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 Miami’s 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. It’s a roasted bone marrow entree Mendín’s 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, L’echon 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 that’s 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 L’echon as their sixth, their impressive hot streak has helped redefine casual eating in Miami and paved the way—some say blew the door open—for the arrival of the local chef movement here. Though Mendín’s 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 garnish’s puffiness?) Another example: “I’m the official menu keeper at all of our restaurants,” Mendín says, coyly admitting, “I’m kind of a menu freak. I won’t let anyone else write them because I want them to be a certain, particular way.”
While those menus have always carried the distinct Mendín imprimatur—“My 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”— L’echon is personal in a different way. “I’m a huge fan of French food,” he said. “If you tell me, I’ll give you a plane ticket to anywhere right now, I’d say I want to go to Paris. It’s the Mecca for what I do. Everything I’ve learned started there.” So if Pubbelly and its closely related spinoffs are Mendín’s autobiographies, then L’echon 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. “It’s been my dream for so long,” he said, “to have a French restaurant. And now it’s 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.