South Beach skyline make the penthouse quite the comfortable and enjoyable environment to recline in, with drink in hand. There is also an inside dining room, wrapped around a gorgeous central bar, with floor-to-ceiling glass, making one inside feel like some sort of prized exotic fish in a crystalline aquarium.
Service is good too, way less haughty than what I was expecting. We were seated at two huge waiting area sofas overlooking the terrace and immediately brought a cocktail list to peruse. We got a table inside to which I protested, so after waiting the amount of time it took to drink a cocktail we were reseated without any ‘tude from our hostess. The cocktails were not bad – not at all spicy, as our server warned me they would be, but delicate, kind of creative and fitting with the atmosphere. By the time we sat, I was feeling giddy and light at heart, pretty and comfortable – the ideal mood to be in when poking fun at a stupid menu. And the menu at Juvia is just that – delightfully dumb, adorably ignorant, endowed with all the cliché elements of an obvious beauty and cheap thrill, but without an ounce of charm or grace or depth or wit, or maturity of the real thing. Each menu item was obviously meant to shock and amaze with its creativity and colors, but it was difficult not to see through the bullshit. I was left thoroughly unimpressed.
The first thing we ordered, off their “Japanese”/”Peruvian”/”French”/”Mediterranean” (not-quite-)fusion menu was the Toro nigiri, with kombu infused soy, pickled red onion and osetra caviar on top. While the quality of the fish was okay, not particularly bursting with flavor, but fresh and fatty enough, the rice beneath it (the only other essential component of a nigiri) was a joke. The grains of the rice used were far too large, firm and loosely bound together. The texture was just not that of sushi rice and the individual grains each stood out, taking attention off the neta, instead of becoming a canvas for the latter. I don’t really remember the pickled red onion or the soy, as these were probably shimmied in between the fish and the rice. The caviar on top was tasty on its own, but the eggs were too large and packed with that salty, murky ocean brine which ended up completely stealing the flavor from the tuna and left only its fresh texture to savor. I’m a minimalist when it comes to nigiri, as I think most people are: I want fish of fantastic quality left alone to shine atop masterfully prepared rice. This dish had neither the simplicity of good nigiri, nor skill demonstrated in the quality of rice. Fine tuna, but a “no, thanks” altogether.
I’m pretty sure my dining companion ordered this next dish so that we would have something to laugh at, an obviously horrid creation to bond in our mutual contempt of. The Cold Smoked Sea Scallop with Bloody Mary Espuma, Crispy Pancetta and Bonito Flakes was a dish that left both of us scratching our heads in confusion, not because it was just so utterly complex, but because it was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen on a plate. Thin slices of what apparently was once a fresh sea scallop, smoked into oblivion and made rubbery, gummy, almost cheese-like in texture. It was actually very similar to a smoked gouda cheese, in both flavor and texture (with the rind and everything), having held on to absolutely none of its scallop characteristics. This thing was topped with an “espuma” of Bloody Mary that was pleasantly frothy on the inside, but which also had a slimy skin on the exterior that left a weird soapy feeling on my tongue. It was a bit reminiscent of the slimy, frothy saliva of a dog foaming at the mouth, but better seasoned. The flavor of the thing was neat – it did actually taste like a Bloody Mary – but had absolutely nothing to do with the scallop, especially in its stupidly over-smoked, cheese-like form. To make matters worse, the dish was garnished with bonito flakes and a paper-thin crisp of pancetta, two ingredients which, especially under this context, had nothing to do with one another and nothing to do with either of the other two components on the plate. Yeah, bacon and scallops (e.g.: bacon-wrapped scallops) is a thing, but not when the scallop is already smoked. And bonito and fresh scallop can also work, but only if the scallop is sashimi style, to highlight the contrast between fishy, salty bonito and sweet, pure scallop. I guess the pancetta and the “espuma” were not terrible together but this was the only viable connection between the four dots on our dish. Horrible but all the more fun to take apart and poke fun at. Not even close enough to anything good to be offended by, just plain silly.
The next dish is one of the signatures they are most proud of and – well – it’s not bad at all… Hamachi Espuma. Sashimi style hamachi served with a yuzu kosho espuma and topped with micro cilantro. The hamachi (yellowtail) was of good quality, fresh and fatty, a nice color and sliced thin but evenly, so as to not jerk the tongue around too much. The espuma in this case was quite nice, dairy-based and thus a little weird served with raw fish, but with an airy, frothy, very light texture and a ponzu-esque, citric and clean flavor which matched the hamachi nicely. Some kosho green chili pepper added a bit of a zing to the dish. Although the combination of a cream-based sauce with pure, raw fish is a little too funky for me, at least in this dish the idea was clear – serve the traditional tangy, clean citrus accompaniment of raw fish in a new, interesting way – hey! let’s infuse it in an “espuma!” Still a little dumb in its transparency, but at least this dish did not suffer being inedible by attempting creativity.
