Meal after restaurant meal can get tedious. It’s easy for a professional eater-outer to get bored or, worse, jaded. But every once and a while, a passionate young chef comes along to rev up the excitement.
Horacio Rivadero is one of those talents. He worked under Douglas Rodriguez, Miami’s own Nuevo Latino guru, for a decade and then moonlighted at the pocket-sized Dining Room before popping up at a South Beach hotel.
He’s now behind the stoves and part owner of The District, an ambitious newcomer just north of the Design District in Buena Vista that holds promise and some lovely Pan Latin/Caribbean dishes.
The walls of the converted 1950s house (home to Alan Hughes’ One Ninety a decade ago) are newly lined with fresh-cut oak and brick, lending a warm hominess. High, wood-beamed ceilings are painted in stunning black and white murals, while other works by local artists lend playful bursts of color. Gently twinkling star-burst chandeliers are flattering but allow guests to see the menus and each other. Outside seats are even more appealing if the weather is right.
The food, in a mishmash of styles, can stray from the promised local ingredients, but dishes are generally full of dynamic flavors and subtle contrasts. Everything from a monster burger laden with Benton’s bacon and Vermont Cheddar to a 24-ounce Jackman Ranch rib-eye with sun-dried tomato chimichurri sound appealing, and some of it is done exceptionally well.
There is only love for the pair of sweet, cheesy puffs of Colombian pan de bono that greets every diner. The simpler starters tend to be best, including lovely ceviches and crudos with seasonings running the gamut from Asian to Mediterranean, Mexican, American and Peruvian.
One favorite is the trio of little lobster tacos served in crispy shells made from fried discs of malanga that are stuffed with sweet meat in a creamy dressing with hints of aji amarillo and topped with pickled cabbage shreds and crispy shallots. A luscious corvina ceviche is tarted up with yuzu juice, plenty of red onion, hot pepper and a scoop of bracing grapefruit sorbet.
Salads are fresh and snappy, though the insipid mango on our green salad showed the folly of forgoing local fruit for imports. Cast-iron octopus is better, with the tender tentacles propped on quinoa and dotted with dime-sized tabs of roasted eggplant puree that could have been more plentiful.
The beautifully juicy, gently seared cobia fillet gets a lick of jerk seasoning for kick, mashed blue potatoes for color and calm and hearts of palm escabeche-style for crunch.
The Afro-Cuban pork, a take on an old favorite, consists of a generous hunk of slow-roasted shoulder meat served over braised collard greens and a smooth white bean mash. I miss the pickled red onion and chunky brown mustard seeds of the Dining Room version, but this dish is still pure comfort.
Sweets are limited but tasty. A pretty little mason jar of quatro leches with macadamia nuts and a toasty top of merengue is sweet and sassy, while the Black Magic, a small log of chocolate mousse studded with marshmallows and covered in ganache, veers toward kitschy.
An exclusively New World wine list might be a drawback for connoisseurs, but an extensive selection of local brews and craft sodas makes for fun exploration.
Rivadero knows what he is doing in the kitchen and how to put together bold flavors. On the downside, prices can outpace the experience, and the staff does not always rise to the chef’s heights. Dishes come out in random order, with sides showing up before appetizers; one night, the bread didn’t arrive until after we had asked for our check.
That said, the young crew is sweet, good-looking and well-intentioned. Waits between courses and water refills can seem glacial, but with some patience and optimism, it all turns out to be a happy addition to the growing flavors and colors of the neighborhood.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
Email Victoria Pesce Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VictoriaPesceE and on her Facebook fan page.