Miami’s nightlife has a characteristic flashiness about it which can turn tacky at the snap of a finger. But after a few too many years of being surrounded by the dingy and the smug, the always quite dark nightlife of Boston, I have actually come to appreciate a little bit of juicy, loud pizazz and color every once in a while. If you asked me 2 years ago, I would’ve never thought that I would choose a mojito in a woven lounge sofa under a palm tree over a whiskey neat on a stool at a tavern-chic gastropub. I guess things change.
The Bazaar by José Andrés at the SLS Hotel South Beach is very much a Miami establishment in its character – especially when it comes to its lounge-y outdoor Bar Centro. Far from just another sleek-and-comfy place to gawk and be gawked at, however, The Bazaar is refreshing in that it maintains a high standard when it comes to its menu. The dishes are interesting without being gimmicky, playful and fun without losing “rightness”. Andrés fuses (in the true sense of the word) Miami’s Cuban and Central/South American culinary heritage with his own revival of traditional Spanish cuisine, throwing in some stuff from Southeast Asia along the way. On the menu, he rationalizes bringing Asia into the mix by drawing on Miami and Singapore’s similar embracement of the Art Deco movement of the 1930’s. I don’t really see the relevance between the culinary scenes of the two cities and the “decadence, extravagance, elegance, functionality and modernity” that came with the style, but shumai and kueh pai ti presented tapas-style is pretty cool, so whatever…
I have to say, though, that the menu organization (or lack thereof) is pretty bizarre. The dishes are divided into two parent categories – “Miami Meets the World” and “Spain Yesterday and Today.”
I think the former is supposed to be a collection of world cuisines, lightly “touched” by Miami flavor. There’s stuff from all over – street food from Singapore, a Colada Cubana cone, a Bagels and Lox cone (José Andrés does love his cones), Japanese tacos and reinvented nigiris, Peruvian Papas a la Huancaína, a revamped Cuban Ecabeche, yuca chips, PB&J sandwiches with foie. The variety is a little weird and I normally loathe the whole “around the world in eighty dishes” idea, but somehow here it works. While it is based on a kind of Passport Earth theme, the collection of dishes in this section is also characterized by echoes of Miami’s ethnic background, nods to Spain (through ingredients such as La Serena and Idiazábal cheeses, jamón Ibérico, Marcona almonds), and the unique personal touches of José Andrés (cones, spheres, liquification). The crazy whirlwind of different influences raises up quite the storm and makes it particularly tricky to order. You really just have to randomly point at things that pop out at you; there’s no point in choosing the plates in any order and there’s no point either in choosing things that do not “clash.”
The “Spain Yesterday and Today” menu is a bit more composed. Hams and cheeses, stuff in cans, veggies, fish and meat. Heartier and more classical in the flavor combinations, though still served tapas-style and with that signature J.A. flare.
The cocktails are inventive and pleasant, the mostly Spanish wine list is extensive and expertly curated. Service is friendly and efficient, kitchen is open and visible. The decor is as crazy as the menu, with a gigantic shell studded chandelier hovering over the Blanca dining room (or living room, rather), comfy white leather sofas, book cases and the mantelpiece of what looked like a working fireplace packed with ornaments and statuettes from all over the world, framed black and white photos of folks I don’t know, and mismatched mirrors and lamps to give one the feeling of being a guest at a slightly berserk but definitely worldly person’s home.
Simplicity reigns in the Specialty Cocktails list – there are three: the Caipirinha (ode to Brazil but with a dab of liquid nitrogen), a Cuba Libre (shout out to one of Miami’s most influential ethnic groups) and The Ultimate Gin and Tonic (which, as I learned, exists on the menu more as José Andrés’s remembrance of Spain than with the birthplace of the drink). Apparently the palate cleaning, fat dissolving “Gin Tónica” is the communal chef’s preference in Spain and has been for decades. A bar by the name of Dickens, located on the La Alameda off the cost of San Sebastian’s La Concha Bay esplanade, is closely associated with the popularization of the drink. Dickens provided a place for chefs to gather after networking sessions, fueling them with G+T’s made with premium gins. Andrés’s “The Ultimate Gin and Tonic” is a reflection on this after-hour camaraderie of great chefs under the setting Spanish sun, far away from the rotting British ships hitting Indian shores way back when.
What is served here is a Gin Tónica, not a Gin and Tonic. The drink comes in a balloon glass, with plenty of ice and with a garnish of juniper berries (which I don’t think I had ever actually seen before), herbs, flowers and lime – all tailored to the flavors within the gin itself. The gin used, of course, is up to the customer and I believe the garnish changes with the gin requested (Hendricks – cucumber, Bombay Sapphire – lemon peel, etc.) Very tasty indeed, especially if you are a gin purist.
