Less than a dozen blocks north of the ever more elegant Design District, the Embassy — self-proclaimed shrine to “Well Being and Debauchery” — is a scruffy beacon of individuality in Buena Vista East.
The candle-lit, boho cafe reflects chef-owner Alan Hughes’ rocker sensibilities. Depending on the night, live acoustic blues, jazz, old Spanish classics, experimental electronic or rock sets the tone for the unfussy, well-executed small plates that emerge from a 98-square-foot kitchen.
Argentine-born and French-trained, Hughes creates superb comfort food in a cooking space equipped with only a fryer, an electric convection oven and a tiny flat-top range.
Tin ceiling tiles and Turkish glass lamps glisten overhead. A collage of photos and words papers one wall; a chalkboard of hand-scribbled specials lines another. Next to the bar, an old wooden hutch holds jars of pickled vegetables and sweet jams canned by Hughes, who transforms them into tapas and dessert toppings.
The personable Hughes hustles, tending bar, occasionally jamming on guitar with the band and getting lost in conversations about wine, food, travel and music with the diverse crowd that wanders in for late-night indulgences. He switches from Spanish to English to Portuguese with ease, with respectable French and Italian when needed.
Hughes began his culinary career as an 18-year-old apprentice to Argentina’s wood-fire guru, Francis Mallmann. He has cooked in Buenos Aires, New York, Mexico, Cannes, Spain, Jamaica and Haiti, and landed private gigs for such luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu and Denzel Washington, among others.
In Miami, he’s best known as the pioneer who opened One Ninety, the first chef-driven restaurant in Buena Vista, in the early 2000s. The potholes and parking challenges remain, but the historic neighborhood has grown trendy, boosted by Design District success to the south.
Open nine months, the 40-seat Embassy presents challenges, too, even for adventuresome diners. Along with the limited menu, service can be slow and erratic, with one inexperienced waitress at a time helping Hughes. There are no entrees that wow. Yet you’ll find yourself wanting to linger, even as your lower extremities grow numb from the hard window seats.
It’s the affordable appetizers that charm. A tender octopus bruschetta on toasted sourdough with roasted garlic and tomatoes is an exceptional starter, as is the roasted tomato-goat cheese phyllo tart. A fried duck egg is a brilliant match with bits of chorizo, served with toasted slices of French bread. Cod cakes are delicious and delicate, with aioli and a wee sprig of green.
Entrees are unfussy comfort classics. Our favorite was a juicy roasted chicken with crisp, light breading. It’s paired with mashed potatoes punctuated by a dollop of salty, black chopped olives in the middle. Coffee-glazed braised short ribs in rich, dark gravy with meaty mushrooms is a hearty pleaser reduced to a smart-sized portion.
A boneless duck leg with shallots, figs and thyme served in a similarly small crock lacked seasoning. The same flatness diminished risotto with cauliflower and Manchego cheese and a sunflower seed-crusted salmon, with bok choy and caramelized onions.
The short menu branches out on Tuesdays, with a family-style special for four, recently roasted whole triggerfish with Moroccan herb-spice chermoula sauce served with a vegetable tagine, couscous and red onion-orange salad. A Spanish tapas bar is featured on Friday nights, and brunch is served on Sundays.
If the atmosphere and reasonable prices don’t snare you, the desserts will. A pastry chef in a past life, Hughes crafts such sweet endings as a cloud-like coconut tapioca pudding topped with fresh mango and coconut crisp and a Greek yogurt panna cotta tarted up with rhubarb sauce.
Genuine and imperfect, Embassy captures the infectious spirit of its talented, vagabond chef-owner.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.