Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Local Craft Food and Drink - Coral Gables

Miami may only occasionally be a true culinary innovator, but lately it has proven at least to be an increasingly adept early adopter. Small plates, food trucks, contemporary Asian, locavorism, pork obsessiveness; all are trends that Miami quickly embraced. Yet some others seem to have largely passed Miami by. The gastropub is one of them.

The idea of the gastropub originated in London in the 1990's, when some enterprising souls set out to elevate the quality of the "pub grub" served in the city's traditional "public houses." With an approach that presaged both the current farm-to-table and high-end casual trends, the food was often local and seasonal, and brought "real" cooking to humble watering holes. Plus, of course, there was always beer. Good beer.

Though gastropubs are old news in England, they were rather slow in working their way across the pond. When Mario Batali opened the Spotted Pig in New York in 2004, importing April Bloomfield from England as chef, it was routinely touted as the city's first gastropub.[1] The concept was even slower to catch on in Miami. Though there were occasional attempts (i.e., Jake's in South Miami), they weren't done particularly well.[2]

That's all changed with The Local.

The Local

The Local (full name: The Local Craft Food & Drink, "The Local" being both a play on British shorthand for "the local pub" and the focus on locally sourced ingredients) opened a couple months ago in Coral Gables, in the spot on Giralda Avenue formerly occupied by Randazzo's.[3] The room has been turned around, with a large wooden bar (imported from a defunct Irish bar on South Beach) now having pride of place along the east wall, and the remainder of the space filled out with bar-height and regular tables for a total of about 50 diners.

(You can see all my pictures in this The Local flickr set).


Like any good gastropub, the initial focus here is on beer. The chalkboard lists nearly two dozen options on tap, both domestic and imported, in a wide range of styles. The draft offerings are supplemented with a selection of bottles, including large format items like the Brooklyn Brewery Local No. 1 golden ale, or seasonal items like the Cigar City Improvisacion "Oatmeal Rye India Brown Ale" made in nearby Tampa.

What to eat along with that beer? That's where Chef Alberto Cabrera comes in. Cabrera shouldn't be a stranger to Miami diners: he did time at Norman's, Baleen, and the critically lauded but sadly short-lived La Broche before taking the helm at the kitchen of the ambitious and equally ill-fated Karu & Y. Since then he's been something of a culinary mercenary, working brief stints as the chef at STK Steakhouse and Himmarshee Grill.[4] I hope he sticks around The Local longer.

jerky in a jar

A good place to either start a meal or just nosh something along with your beer is the "snacks" section of the menu, and in particular, the "jerky in a jar" ($7). The jerky is house-made and infused with soy and Thai chiles (alternately, Korean kochuchang on another night), served in a jar along with some fried garlic chips and a sprinkle of green onions. It's unabashedly chewy, intensely beefy, not overwhelmingly salty, a touch sweet, a little bit spicy, and all good.

(continued ...)

house made crackers

If beef jerky's not your thing, then maybe the house-made Cuban crackers ($7) are. This dish resonates with nostalgia from multiple sources - the crackers a faithful take on the typical Cuban galleta, the "ham pâté" a gussied up name for another Cuban classic, "pasta de bocadito" (and which a Southerner might just call "ham salad"), and, speaking of Southerners, there's a ramekin of pimento cheese for good measure. I've often said that Miami establishes the border between the American South (which starts somewhere just north of the Miami-Dade county line) and Latin America, starting with Cuba, and if you buy that premise, then this is border food of the highest order.

A few other starter options were recently consolidated on the menu into one dish, now called "three snacks" ($6) and consisting of addictive sweet sesame-varnished walnuts, smoked almonds, and olives in an orange-intensive marinade. These would be so much better if they used a more interesting variety of olives instead of bland pre-pitted ones with a texture reminiscent of pencil erasers. If the customers are old enough to drink beer, they're old enough to be trusted to spit out the pits.

There's always a selection of charcuterie and cheeses available. Of the former ($10 each or 3 for $26), some are made in-house, and these have been mostly excellent: the chicken liver mousse is worth every day it takes off your lifespan, and the pork rillettes were meaty, tender and unctuous. Personally, I prefer a headcheese with more of a variety of textures - lots of gelatin, some chunks of meat, some wavy, slightly crunchy strips of ear - but theirs is a tamer version, more like a meatloaf, with mostly actual meat, coarsely shredded. It's Headcheese 101, perhaps, for folks who have never tried it before. What's not done in-house comes from great producers like Benton's ham and La Quercia coppa. Cheeses ($8 each or 3 for $20) include semi-local options like Tomme or aged Bleu from Winter Park Dairy, or favorites from further afield like Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog.

