La Mar – Miami, FL
I wound up in Miami far earlier than I expected thanks to California's new shutdown, which sidelined a week-long trip I had planned to finally use my Atelier Crenn voucher in San Francisco left over from July's (also canceled) trip and also to taste some wine up in Napa. The virus, however, had other plans, and I found myself re-booking my first-ever Miami trip so as to arrive two days before my next flight out of MIA, giving me some time to explore. I am slated to return to Miami later next week, but staying in Miami Beach, so I thought this would be a golden opportunity to see a different part of the city, and settled in right in the heart of downtown, in the Brickell neighborhood.
Miami's reputation as a clubby party city has overshadowed its fantastic dining scene until just the last few years. Neighborhoods like Wynwood and Little Havana have taken on their own identity and are generating fantastic food scenes in ways that could be compared to Brooklyn or Austin. And, of course, the spectacular diversity of Miami makes the city a haven for the very best offerings of all manner of cuisines, most notably those of Latin America and the Caribbean.
One thing I will say––Miami (particularly THIS part of Miami) is teeming with glitzy international chain fine-dining restaurants, most with stellar reviews from clientele seduced by their glitz and celebrity alone (see, e.g., "Salt Bae"'s laughably bad steakhouse which still sports a fairly sparkly 4.2 stars on Google). For lunch my first day, I wound up venturing just a few buildings down from my hotel to LPM, short for "La Petite Maison," a French bistro originating in Provence that now has outposts in some of the world's most opulent cities––Dubai, Riyadh, London, Hong Kong, and, you guessed it... Miami (funny enough, I found myself reminded of Hong Kong while walking around Brickell). I found my way down for a weekday lunch, seeing as how it was just steps down the street, and they also had a lovely patio despite the moderate chill (which resulted in every denizen of Miami wrapped up in puffy coats like they live in Montreal).
I started out with a lavender sour––this was a gin concoction make with Hendrick’s, lemon, and (duh) lavender. Absolutely delicious!
Shortly after, the server took my order, and I asked for some of the “greatest hits” off their small plates menu; seems my research was well-guided, because the server lauded my four choices as his favorite four things on the menu. I enjoyed a creamy burrata with basil and the most incredibly flavorful tomatoes I have EVER had, their yellowtail carpaccio with ingredients that were disclosed to me neither on the menu nor by the server when he brought it, their famous, traditionally-prepared escargot, and some divine thinly-sliced octopus with lemon oil.
An overall light and delicious meal, washed down with the “Tonique Provençal,” a lovely gin and tonic flavored with things like grapefruit, herbs, and cucumber, which graced my table after the lavender sour had been depleted.
For dinner, I had a handful of options in the area, but one stood out in particular. Peruvian cuisine is among my favorites these days. One or both of my loyal readers may remember that Cabra, Stephanie Izard's brand-new rooftop Peruvian joint in Chicago, was my first dining experience out of quarantine back in the summer. The influence of Japan in Peruvian food is particularly notable, and my love of Japanese food perhaps has translated to a love of Peruvian food as a result.
In Japan's transformative Meiji Era, Peru was among the first nations to establish diplomatic connections with Japan, a nation that had been essentially shut off to the rest of the world for quite some time. The agricultural boom in Peru led many Japanese migrants to seek work there, and between the first arrival of migrants in 1899 and World War II, some 30,000 Japanese migrants came to Peru to work. These days, the Japanese minority in Peru is one of the most storied and vibrant, clocking in at over 100,000 individuals. The seafood-focused food culture in Peru suits Japanese tastes, and modern Peruvian cuisine often contains significant Japanese elements.
Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio is one of Peruvian cuisine's most important worldwide ambassadors. In Peru, he is a household name, with his own television program, while worldwide, he has brought modern Peruvian cuisine to every corner of the globe. La Mar, his flagship cevicheria, first opened in Lima, now has multiple locations all over the world, including one just a ten-minute walk down palm-lined streets and over a bridge to Brickell Key; on my first night in Brickell, it was an easy choice where to dine.
The outdoor terrace is, of course, the mandatory place (at least for me!) to sit during the pandemic mess, but lucky for me it is also *the* place to be on any ol' night at La Mar. Looking southwest over the bay back toward Brickell, you get an open-air panorama of the Miami skyline and its glistening reflection in the water. Glorious, and after nearly three weeks in the chill of the Utah mountains and desert, the 60 degree evening felt even better.
