No one at our table set out to have a mostly vegetarian meal from one of Miami’s best chefs.
It just sort of turned out that way as one dish after another jumped off the menu at the new Kendall restaurant Erba.
Niven Patel, a James Beard award semifinalist for Ghee Indian Kitchen next door, was so excited to show Miami what he could do with scratch-made pasta and seasonal vegetables from his Homestead farm that he opened a six-month pop-up. Erba’s permanent home in Downtown Dadeland is still under construction.
These new dishes speak for themselves.
Japanese eggplant from his farm had been slowly roasted until they were the consistency of flan — then marinated for three weeks in balsamic vinegar, honey, and shallots before it arrived to the table with crusty bread.
Ricotta-stuffed agnolotti pasta purses, crimped by hand by his executive chef, Tim Piazza, were tossed with in-season chanterelle mushrooms, farm-fresh thyme and spiked with a jolt of lemon.
It went on that way.
No dish was pretending to be something else. No buffalo “chicken” made out of tofu. No “burger” grown in laboratory or smashed together from black beans. No quinoa bowls.
Instead, Patel is showing at Erba a palette of colors, textures and flavors that expands on his fine-dining training, Indian background and a cross-cultural creativity.
And Miami’s growing season has barely begun. At its peak, more than 60 percent of the produce at Erba will come from his land, he said. He put the farmers on his payroll.
“We’re veggie-happy here because we have such good access to vegetables from the farm,” Patel said in a phone interview the next day. “We want to keep the veggies at the forefront.”
Erba’s pop-up, open just under two weeks when I visited, is more than a warm-up. The menu is about 80 percent of what it will be in its larger space a block away, Patel said. Plus diners can opt for the four-seat table between the pass and the wood-fire oven, where Patel and Piazza offer one-off dishes.
In the meantime, there are plenty of reasons to want to eat your veggies.
Mix it up
Don’t feel tied to order one dish per person. Erba rewards sharing several dishes and makes no distinction between the vegetable and pasta courses.
Mix and match. No two dishes are similar.
The aforementioned eggplant, which start life Crayola purple, show the beauty of brown food. The two- and three-week marinade transforms the vegetable into a kind of sweet-and-sour spread with pops of flavor from the farm-raised basil and fennel seeds.
Turnips aren’t supposed to be this sexy
But they sound a lot more exciting when you hear they were harvested that morning and Patel and Piazza label them carbonara. The dish comes complete with warm egg yolk, spicy black pepper, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and sprinkled with pancetta — admittedly not vegetarian but used sparingly for a smoky flavor.
Forget what you know about salad
Erba’s Little Gem lettuce salad mimics a classic wedge in a novel way. The tender leaves are tossed in buttermilk with smoked trout roe. (Tonight, the role of bacon bits will be played by the marigold eggs.)
A raw zucchini and fennel salad, with mint and horseradish, is fresh and bold, a taste bud jolt of an appetizer.
Even the buffalo mozzarella is surprising. The dish pushes back on the tired burrata trend. The mild cheese is ripped into fried egg-shaped shards and layered over a ragout of salty (maybe a touch too salty) broccolini, chilies and cannellini beans.
Not your usual pasta
Pastas at Erba encourage curiosity.
Golf-ball-sized stuffed tortellini crowns are as pretty to behold as they are to eat, swirled around a bowl with artichokes, tomatoes and wafer-thin sliced olives that add an acid punch.
The corzetti pasta are flat nautilus-stamped swirls that lay flat on the plate, spattered with ricotta salata shreds like a Jackson Pollock and oil-rich Sicilian pistachios that add a sweet nuttiness.
At Ghee, Patel charges a premium for meat in his lunch dishes to encourage diners to give his skill with veggies a chance. Erba’s rock shrimp fettuccine is an example of a dish where the pasta sings and might be better without the heavy dusting of panko and pieces of shrimp.
You’ll want dessert
Erba’s bomboloni are inside-out guava doughnuts, the dainty sugar-dusted nuggets stacked on a saucy swirl of whipped ricotta and aromatic white-guava. They’re the yin to a dense and satisfying tiramisu in a cup, Erba’s yang with a splash of cognac.
Erba never calls itself Italian. Or vegetarian. Nor does it go out of its way to say how special it is.
It doesn’t have to. It succeeds at all three without even trying.
Miami Herald critics dine unannounced and at the newspaper’s expense.
Editor’s note: Miami Herald dining reviews no longer include star ratings. We believe a restaurant should be judged on its merits and the nuance of the dining experience, not simply on a grade. — Carlos Frías, Miami Herald food editor
Address: 8975 SW 72nd Pl., Kendall.
Hours: Open for dinner only. 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday; Open until 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday.
Price range: $9-$19 vegetable dishes. $15-$20 pastas. $28-$36, sharable meat dishes.
FYI: Parking available at adjacent underground parking garage and validated at the restaurant. Accessible first-floor entry and restrooms. Reservations, available at OpenTable.com, recommended.