From there, the dinner menu is divided - in a not altogether clear or coherent fashion - into "Farm," "Plates," "Sea," "Land," "Sides" and "Sweets." "Farm" appears to be primarily salads (presumably the grilled octopus does not come from a farm, even if the arugula it's served over does), "Sea" is more clearly fish and seafood, "Land" is meats, and "Plates" is ... well, stuff that still comes from farm, sea or land, but doesn't go into those sections. I think the answer is that the "Plates" are more appetizer-sized (and priced) portions, though that doesn't fully explain why fresh shucked oysters are still lurking over in the "Sea" section.

fried clams

Semantics aside, there are good things to eat all over the menu. The fried clams ($8) are some of the best I've had in South Florida: plump, juicy, and meaty, with a light breading that carries a heady dose of fresh dill. On one visit they were topped with finely slivered cornichons and a garnish of fried lemon slices and capers that collectively duplicated the flavors of a tartar sauce. The lemons and capers were M.I.A. another time, though there was still a nice, smoky pimentón aioli for dipping. Buffalo style sweetbreads were also very good, the mild, creamy sweetbreads a good foil for a hot-sauce marinade, blue cheese, and a garnish of crisp, cool julienned jicama and apple crowned with celery leaves.

squid ink meatballs

Squid ink meatballs are an intriguing idea in need of some refinement. The meatballs are ground pork, filled out with puffed rice, which are then given a bath in a dramatic black sauce with the faint marine funk of squid ink, resting in a puddle of a creamy romesco sauce and topped with a generous spray of tender young cilantro leaves. The flavors here are all good (though personally I might like a heartier romesco), a twist on the long-standing Spanish tradition of "mar y montaña," but the meatballs are a bit dry and tough. Another interesting option I've not yet tried is a sampler of Palmetto Creek Farms pork, offering both belly and spare rib, paired with pickled peach, fennel, mint and a peanut brittle.

As is usually the case, I've spent more time exploring the small plates than the entrées at The Local, many of which are spins on classics drawn from a variety of regional traditions. Their version of low-country shrimp and grits ($18) uses plump local (Key West?) shrimp, hearty Anson Mills grits, and a rich smoky ham hock broth deepened with some oven-roasted tomatoes. It was a better choice than the mussels and fries ($16), steamed in beer (originally Dale's Pale Ale on my first visit, subsequently downgraded - probably without significant consequence - to PBR), garlic, leeks, fennel and chervil. The mussels were nice and fresh, but the dish as a whole was somewhat bland. I'd also prefer my fries on the side rather than dumped over the bowl, the better to exercise control over them soaking up the cooking liquid. Speaking of which, some bread for dipping would have been welcome too.[5]

"handcrafted burger"

With my recent gripes about burger-mania overtaking Miami, it might be a surprise that I should be praising a hamburger. But The Local's burger ($14) is worthy of such praise. Formed tall and stout to stay juicy within, it was fashioned from rich-flavored grass-fed beef from Ocala, Florida when I tried it (a more recent menu suggests they may have switched to Meyer Natural beef, which might be a downgrade with a difference). The add-ons are purposeful and effective: a dollop of house-made ketchup-y BBQ sauce underneath, a conservative scatter of raw onion for some bite, a thin slice of smoky, savory Benton's ham on top, a sprinkling of shredded white cheddar, and a few B&B pickles for a little sweet-sour contrast. It's all served on a puffy but still substantial toasted brioche bun with enough heft to survive till the last bite. This immediately moved into my top 5 list of Miami burgers, and would be even better if they gave it enough heat to melt the cheese all the way through.

Having devoted more attention to the starters, I've not yet sampled several other promising-sounding entrées, including a crispy pork shank served with a smoked turnip purée, brussels sprouts and a mustard jus ($24), roasted chicken thighs with dumplings, olives, preserved lemon and sausage ($18), a flatiron steak served with bone marrow butter and bordelaise sauce ($26), fish and chips done with grouper cheeks, served with the traditional malt vinegar and tartar sauce ($14), and a pasta served with an oxtail ragu and pea tendrils ($16).

malanga tater tots

I did manage to find room to try the malanga tater tots, however ($5). Another instance of Chef Cabrera slipping some Latin American influence into a comfort food classic, the malanga makes an interesting substitute for the traditional potato, as these have a nicely crispy outer shell surrounding a creamy soft interior. The promised cheese curds and oxtail gravy were doled out with a stingy hand, however, only a few tiny corn-kernel-sized nubs of cheese and a faint drizzle of dark gravy, not even enough to really pick up any flavor. If you're going to put out a dish that sounds for all the world like a poutine, refinement is not the order of the day: the sloppier and more decadent, the better.

