Monday nights at Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 13th Street, a magical moment in Miami unfolds.
Lights twinkle in the trees and a market of bountiful breads (Zak the Baker), verdant veggies (Bee Heaven Farm and Verde Farm and bottles of caramel-colored honey with names like Sea Grape and Mango Blossom (Keez Beez) frames the sidewalk. Strangers sit together and converse, drink a glass (or two) of wine, craft brews or complimentary Prosecco and enjoy a meal like none other.
The occasion? Monday night’s Farm-to-Table dinners at the Café at Books & Books at the Arsht Center. They’re family style. They take place in the outdoor plaza. And the menu is all vegetarian, crafted each week by Chef Allen Susser, whose culinary prowess is well documented. (Food & Wine magazine named him one of the Top 10 New Chefs in America in 1991, when he helmed Chef Allen’s, one of his many accolades).
“We’re trying to build a food community,” says Susser, going from table to table, educating diners on the finer points of the dishes that make up his Mexican-themed meal.
A community that touched Luisa Marques dos Santos, a Brazilian-born attorney and CrossFit Wynwood Throwdown champion who with boyfriend Santiago Callejas, a CrossFit trainer who hails from Colombia, rode over on their bikes from their nearby apartment.
“I really enjoyed the experience. It was family style, outside on a beautiful night, and you enjoyed it with people whom you normally wouldn’t have met in a regular restaurant setting,” she said.
A community that touched Jill Bassett, a healthcare executive who moved back to Miami six months ago from Boston, ecstatic to have traded in her coat, scarf and nine feet of snow for sandals and a moonlit Miami night.
“The change in the city is exciting,” said Bassett, a graduate of Palmetto High School who left South Florida to attend Amherst College, the Harvard School of Public Health and to start a primary care initiative at Harvard Medical School.
A community that touched Beatriz Portela, a Coral Gables real estate agent, now on her fourth visit.
“I love these dinners. Every time I come, I bring different people here, and they love it, too.”
On this February evening, the meal was Mexican. Starters included charred poblanos stuffed with mixed veggies and cilantro, topped with a cumin crema drizzle; Puerto Vallarta Ensalada (farmers’ greens, avocado, chickpeas, jicama and mixed peppers with a chili cumin vinaigrette); and tomatillo lime-marinated crudites accompanied with a black bean hummus and warm pita.
Main course: vegetable enchiladas stuffed with yellow rice, black beans, market squash, golden beets, potatoes and rainbow cauliflower, topped with queso fresco and served over mole sauce.
Dessert: cardamom-laced bread pudding with spiced chocolate ganache (heavenly).
For Susser, the meals are a way to get creative with veggies in season and locally sourced. Farmers deliver what they’re growing, or he’ll forage at the Monday farmers’ market — just outside the café, open from 4-8 p.m.
“When the café opened, we brought in the farmers market within the first week of opening and started the dinners immediately,” Susser said. “It’s been a great creative outlet for me — to do things that are not menu driven but food driven, and market driven by the seasonality.”
Each month, the dinners have a geographical theme. In February, Latin America was the outpost. March brought the Gardens of Asia. April’s theme: Green is Good, a tour of Southern U.S. cities — minus the pork barbecue and fried hush puppies.
From the beginning, the concept was family style, so diners can share stories with the person across the table. I, for one, had a great conversation with Molly Galler, a food blogger (www.popbopshopblog.com) and PR manager who lives in Boston but was visiting her parents in Brickell. She has been to many farm-to-table dinners in New England; this was her first one in Miami.
“I loved it,” she said afterward in a phone interview. “Supporting local food, dining outside, getting to know other people who share passion for food — it had it all.”
Galler, 31, has been a vegetarian for 20 years, so she knows something about eating meatless. The meal was exquisite, she said.
But, as Susser noted, it’s not just vegetarians who enjoy the dinners. Many a carnivore has come up to him raving about the meal, fully satiated.
The dinners have become popular. When the café opened in December 2014, maybe a dozen who lived downtown came on over. Today, the dinners average about 50 people, with folks coming from the Beach, the Gables, Kendall and Broward County.
At one point in the evening, Susser asked each person to stand up, introduce themselves and reveal their favorite vegetable.
David loves eggplant. Molly, mushrooms. Ken, broccoli. Luisa, butternut squash. Santiago, zucchini. When Susana mentions avocado, it’s time for a little food lesson. Avocados, Susser explains, are not veggies — they’re a fruit. More specifically, they’re a single-seeded berry.
Laughs all around and promises to keep coming to learn more.
By the end of the evening, business cards had been exchanged, Twitter handles and telephone numbers shared, and Miami felt a tad different, with newly found friends sharing stories, cultures and a commitment to break down barriers.
In a nod to Dr. Seuss and his beloved book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” I’d sum up the spirit of the evening in much the same way: “And to Think That I Saw It on 13th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.”
If you go
What: Farm-To-Table Dinners Monday nights at the Café at Books & Books at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. 6:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. Call 786-405-1745
Cost: $25 per person, or $36 with wine or beer.
April: Theme is Green is Good, a tour of Southern U.S. cities: Memphis (April 4), New Orleans (April 11), Savannah (April 18) and Asheville (April 25). The New Orleans dinner will feature food paired with craft beer from Wynwood Brewing.