Restaurant News & Reviews

Smoked python, lionfish gazpacho on menu at invasive-species dinner

A gunshot to the head is the state’s recommended method for disposing of invasive Burmese pythons, whose swelling population threatens the Everglades. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offers no guidance, however, on how to cook the slithery creatures.

Chef Kris Wessel came up with two python preparations for a charity dinner this week at The Palms Hotel in Miami Beach: slow-smoked over hickory wood and braised in curry spices, then stuffed in also-invasive Brazilian peppers.

He tossed morsels of the pink, smoky snake meat with sweet mango and peppery arugula. "They taste like bacon bits," he said of the chewy nubs, handing a salad to a guest.

Wessel, chef-partner at Florida Cookery, was one of several Miami chefs who created dishes using non-native, invasive species for Fertile Earth Foundation’s Underground event at The Palms on Tuesday night.

Julie Frans, chef of The Palms’ Essensia restaurant, made chilled lionfish gazpacho and spicy, African adobo-rubbed snakehead fish.

"Her lionfish is excellent — sweet and tender, almost like lobster," guest Bobbi Namath said. "Almost."

As his predatory protein, Todd Erickson drew wild boar, which he braised in Corona and made into tacos. Although the finished dish may have had the lowest gross-out factor of the night, the raw product had some feeling squeamish.

"I think it freaked out a few people who saw us breaking down the whole hog in our open kitchen," said Erickson, chef at Haven and the forthcoming Huahua’s Taqueria.

Macarena Bianchi, who said she normally adheres to a vegetarian or vegan diet, closed her eyes as she lifted a forkful of python toward her mouth. She chewed, then opened her eyes wide.

"Wow! He made this taste so good," Bianchi said. "I can’t believe I’m eating this, but I really, really like it."

Much like the recent, state-sponsored Python Challenge, in which about 1,600 snake hunters fanned out across the Everglades, netting just 68 skins, Fertile Earth’s event was geared mainly toward public awareness. Wessel, for example, prepared all the food he needed from a single, 14-foot python. (His display included a warning about the reptile’s mercury content.)

"We know one dinner is not going to solve Florida’s invasive-species problem," Fertile Earth director Lanette Sobel said. "We wanted to push people out of their comfort zones and show them that these things we may think are gross can actually taste pretty delicious."

Sobel’s South Beach-based nonprofit operates a composting farm in Homestead. Fertile Earth came out this year with a Ladies of Manure calender, featuring Sobel and other women posing semi-nude with poop.

After eating their fill of snakes and spiny, venomous fish, guests retreated to a poolside patch of grass, where three of the four Miami Beach mayoral candidates — David Hundley, Philip Levine and Jerry Libbin — participated in a cow-chip toss.

Fittingly, Sobel used an animal metaphor to rib the lone no-show: "[Michael] Góngora chickened out."