33 Kitchen ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2 (Excellent)
Nothing makes me happier than to find a new restaurant to share with friends. Despite my job description, I’d rather celebrate food than criticize it.
However, I confess that sometimes — rarely — but sometimes, I do attempt to keep finds to myself. Selfish? Yes. But, I always relent since I know that with or without my chattering, word of brilliant food will spread like a kitchen fire.
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Despite fear of never getting a seat again, I’m ready to rave about Coconut Grove’s 33 Kitchen. It’s tiny — some 45 seats inside and out — and only a few blocks from my new home in “The 33,” as “Grovites” like to call our little burg.
It’s named for myriad reasons, including our ZIP Code, the boiling point of water and the number of vertebrae in the human spine. “That includes the coccyx, which keeps you walking upright and moving forward, like I want to do in life and my restaurant,” says owner Sebastian Fernandez (who, it seems, is a poet as well as an exquisite chef).
Chile-born Fernandez, who left the Coral Reef Yacht Club after 14 years, and wife Leslie Ames have plundered her Peruvian roots to create a gem.
The setting, the former Bombay Darbar (it moved to bigger digs behind the Mayfair) has charm and style. It looks like a hipster hangout with a rustic, reclaimed wood bar, (faux) exposed brick wall, an old bicycle mounted on the wall, as well as cool metal chairs and straight-back wooden benches. Pillows would be a good idea, although that might cause guests to linger, making getting a table tougher. The lighting from pendants is generally warm if a bit bright, and the soundtrack, put together by Sebastian Jr., veers toward cool indie pop.
“Peruvian-inspired” cooking combines modern techniques with pristine ingredients to create exceptional small bites. No shortcuts here. For example, to create his velvety and piquant aji amarillo, the sauce that I could eat like soup, the chef does not rely on pastes or powders but rather the real pepper. He utilizes sous vide for tender proteins and makes sauces in cup-size batches to assure freshness.
The menu can be tricky for those not used to eating this way — it’s essentially a dozen cold plates and about the same number of hot ones — all served in smallish, easily shareable portions. For those looking for bulk, this is not the place. For others, order away and know that all the flavors work together, and the pacing of the dishes is spot on.
First for the coldies.
A sunny beet salad — a festive mix of yellow and nearly purple wedges — gets spark from walnuts toasted with the slightest coating of honey and brown sugar to add sweetness and crunch topped with crumbled hunks of Gorgonzola in a sublimely harmonized dressing.
Causa limena, here made with stunning purple mashed potatoes and draped in the most delicate aji amarillo, are fantastic, too.
The tiradito of tuna is as silken as just-batched tofu and wears a sheer slip of yuzu, soy, ginger and jalapeño with a pretty scattering of tobico. The only ceviche on the menu uses ultra-fresh corvina in a perfectly balanced limey bath with a smear of mashed sweet potato to exquisite effect.
Hot dishes include craveable, meaty mussels steamed in coconut milk with ginger, basil and ají. Perky thumb-size shrimp are seared to golden and served with sweet corn puree and a peppery chimichurri of arugula. Superb.
Likewise, the bite-size slices of octopus dotted with fresh herbs and a creamy olive sauce and baby brussels sprouts that disappear faster than you can say huancaína.
Chaufa de arroz, a quintessential Chifa (Chinese Peruvian) dish, takes fried rice to a new level.
Exquisite salmon bites consist of bite-size salmon tempura-ed in a wing-light batter served over fresh pea puree dotted with see-through slivers of pickled red radishes in an explosive sauce spiked with kimchee and rice vinegar.
My favorite, perhaps, is a haiku of an aji de gallina, which Fernandez deconstructs into its essential parts with gorgeous airline chicken breast (wing on) seared and served with a perfect potato croquette, a coddled egg, olives and a restrained portion of the namesake sauce.
Well, there is the phenomenal lomo saltado, made with slices of premium tenderloin and stir-fried with tomatoes and red onion in a sweet soy demi-glaze that truly sings. You can order rice on the side or fingerling potatoes if you crave carbs.
We skipped them but wouldn’t miss dessert specials. All were good, but unlike the savory selections, they didn’t make us scrape the plates clean. Best perhaps is a yuzu “pie” — a take on the classic key lime — gently sous vide in a Mason jar served with a dollop of sweet whipped cream.
The mostly New World wine list, with about 60 labels, is affordable and well-curated with lots of by-the-glass options. Craft beers round out the list.
Service is casual, personal, enthusiastic and a bit quirky. On one visit, our waiter oooohed over a dish so much his eyes got glassy. Leslie oversees the dining room like a mother hen wielding champagne.
In four visits, I have eaten nearly every dish on the menu. Fernandez’s cooking is confidant, clean, bold and just what I want to be eating. So, please, save a seat for me.
Follow Victoria on Twitter @VictoriaPesceE and on her Facebook fan page.
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