José Andrés, in a gleaming white chef’s coat drawing out blue eyes that dart here and there and never quite stop, because he never quite stops, is not happy with the yellowtail escabeche that has just landed on the table at Bazaar, his new South Beach restaurant at the arty Philippe Starck-designed SLS Hotel.
In just a few hours, the restaurant will open its doors for the first dinner service. And Andrés, who has been in town off and on over the past few months to lead his staff through setting up the sparkling new kitchen, dreaming up several dishes especially for Miami and tweaking other dishes that are big hits at the Beverly Hills Bazaar, has just returned to taste some of the final takes.
“What do you think about the escabeche?,” he asks.
You don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with Andrés, top ambassador of modern Spanish cuisine in the United States (earlier this year, Time magazine named him among the 100 Most Influential People in the World), but the escabeche could use a little ramping up. Luckily, Andrés answers his own question: “Maybe we have made a mistake,” Andrés tells the chef who has brought the dish out and is standing by.
The fish is very fresh, the dish very light, the chef tries to explain. “It’s lacking salt,” Andrés says. “It’s lacking escabeche. I didn’t have to taste it to know that. I see it. I smell it. Si o si? It’s so light that it’s not escabeche. And I’m missing fried capers. In this case, more is more.”
And with that, the fish disappears from the table, the chef back to the drawing board. Andrés is happier with the Cubano, a Miami take on his “air sandwich,” featuring a crispy bread (it can read more like a cracker) that is hollow inside. There’s Iberico ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, chopped pickle.
“This is my homage to Miami and to Cuban food,” he says. But after his first bite, he decides it’s not quite there yet.
“The cheese is too liquid,” he tells another kitchen staffer who has delivered the bocadito-sized sandwiches. “It’s supposed to be a foam.”
Bazaar’s menu references “molecular gastronomy,” that science-experiment-meets-high-art cuisine born in Spain (Andrés trained at El Bulli under Ferran Adriá, the movement’s leader) but it ultimately keeps itself in check. Sure, you can order a frozen liquid nitrogen caipirinha, whipped up tableside so that you can get off on the laboratory smoke. Or you could go for the salt air margarita, the classic served up with a dollop of aerated saltiness floating on top and dissolving on the tongue. But the offerings here are more down to earth than the outright culinary abstractions and deconstructions Andres concocts at his acclaimed six-seat minibar in Washington.
“These are my mother’s croquetas,” Andrés says as he crunches into an old-school, masterfully fried chicken croquette, crispy outside, velvety inside.
He holds up a tiny cone filled with La Serena cheese (made from Merino sheep’s milk), topped with membrillo and walnut dust. “Nothing strange about this cone, either. Sometimes you can elevate the most traditional dish by just paying attention to the quality of the ingredients and the way you serve it. It’s not the same to drink a paper cup of guarapo on the street as it is to drink the guarapo in a glass, with good clear ice cubes. There is a part that is simply about respecting the food.”