The Local began lunch service a few weeks ago, for which a few of the starters are dropped and several sandwiches are added. They include a banh mi ($14)filled with pork meatballs and a shmear of the aforementioned chicken liver mousse, along with a generous helping of lightly pickled shredded carrots and daikon and practically an entire bunch of cilantro, all stuffed into a roll that's maybe a distant relative of the classic light crusty rice flour baguette, though much too dense and doughy. It's not at all a bad sandwich; it just sort of tastes like someone looked in the fridge, spied a few things, and thought "Hey, I could make something kind of close to a banh mi sandwich out of that." (and I wouldn't be surprised if that's exactly how it came about).[6]

A turkey pastrami sandwich ($10), paired with Swiss cheese, generous slabs of house-made bacon, and a refreshing creamy fennel slaw on sliced toasted brioche was a nice take on a "Rachel" sandwich, though I was jealous of my friend who got the lamb B.L.T. ($12), stacked triple-decker style like a club sandwich. That lamb bacon also makes an appearance as the lardons in a frisée salad ($13) that's on both the lunch and dinner menus. All sandwiches, as well as the burger, come with paprika-dusted fries on the side; on one visit, these were outstandingly crispy, but on another they were disappointingly flaccid.

I've not yet sampled the desserts, of which there is a short selection (though not as short as a typical British gastropub, which would likely offer one "pudding"). Just from reading the menu, these seem to follow the recent trend of playing along the sweet-savory boundary lines, i.e., yogurt panna cotta with dried fruits and bacon brittle, saffron crème brûlée with caramelized apples and sesame streusel, rice pudding with paprika meringue.

Beer aficionados will come to The Local for the brew selections alone, but the food is equally worthy of attention. The cooking strikes a fine balance between creativity and comfort, a none-too-easy feat. It's straightforward enough to satisfy someone who just wants wings or a burger. It's also smart enough to spice up those wings with Korean chile powder and lime crema, and to drape a slice of excellent Benton's ham over that burger. The menu is made up mostly of superficially simple dishes, but they're done with finesse and cleverness. There's a whole lot to like about The Local.[7]

The Local Craft Food & Drink
150 Giralda Avenue, Coral Gables

The Local - Craft Food & Drink on Urbanspoon

[1]And as any New Yorker will tell you, New York is the center of the U.S. culinary universe, so if it was the first in New York ...

[2]Though it styles itself an "Asian inspired gastropub," I'm disqualifying Pubbelly - perhaps somewhat arbitrarily - because it feels more like a Spanish tapas bar than an English pub to me, and because the Asian theme takes it a bit too far afield. Lou's Beer Garden comes closer, though it's still hard for me to call an outdoor place situated around a pool a "pub."

[3]Which moved a few blocks away to a bigger space on the corner of Miracle Mile and LeJeune Road.

[4]The Miami Herald recently ran a very nicely done profile of Chef Cabrera.

[5]I'm sure they'll happily provide it on request, but with any dish where so much of the flavor winds up in the broth, you shouldn't have to ask.

[6]A digression: I am growing increasingly nostalgic for the excellent banh mi that Michael Bloise was making before he left American Noodle Bar, with house-made cold cuts and fat spears of assertively pickled daikon and carrot.

[7]I'm afraid I can't leave this post without at least one "guy walks into a bar" joke. So ... a pirate walks into a bar, and the barman notices that he has what looks like the outline of a steering wheel showing through his pants. The barman asks him, "Is that a steering wheel?" And the pirate answers "Yar, and it's driving me nuts!" Thanks, I'll be here all week.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. You must have put on at least 10 lbs. That sounds fantastic. I really need to make a trip out of the 954 (which btw, in Miramar, is hardly the US).

    I'm looking forward to the beer too. Not sure about the food world, but the word "Craft" in their name is such a buzz word now, it's incredible.

    Maybe I'll see you there.