While my dinner companion sipped his Gin Tónica, I enjoyed my Passion Fruit Up, one of the SLS classic cocktails, whose base is made of a mixture of orange rum, passion fruit and ginger-laurel syrup. The drink is topped with passion fruit foam. I’m generally not a huge fan of fruity drinks, especially the “exotic” ones, and I like a twinge of bitter at the finish of my libations, but this cocktail is great. The rum was perfectly integrated and the drink had a nice ratio of sweet to tart flavors. The texture of the liquid was thick and dense, though not overwhelming or milky. The foam floating on top was a bit like passion fruit flavored whipped custard. It was smooth and creamy, though light at the finish. Liquid dessert with a tart tone to it, a drink that kept me satisfied as we waited at Bar Centro for a seat to open up in the dining room. I never really even thought of ordering another cocktail.
Onion Soup foie gras ‘cappuccino.’ I like when starters are presented as a multi-layered cappuccino and this was a light but luxurious way to start what was to be a great dinner. A salty, thick, warm onion soup played the role of espresso at the base of an ornate cappuccino glass, with a delightfully airy whipped foie gras foam spread over the top. The flavors of the two layers blended into something very tasty, savory with hints of natural, caramelized sweetness. Crisp cubes of Granny Smith apple and crouton emulated white and brown sugar cubes, respectively.
Conch Fritters with a liquid center. These were (very appropriately) listed under the “Miami Meets the World” section of menu, as the dish was an ode to one of Florida’s most celebrated marine ingredients, the conch. In this case, the animal was converted into a hot, creamy liquid (somewhat similar to the broth of a seafood chowder) and shot up inside of a crispy, deep-fried fritter. The fritters were served hot out of the oil and so the liquid interior did not have time to make the fritters soggy, even on the inside. Biting into the pillowy little buñuelos and having my tongue coated in the bisque filling was a wonderful experience. My dinner companion commented that he would’ve never thought to order these and, to be honest, I really only ordered them out of a “When in Rome” type sentiment of getting something locally popular. Definitely a good decision to do so in this case.
We decided to try one of José Andrés’s famous cones, the Cone of La Serena Cheese. A very thin, extra crunchy little crêpe cone filled with creamy, salty La Serena cheese, which my dinner companion explained was a very sought after cheese from Spain. A bit of membrillo jam was scooped onto the cheese, whose sweetness (most similar to strawberry jam, if I were to compare) and slight tartness balanced the saltiness of the cheese, bringing out its acidity. The nuttiness of the cheese was brought out by the walnut dust sprinkled over the surface of the cone. Both membrillo and walnut seemed to be there to highlight the different aspects of the cheese’s unique character. A delicious two-bite tapa that left me thinking of the membrillo stuffed facturas I grew so fond of in Argentina.
A funky salad course followed, the Not Your Everyday Caprese. Apparently José Andrés loves his spheres too. In this dish, pearly white liquid mozzarella was spherified and served with cherry tomatoes, some pesto, and spheric bubbles of balsamic. Upon setting the plate gingerly on the table, our server suggested that we be very careful picking up these delicate bundles of liquid cheese, and that we do so with a spoon so that they don’t break. The texture of the mozzarella was intriguing, like that of an enlarged bead of caviar – a very thin layer of solid holding in a dense mass of liquid cream tasting of milky mozzarella. The tomatoes had been skinned to remove any cell wall toughness that might interfere with the delicate nature of the rest of the ingredients. The basil pesto was tangy and nutty, as well as beautiful in color. Tiny drops of balsamic added a pungent acidity. When combined in one spoon, the mozzarella spheres burst forth their creamy juice and tied together the flavors of the plump tomato, fresh basil and balsamic, creating a semblance of a caprese salad, but with textural intrigue. Hollow, puffed out air-crackers added a nice crunch to the bite as well. One of The Bazaar’s top signatures and definitely a good way to pause for breathe during the meal.
Empanadillas de Bacalao. These were a pretty fabulous version of something I truly adore, salt cod pastéis – in this case termed empanadillas. A crispy, beautifully fried, paper thin, triangular little rangoon filled with a fishy salt cod cream and drizzled with just a bit of honey. Unlike most of the dishes at The Bazaar, this one was not particularly complex in presentation, but it was very well thought out. Biting into the thing, the teeth were greeted by the comfy, oily crunch from the empanada sheet, followed by a pocket of air. This air pocket actually makes one bite again, this time with the tongue probing desperately for some sort of smooth filling. A rush of pleasure, satisfaction and relief comes over the palate when the filling is found – the latter is silky smooth and creamy, kind of smokey and salty, reminiscent of the traditional pastéis de bacalhau. The sweet, floral honey balances that smokiness beautifully, toning it down a bit so the flavors linger more delicately.