Next up Salmon Nashi, served with dry miso, arugula and truffle oil. I’m surprised my dinner companion ordered this next dish, especially considering our shared hatred for truffle oil. Plus, I’m rarely impressed by salmon (having eaten way too much incredible salmon prepared in various ways in Sweden with my uncle’s family) and almost always opt for tuna, especially in the context of sushi. This one was actually not terrible, although the truffle oil had absolutely no place on the plate, as it had very little to say to either the salmon, the pear, or the miso which flavored the two. The salmon was okay in quality, but definitely needed that boost in flavor which the dry miso provided (in the form of earthy umami). The slices of fish were wrapped around thin rectangular spears of Nashi pear, which is actually one of my favorite fruits and near-and-dear to my heart from when I lived in Hong Kong. The Nashi pear is somewhere between an apple and a pear in texture, which explains why I thought it was crisp jicama at the first bite. It has a sweetness characteristic of most pears, very mild and floral, almost like dilute honey. In this dish, it worked nicely, as it was not too ripe (and thus sweet) to overpower the fish, and the textural contrast also worked. The deep flavors of the dried miso kind of clashed against this delicate sweetness of the pear, so in the same bite the combination of the three ingredients didn’t make much sense, but our rant about this one was significantly shorter than the others.
The next dish was a catastrophe, and a perfect example of the bastardization of Italian cuisine, which is all too frequent an occurrence in the U.S. This was basically a tasting platter of what Italian food is NOT. It is not tomatoes, with the skin peeled off, hoisted onto a way-too-salty kalamata tapenade and then set atop a thin slice of whatever-bread crusts, presented on a banana leaf to make it fun and exotic-looking. It is not watery balsamic dripped (in the shape of a happy-face, no less) into flavored, neon green, syrupy olive oil. And it is certainly not a hollow ball of mozzarella with thin, rubbery walls, filled with bumpy and largely flavorless cottage cheese, attempted to be passed off as buratta. It is never the juxtaposition of these ingredients in this way on the same plate, together with salted prosciutto layered over just-for-show greens that I could not even identify. Mozzarella, tomato, oil – that’s ok. Some sort of olive paste on bruschetta and some oil – that’s ok too. Prosciutto and a bright green salad, some crusty bread to eat it with or layer it on – that’s fine. But skinned, naked and humiliated tomatoes, offensively pungent and chunky olive tapenade, fashionably thin but lifeless crostini, basil-flavored, fake-ass oil with balsamic, cheese and prosciutto and greens? That’s just retarded. Unlike the scallop dish, which was amusing in its lack of any sense of self, this one was a borderline offensive representation of Italian cuisine, which left me a bit ticked off.
Thankfully, the latter was not our last dish. This was the Causa Croquette with tuna, red onion, cilantro, ajo amarillo aioli. Causa is a traditional Peruvian dish which, in its most basic form, consists of a potato dumpling that can be stuffed with tuna or chicken. More popularly, it appears in the form of a cylindrical parfait, with layers of mashed yellow potato, avocado and chicken or tuna (usually canned). In this case, the causa was reinterpreted as a potato croquette, stuffed with tuna, breaded and deep fried to make the whole thing a bit soft and golden brown on the outside. It was nice, though a bit tough to cut into and, well, I’m pretty sure any Peruvian hole-in-the-wall would have a better version of the thing for about a tenth the price. It was served with little fried stuff on the side which to me seemed like pancetta but which was actually fried and seasoned bits of tuna. This was a little dumb, as the tuna was reduced to just a faceless protein which can be fried to make oily and salty, and lost all of its personality and characteristic flavor. The croquette was also served with a puddle of ajo amarillo aioli, which was nice, mildly spicy and with a satisfying creamy texture that was picked up by the fried breadcrumb coating of the croquette. Some slivers of red onion and cilantro on the side for freshness and cool temperature contrast. Not bad.
Altogether, I must say, the food at Juvia is a one-night-stand – ordered after being lulled into the state of a shoulder shrug by a few cocktails and a beautiful view – one that leaves you unfulfilled and empty on the inside. Despite the food, I had a wonderful time at Juvia because of the aesthetics and atmosphere of the beautiful roof-top environment, lovely drinks and friendly, smooth service. And, well, the company wasn’t horrible either…