The cocktails were pricey, but hey this is Miami after all. I started off with a classic pisco sour, a drink I came to love at Cabra, and as you might expect, this version was outstanding. Pisco is a grape-distilled spirit that is very popular in South America, particularly in the Andean countries. Lime juice, egg white, and some bitters are added to create a refreshing, yet creamy, frothy tipple. Divine.
Of course, what is the one thing you cannot miss at a ceviche joint? The ceviche! La Mar normally offers a wild selection of 16 or so ceviche/tiradito options, but during the pandemic they have pared down their options considerably. Doing your research ahead of time is, as always, critical, and I knew immediately which one I wanted––a fluke tiradito with a leche de tigre flavored by the lime and chili, yes, but also 24-month aged parmesan cheese. A wonderful fusion of Italian and Peruvian wonders, the tang and saltiness of the leche de tigre was something special, indeed, and complemented by snappy, fresh slices of fluke, garlic chips, basil oil, a bit of an anchovy condiment for umami, and black rice crackers. Each bite was better than the last, and the dish paired beautifully with the tangy pisco sour!
Staring into an empty cocktail glass, I inquired about procuring another pisco sour, this time noticing they had several options for flavors, including passionfruit and guava. Passionfruit is, in the mind of the Maestro, one of the greatest fruits that exists, so I jumped on a passionfruit pisco sour. Slightly sweeter and tangier than the one that came before, but still magnificent, it, like its predecessor, was gone in an alarmingly short amount of time.
The next dish was from their selection of cold appetizers, and came straight from Japanese/Peruvian fusion-style cuisine called Nikkei. This was a sushi roll that enclosed blue crab meat and avocado and was topped with a torched whitefish and Peruvian sauce called anticuchera. Blue crab is among my favorite seafood flavors––I remember always looking forward to a hand roll of sweet blue crab meat during my visits to Sugarfish when I was a denizen of Los Angeles. The torched fish and sauce atop, however, distinguished the roll as distinctly Nikkei, with glorious red onions, chilis, and spices amongst the creamy traditional Peruvian sauce. Divine!
What is Peruvian cuisine without octopus? Grilled octopus was next to appear before me, complete with potatoes, garlic, olives, fried capers, fried kale, and all sorts of other goodies. I loved this dish, and found all the favors to work magically together, though I did find a couple of pieces of the octopus to be a shade tough. You’d never find tough octopus in the Maestro’s kitchen; all you need is a bit longer to boil before grilling to make the tentacles cut like butter beneath your fork!
I was in a bit of a pickle when deciding what to do next. On one hand, I was rather full––I had lunch far too late in the day and the courses were starting to pile up in my tummy. On the other hand, the views, the Peruvian cocktails (this one called “Naked & Famous in Lima,” my least favorite of the night, a sort of medicinal combo of mezcal, lime, yellow Chartreuse, and Campari), the wonderful food, and the night air all made me want to sit and enjoy myself a bit longer. Well, I shouldn’t have done it, but I went ahead and ordered from their “entrée” portions.
Lomo saltado is about as Peruvian as you can get. Slices of beef tenderloin are sautéed in a sticky, salty soy-based sauce alongside red onion, tomato, wedge-cut fried potatoes, and rice to sop it all up. I had a fantastic version of this both times I went to Cabra in Chicago, and this one was also stellar––the beef was incredibly tender and the sauce flavorful and vibrant. I didn’t eat too many of the potatoes, partly because I was too full and partly because about half of them came rather soaked in saltado sauce, but as promised Chef’s Acurio's lomo saltado was just as good as the rest of the food. I paired this with a wonderful glass of merlot; however, they had Duckhorn merlot listed on their menu, a particular favorite (and appealing because of my recent canceled trip to Napa which definitely would have included a stop at Duckhorn), but the server informed me he had something “better.” Problem is I never figured out what it was! In any event, the merlot was not too heavy and had enough acidity to slice cleanly through the rich, saline saltado sauce. Delightful!
When the server came around asking about my feelings on dessert, I immediately knew I would not be partaking due to how much food I had eaten. However, craving something sweet to close things out, I asked for one last cocktail, this one flavored with dark añejo rum, pineapple juice, coconut, lucuma (sweet Peruvian fruit), and crème de cacao. A perfect dessert cocktail––not too sweet, not too heavy, and just enough liquid to fill in the cracks.
I enjoyed a leisurely walk back, slightly over-served and marveling at the glittering buildings and water, and starting to feel a little chilly and lonesome as I approached my hotel’s environs. Ah well, life goes on! Another day, another fantastic meal, and about two sips of Champagne in my hotel room before I passed out watching 90 Day Fiancé. Miami, indeed!