Next up, a deconstructed uni and mango nigiri with thinner-than-paper thin seaweed sheet serving as a rectangular base for a scoop of uni and some oblong spheres (again with the spherification) of liquified mango, or the essence of the latter, packed tight into a thin caviar membrane that deflated when poked (compare the two in photo above). Some pickled sansho pepper was also thrown over the uni, further pulling the latter away from its natural flavor. I wasn’t too great a fan of this Liquid Mango Nigiri, because of two major personal biases: a tendency to dislike mangos in a savory dish, resulting from too many failed attempts at “the exotic” throughout my Eastern European childhood, and an intolerance for crazy sea urchin pairings, as I am still kind of a newbie, even 7 years after having my first taste of the stuff. I’m just not ready to embrace anything that alters the taste of the urchin too much when combined with it. The creativity of combining sea urchin with something that complements it, something that makes you think of the urchin differently, I know I will eventually mature enough to appreciate, like soy milk and multigrain toast, but I’ve just not gotten there yet. I seem to have a mental blindspot where this dish is concerned, suggesting I tuned it out automatically. I don’t even seem to remember how we picked the stuff up to eat it, and I could’ve sworn that the dish was the Sea Urchin Cream with seaweed and ponzu, since all I remember is the fruit element (which I mistook for citrus) overpowering the urchin, whatever-ifying it to a point where, yeah, I guess it could’ve been a cream. To someone not sharing my biases, I’m sure this dish was extremely satisfying, as it sure was gutsy and aesthetically pleasing.
Our next dish, however, was a remedy for my blackout, an “okay, fine, here you go!” type dish that seemed to be meant to appease me after the nigiri. The aptly named Sea Urchin, off the “Spain Yesterday and Today” menu, is uni left alone to be the superstar it should be, served on hunks of toasted bread and topped with a few dollops of fluffy butter and some cracked black pepper. The roe was velvety smooth and made even more rich in texture by the butter melting over it. The flavor was largely untouched, though elevated in its murky sweetness by the contrast from the stern heat of the pepper. The bread was toasted crispy on the outside, but soft and spongy on the interior. The latter was also quite porous, which allowed the creamy, buttered (though already buttery on its own) urchin to seep into the flesh of the bread and do it’s magnificent flavoral dance all over the latter’s stable carb canvas.
Among the craftiest dishes of the night was the Cubano sandwich off the “Miami Meets the World” menu, meant to be an ode to the cultural heritage of Miami and a shout out to Calle Ocho landmark Café Versailles, but with a Spanish twist to it. A crispy, hollow balloon of salty air-bread (the same as the croutons on the Not Your Everyday Caprese, but larger) stuffed with a liquid foam of Swiss cheese and topped with thin slices of cured Jamón ibérico, which replaced the roast pork and glazed ham of the traditional Cuban sandie. Some sweet and tart chopped pineapple also topped the jamón, echoing back to that traditional glazed ham, as well as some microgreens for freshness and even some chopped pickle to stay true to the classic. I enjoyed this dish, mostly for the fun of having the liquified cheese flooding into my mouth, but I am having a hard time acknowledging it as a rendition of a “Cuban sandwich”. The jamón, while delicious in itself, had no real firm ingredient to press up against and it’s texture got lost against the crunchiness of the crackling bread-skin. The flavor of the dish was, for me at least, dominated by the cheese and since it was kind of the “wildcard” ingredient of the dish as well, most of my attention landed on the foam alone, instead of on the fierce interplay between the sweet pineapple, tart pickle and salty ham against the cheese. Delicious nonetheless, but more of an ode to the talents of the chef than to the impact of Cuban culture on Miami.
On the lighter side was the Ajo Blanco, a seafood version of the traditional Spanish cold soup, but with the white garlic and almond broth in this case becoming a sauce to showcase the solid ingredients. Very thin “ribbonettes” of just-ripe-enough mango were lain over tender, delicate chunks of sweet king crab claw meat which were as buttery and smooth as lobster and which were drizzled with a bit of wine. Some blanched, chewy Marcona almonds slivers were sprinkled around and covered with purple edible flower petals. The sat in a shallow pool of creamy, sweet almond milk. I actually have never had a traditional ajo blanco, so I can’t exactly compare this dish to the original. I didn’t taste much garlic, which I assumed would be a big part of this dish and the sauce didn’t seem to be thick enough to have had bread incorporated, as is done with the real thing. Nevertheless, I loved the combination of the delicate, juicy sweetness of crab meat with that nutty vanilla sweetness of the almond. The almond milk had a great texture, it’s flavor made more complex by droplets of good, mature olive oil drizzled on. The mango was nice too and I appreciated that it was sliced paper thin, adding not too much texture but just enough of that sickly tropical sweetness to the crab.
