Order the flan.
But don’t ask what’s in it.
If you ask what’s in it, the server at Ariete is going to tell you, and then you’re probably going to pass on one of the best-tasting desserts in the city.
You might rethink your whole meal. You’ll definitely give the server a look. It’s OK, he’s seen it before.
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This happens every time a server tries to sell diners on the ingredient that makes chef Mike Beltran’s flan so different from all the other sweet flans you’ve had.
I’m going to tell you what it is, I promise. But not yet. I want you to be so convinced you’ll order it on blind faith despite how little sense the word makes in a dessert.
Beltran was visiting a friend in Los Angeles six years ago, while he was still an assistant chef at the late Cypress Room, an ultra-fine dining experience from James Beard award-winning chef Michael Schwartz.
His friend, a fellow chef, brought him a dessert he’d been working on, a seemingly simple ice cream sandwich. And he wouldn’t tell him what was in it.
“I ate this ice cream sandwich and it was incredible. I was like, ‘I didn’t know why I love this so much, but I love it,” Beltran said.
OK, Beltran finally asked, what’s in this?
His friend came back from the kitchen with a vacuum-sealed clear plastic package and dropped it in front of Beltran. He cut the bag open and instantly, the air around them was suffused with the aroma of maple syrup. Not just syrup-on-pancakes maple syrup.
“It’s quintessential maple syrup. It’s the essence of maple syrup,” Beltran said.
There, sitting on the table in front of him, was a bag of dried, auburn-brown mushrooms.
“It blew my mind,” Beltran said.
They weren’t just any mushroom. Candy cap mushrooms are nature’s potpourri. Open a bag, as Beltran did recently at his Coconut Grove restaurant, and the room is suddenly redolent with the scent of Fall. Maple injects the air with a mouthwatering aroma.
But get down into the mushrooms, bring a handful to your nose, and its rich, earthy scent is undeniable. It’s both sweet and pungent, a mushroom in a scented disguise.
Beltran knew at that moment he wanted to incorporate them into his food one day but wasn’t sure how. When he opened Ariete just over three years ago, he promised himself he would never put a flan on the menu.
“It’s too easy. It’s a layup,” he said. “My abuela makes flan, your abuela makes flan. Everyone’s grandmother makes flan. My mom who can’t cook makes flan. We wanted to be different.”
Cuban-American, born and raised in Miami, Beltran looks for ways to incorporate his culture into his food, while retaining the elevated techniques he learned alongside some of Miami’s most creative chefs: Norman Van Aken (Norman’s, Three), Richard Hales (Sakaya Kitchen) and Schwartz. He’s the kind of guy whose iPhone is playing Eminem’s “Kamikaze” with a José Martí quote as the home screen.
And Ariete is the kind of restaurant where you find riffs on his bicultural childhood, such as Cuban pastelitos stuffed with innovative flavors like local mamey and guava jams, peanut butter and house-made jelly, ox tail Rabo Encendido, and frita Cuban hamburger meat. The croquetas are made with headcheese (roasted pig’s head) and house-made kimchi. It’s also a nod to his grandparents who worked at a restaurant of the same name, Ariete, in Cuba’s Pinar del Río province.
“I wanted to be Cuban, but I wanted to push the boundary,” he said.
Mushroom flan was just different enough.
He lightly toasts the candy caps, pulverizes them, then adds them to the flan’s custard base (along with a touch of cream cheese for consistency) where their maple haze comes into full bloom. He strains out any pieces, leaving only the slightest flecks as trace evidence.
He serves it with sambuca crema (creme fraiche with sambuca liquor — “it’s boozy,” Beltran says) and a coffee crumble. The one-pound bag of mushrooms can cost as much as $315. So, yes, this flan costs a modest $6 given the amount of technique involved.
The first time he gave it to his friend, Mari Rubio, a fellow pastry chef who happened to be visiting while he was recently plating the dessert, she was skeptical.
“I trust you — but that sounds kinda weird,” she told him. “But when I tried it, oof, it was legit.”
It sounds weird. But it tastes like heaven. Call it God’s Flan.
If it still sounds too strange, go back to the top of the story. Stop after the second sentence. And trust your taste buds over your eyes.
3540 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove