In the famous children’s book, “In the Night Kitchen,” by Maurice Sendak, a boy floats on a dreamy journey into a surreal kitchen where food takes on magical properties.
Bazaar Mar is that mind-bending culinary playground brought to life inside the base of the SLS luxury hotel in Brickell, where famed Spanish-American chef José Andrés shape-shifts food in a sea-inspired, psychedelic dining room designed by Philippe Starck.
Steam clouds rise from cryogenic carts wheeled by servers concocting liquid nitrogen caipirinha cocktails tableside. As they whisk the drinks into sorbet-like consistency, smartphone flashes from photo-snapping, excited diners pierce the rolling fog, creating the illusion of a lightning storm inside the blue-and-white tiled dining room.
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Food — most of it plucked from oceans around the world — is emulsified, squeezed, squirted, cured, chilled and mixed with chemical compounds until it resembles something swiped from another planet. Flavor is turned into powder, gels and foam, called “air” here. Even the margaritas come topped with ethereal puffs of salt and tequila. (Men with bushy beards beware.)
Grounding the wildly inventive, overwhelming seafood choices are familiar Spanish tapas plates, such as bacalao (salt cod) fritters, chicken croquetas, chorizo and prized jamón Ibérico. Traditionalists, however, are in for a jolt from the liquid olives, a trompe l’oeil dish first created by Andrés’ mentor, Ferran Adrià, at Spain’s history-making El Bulli.
Using a technique called spherification, the olives are re-created by reshaping olive juice in a calcium chloride bath to make it look — and taste — like solid green olives. Once your teeth pierce the gelatinous orbs, the familiar briny essence explodes in your mouth while your brain struggles to keep up.
The experience — and menu — resembles the slightly more restrained Bazaar By José Andrés, which opened with fanfare in 2012 inside the SLS South Beach hotel, also designed by Starck. This is the James Beard-winning restaurateur’s first step onto Miami’s mainland, and he brings much of the sea with him.
Because dining today can be about politics as much as pleasure, it’s worth mentioning that Andrés shuttered five of his restaurants around the nation (though none in Miami) Thursday in solidarity with the “Day Without Immigrants” boycott in response to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Andrés, who came to the U.S. from Spain in 1991 and is now an American citizen, is also engaged in a legal battle with Trump, who sued him after the chef backed out of a deal to open a restaurant in Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel.
Eating in Miami? It’s complicated.
The complex, inaccessible descriptions of dishes on Bazaar Mar’s tri-fold, dinner-only menu don’t add any clarity. In contrast — as if to provide relief — the offerings are organized under cutesy titles such as “Little Sea Snacks” and “Big Guys from the Sea.” Most dishes are à la carte. Andrés’ famous small plates dominate, but fish — whole, steaked and stewed — provides heartier choices, along with a singular beef rib steak and roasted chicken.
Sea urchin, cockles, scallops, stone crabs, salmon, monkfish, shrimp, clams, king crab and red snapper crowd the swim lane of choices. The raw bar is fanciful, with cobia ceviche plated like a rose and salmon wrapped around cracker-like, hollow “air bread” cut to resemble fish.
As a starter, tuna ceviche is brightness in a bowl on ice, with chunks of big-eye tuna, avocado, jicama, red onion and a soy-cured egg yolk with ponzu and salty Japanese furikake dried fish flakes. Tuna sashimi rides more of the tubular “air breads,” with spicy rocoto mayo and spicy tuna pieces filling the insides for a kick underneath.
Two dishes too small to share are worth being selfish. The one-bite Po Boy José is a pillow-soft steamed brioche bun stuffed with crunchy fried baby squid and aioli. The Not so Po Boy José has the same dreamy bun stuffed with fried oyster, caviar and tartar sauce.
On the sensible side of entrees, a satisfying fatty, dense cobia steak, farmed from Panama, is grilled and placed in a simple lemon broth with mustard greens.
Drama comes on a platter with a whole breaded and fried lion fish, its fan-like fins on full display. The invasive, spiny creature is destructively feasting its way through the Atlantic Ocean, so you should feel good about being its lone predator in South Florida. (Its fluffy white meat makes that easy, and Bazaar Mar provides tartar sauce for added flavor.)
A handful of vegetables clamors for attention with such pairings as potatoes with mojo verde and roasted cauliflower with pomegranate seeds. Hand-crafted cocktails and a curated list of Spanish and international wines complement the menu.
Playful desserts continue the weirdly festive theme, with deconstructed Key lime pie, a pineapple snow cone and a chocolate soufflé atop a caramelized banana base, among other choices.
The expansive 201-seat glam setting features a chain of rooms with a cocktail bar, a raw bar and three open kitchens. Hand-painted tiles depicting mermaids and other nautical motifs cover the walls, creating the sensation of eating inside a decadent, drained pool. The dining rooms are noisy and not built for comfort; hard, white wooden chairs surround marble tables and grow harder as the night wears on.
Andrés may be at the top of his game, but some of his staff struggles to keep up. Inexperienced, young hostesses appear frightened at the front desk. Our server was so busy on one visit that he neglected to inquire about drink refills and took so long to return to our table that we skipped dessert.
I respect modernist cooking and use of technology to stretch culinary boundaries, but I found myself looking longingly at the diners enjoying Italian food on the candlelit patio at chef Michael Schwartz’s neighboring Fi’lia on our way into Bazaar Mar’s cold, lab-like interior.
Still, the Cirque-like food gymnastics are mesmerizing. Conventional diners may leave feeling empty (both physically and emotionally), but for sheer artistry and imagination, this is a dream worth having at least once.
Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
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Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If you go
Place: Bazaar Mar
Address: 1300 S. Miami Ave., Miami (SLS Brickell hotel)
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ stars (Very Good)
Contact: 305-615-5859, www.sbe.com/restaurants/locations/bazaar-mar
Hours: 6-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Prices: $8-$26 small plates, $22-$65 entrees, $12-$14 desserts
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; full bar; street parking or valet at hotel ($10)
What the Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)