A little something from the East followed, from the “Singapore Connection” subsection of the menu. José Andrés’s take on the Chinese Bao con lechón is a miniature slider – a thick slab of juicy, fatty pork belly slathered with a sweet glaze and wedged into the mouth of a Pac Man shaped, puffy and airy bao that has been deep fried. There were also some pickled cucumber slices in there to add a tiny bit of much needed freshness. Pork belly has become a must-order when with my dinner companion, as it is an ingredient that we both thoroughly enjoy when prepared correctly. This one was great in its simplicity. The belly was smooth, buttery and luxurious in texture, melting on the tongue quickly. It would have been overwhelming in its fattiness had it been any larger, but the chunk was delightfully bite-sized, just enough to send us both into a silent trance with eyes closed, but not enough to make us feel sluggish afterwards. The glaze was great, not too strong in flavor, allowing the crusty saltiness of the exterior of the belly to reign supreme, along with the natural sweetness of the piggy. The fattiness of the lechón was dissolved a bit by the tart slices of cucumber. I also really liked the sweet bun, which was really more like a dense, fried, buttery brioche bun rather than the airy Chinese buns I had for breakfast every morning in Hong Kong. It soaked up the excess grease and glaze from the belly and had the perfect texture to stand up to the latter.
Frozen Blue Cheese Sandwich. Texturally exciting, with the shock element coming from the fact that the blue cheese was actually a frozen plank, furry (or snowy, I should say) from frost on the exterior, layered between two crispy, paper-thin slices of dark walnut bread. An unexpected effect of the icy cheese was that the pungent acidity and funk that normally characterize the flavor were toned down a bit at the intake and the stuff was relatively mild when bitten into. The intrigue came from the texture – upon contact with the tongue, the crisp, cool, icicle cheese began to melt away its external layers like a popsicle, becoming creamy and runny against the crunchy bread, but the interior core of the cheese maintained its frozen solid texture. As the exterior of the cheese melted, some of the original moldy, nutty flavor returned to the ingredient and this was beautifully cleaned up and balanced with some tart, fresh Meyer lemon marmalade spread over the top. For me, there may have been a tad too much of the thick jam – the flavor of the latter was very citric and I scraped about half of it off so that it would not bleach out what was going on with my cheese.
The meal ended with a bang and my newfound appreciation for the fact that my dinner companion, unlike me, has a sweet tooth and always insists on ordering a dessert. José Andrés’s Banana-Mojito is a hollowed out frozen banana layered with mojito sorbet which is topped with bruleé-ed bananas, very smooth and frothy little pyramids of lime flavored meringue capped with green mint sprinkled over, and some crispy, crusty buttery thing which reminded me of graham cracker pie crust. The banana boat was served on a mound of crushed ice to keep the sorbet happy and had to be scooped free of its contents – in our case, from two directions. Spooning out the tart mojito sorbet at the base was very easy as the latter was smooth and soft, our spoons running through it with perfectly buttered ease. Contrasting the acidic, tongue-prickling cold sorbet was the creamy, warm, tongue-hugging merengue. The textural juxtaposition of the two worked out well, with a swirl of warm marshmallow fluff merengue and cold sorbet in every bite. The merengue was mild enough in flavor to let the acidity of the sorbet dominate and this acidity was, in turn, offset by the sticky sweetness of the caramelized bananas, which was brought to an even more nutty, comforting level by the buttery crumbles of graham cracker or cookie that graced the dish as well. Taken together, a bit like a banana topped key lime pie, or – yes – a banana mojito. Tart, cold fresh and boozy juxtaposed with warm, nutty, sweet and comforting. A good one to go out on!
By the end of the meal we were both pretty full, reclining back on our couch with what was left of our decanted yet still quite powerful Tempranillo. The moment of surprise and curiosity that followed the arrival of each dish at our table highlighted the experience, and since there was a steady flow of dishes coming our way throughout the night, these moments happened often enough to keep us very happy and engaged. The menu at The Bazaar is ambitious, the dishes imaginative the food delicious and the act of eating very fun. The concept of involving so many cuisines in one kitchen is quite daring and Andrés’s effort to mold his vision to fit neatly with the scene and palate of Miami is apparent and successful.