It's 3 p.m. in the dining room at PB Steak in Sunset Harbour. The lunch crowd is gone, and dinner guests are nowhere in sight yet. José Mendín, the Puerto Rican-born chef who, at age 35, is arguably Miamis most prolific cook, sits at a small table in the back, his laptop computer screen glowing before him. Casually dressed servers mill about. Easy reggae tunes sway through the dining room. An eager, energetic cook emerges from the kitchen to place a dish in front of him. Its a roasted bone marrow entree Mendíns staff is trying to perfect for the new brasserie-inspired eatery he and his two partners are scheduled to open in the next few weeks, Lechon at the Hilton Cabana in Miami Beach. This is entirely new (and entirely French) territory for his cooking crew, whose menus have always leaned toward the Japanese and the Latin. Yet, the taste is perfect, Mendín says to the cook. Visible relief overcomes her face. We just need to fix this, he adds, pointing to a tiny, square piece of puff pastry thats garnishing the dish. It needs to be more puffed up.
The last three years have been a whirlwind for Mendín and his partners, Andreas Schreiner and Sergio Navarro, who together opened five restaurants (Pubbelly, Pubbelly Sushi and PB Steak, which they own outright; and Macchialina and Barceloneta, in which they were active partners). With Lechon as their sixth, their impressive hot streak has helped redefine casual eating in Miami and paved the waysome say blew the door openfor the arrival of the local chef movement here. Though Mendíns workdays, as a result, often stretch late into the night, as he jumps from one kitchen to another overseeing production, he remains famously hands-on (remember a certain little garnishs puffiness?) Another example: Im the official menu keeper at all of our restaurants, Mendín says, coyly admitting, Im kind of a menu freak. I wont let anyone else write them because I want them to be a certain, particular way.
While those menus have always carried the distinct Mendín imprimaturMy food is influenced by my experiences, my travels, the fact that I worked at Nobu and Sushi Samba for years, that I worked in Spain, that my heritage is Puerto Rican Lechon is personal in a different way. Im a huge fan of French food, he said. If you tell me, Ill give you a plane ticket to anywhere right now, Id say I want to go to Paris. Its the Mecca for what I do. Everything Ive learned started there. So if Pubbelly and its closely related spinoffs are Mendíns autobiographies, then Lechon promises to be an exquisite French poem, executed with trademark clever twists and reverence for the classics. An edible ode to the school that profoundly influenced his life and career. Its been my dream for so long, he said, to have a French restaurant. And now its finally happening.
Watch Chef José Mendín get piggy with it at Goya Foods Swine & Wine, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 23 at The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.