Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Eating House - Coral Gables

eating house

A month ago I had no idea who Giorgio Rapicavoli was. It had been a couple years, and a couple chefs, since I'd been to the Angler's Resort where he was last working. I can't stand watching "Chopped," the Food Network cooking competition show where chefs with varying degrees of skill are asked to prepare dishes from mystery baskets of ridiculously incongruous and often unappetizing ingredients; so the fact that he had won an episode did nothing to put him on my radar.

But then I caught word that he was opening a pop-up restaurant to be called Eating House in a hole-in-the-wall café on the outskirts of Coral Gables. And then I took a look at his preview menu. It read like no other menu I've seen in Miami, all sorts of unexpected combinations and flavors.

I went to Eating House a week after they opened at the beginning of the month. I've already been back twice in as many weeks. I know who Giorgio Rapicavoli is now. And at risk of hyperbole, I will say this: at Eating House, he's putting out some of the most exciting food I've had in Miami in some time.

eating house

Tuesday through Sunday nights, Eating House takes over Café Ponce, a non-descript breakfast and lunch place near the corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and 8th Street. What atmosphere there is - and there's not much - is contributed by some graffiti artworks hanging on the walls and a soundtrack dominated by '90s hip-hop. But it's a pop-up, the point is the food not the decor. Service is also a minimalist but efficient affair - if it's not general manager Alex Casanova, as often as not it'll be Chef Rapicavoli himself bringing your food to the table.

eating house menu

(You can see all my pictures in this Eating House flickr set or click on any picture to enlarge).

The menu is tight as a Snoop Dogg blunt - typically ten items, mostly "small plate" sized, plus a few dessert options. It's changed around the edges each time I've been in, with dishes coming and going or morphing from one visit to the next. The influences are as much Slow Food as Ideas in Food - lots of local ingredients, lots of creative preparations.

homestead tomatoes

A perfect example: local Homestead tomatoes. But instead of a typical salad, Rapicavaoli takes them to Thailand, with lime, ginger, fish sauce, peanuts, fresh herbs, nasturtium flowers, and frozen coconut milk. It's a perfect rendition of the flavors of Thailand in an unexpected format, the frozen coconut milk in particular lending an intriguing icy creaminess to the composition.[1]

baby eggplant

Even better - indeed, one of best dishes I've had in recent memory - were the baby eggplants, topped with a banana miso, vanilla salt, yuzu kosho, sesame seeds and baby greens. Here, the starting point was a classic - nasu dengaku, or Japanese miso-glazed eggplant - but with multiple added layers of complexity. The banana and miso echo back to each other in both texture and flavor, a salty-sweet creamy richness, while the yuzu kosho adds the bright contrast of both citrus and spice, and yet another note brought in by the vanilla salt. This is really virtuoso stuff.

(continued ...)

spring onion

Eating House borrows equally liberally from Western cuisines as Eastern. The Catalan grilled onions known as calçots are re-envisioned here as a multi-faceted meditation on smoke: charred spring onions strewn over grilled bread that's been dolloped with a smoky eggplant "romesco," drizzled with smoked olive oil, and sprinkled with smoked salt. That sounds like a lot of smoke, and it looks like a lot of char, but it doesn't overwhelm, instead just bringing out a new level of flavor from the vegetables.

steak "tartare"

Steak tartare is another Western classic that gets tweaked at Eating House, here with a subtle nod to the East. Rather than the typical fine mince, Rapicavoli's version uses larger dice of steak (which I suspect have actually been cooked sous-vide at very low temp), marinated in Worcestershire sauce and soy, which are plated in a DIY style with sesame oil infused panko bread crumbs, slivered radishes, sea beans, lots of fresh herbs and greens (parsley, carrot greens, micro onion), and a raw egg yolk. Toss together yourself; dig in and enjoy.

escargot "al ajillo"

The menu is a constant work in progress, and dishes will change, or particular items may migrate from one dish to another, from day to day. What had been coconut escargot at one point (and which a dining companion had tried and been underwhelmed by) became escargot al ajillo. Prepared in the style of the classic Spanish tapa gambas al ajillo, with lots of toasted garlic and a reduction of sherry and sherry vinegar, this was one of the standouts of an evening of eating our way through the entire menu.

roasted bone marrow

Another dish that was tweaked from one visit to the next is the roasted marrow bones. One day they were topped with a saucy short rib "ropa vieja" redolent with a pepper and onion sofrito, sharpened with a sprinkle of house-made lime salt.[2] On another, the short rib "marmalade" was instead infused with black truffle. Purists will still harken for the "classic" Fergus-style marrow bones with nothing more than coarse salt and a parsley salad, but I enjoyed both iterations of this, even if the marrow can be a bit obscured by its accompaniments.

fried chicken thighs

Eating House's chicken and waffles are a crowd-pleaser, and I can see why: the fried chicken thighs have a textbook crunch on the outside while the flesh stays tender and juicy; the waffles are crowned with candied bacon and drizzled with house-smoked maple syrup; a swoosh of hot sauce spiked ranch dressing completes the package. It's a good version of chicken and waffles, and chicken and waffles are a good thing.[3] What's not to like? But for me, this just wasn't as exciting as some of the other menu items. I also found myself wishing the hot sauce in the ranch dressing was turned up higher to provide some contrast to the sweetness of the maple syrup and candied bacon.

grilled beef sweetbreads

Likewise, I found myself seeking more heat and spice with the grilled sweetbreads. When you read "Korean bbq sauce" and "sriracha pickles" you expect bold flavors, but this was pretty tame. The protein in more recent iterations has been chicken hearts in lieu of the sweetbreads.

There are usually a few more substantial entrée-type items on the menu, which seem to be united by a couple themes: (1) they display an obsession with commercial sodas that may get Rapicavoli banished from Slow Food; and (2) for whatever reason, they're not as exciting as the small plates.

sockeye salmon

Wild pacific salmon (sockeye one day, coho another), for instance, gets paired with a sweet potato purée, smoked Dr. Pepper glaze, BBQ potato chips, and hickory smoked salt. I found the dish over-sweet, and any nuance from the smoked Dr. Pepper glaze (and as sodas go, yes, I think Dr. Pepper is indeed capable of nuance) was lost.[4]

24 hour braised short rib

The short rib, braised for 24 hours and glazed with a kalimotxo jus (kalimotxo being an uncharacteristically low-brow Basque concoction of red wine and Coca Cola) is tender and rich with beefy flavor. Speaking of rich, Eating House's whipped potatoes one-up even the classic buttery Robuchon potato purée by adding egg yolk to the equation. A bone marrow "nugget" completes the composition. It's rich on rich on rich - which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it could maybe use some contrast, which the kalimotxo jus doesn't quite deliver.

There is nothing at all wrong with these dishes, I just didn't find that they had the same multivalenced complexity as some of the smaller plates, following instead the traditional composition of protein/sauce/starch.

strawberry "shortcake"

Among the desserts, my favorite has been the strawberry "shortcake," which uses both fresh and stewed strawberries as a foil for a play on multiple textures: fluffy clouds of (microwave?) cake, crunchy bits of meringue, a quenelle of lemon ice cream, bits of lemon "icing," with the lemony citrus notes balancing the sweetness of the other components.


The "brownie" is more outright indulgence: a jar of rich, thick "brownie batter mousse" (which, ultimately, I'd be hard-pressed to distinguish from a chocolate pudding), topped with brownie crumbles and chocolate chips, interlaced with drizzled salted caramel.

Food lovers in "second tier" dining cities (i.e., anyplace other than New York, San Francisco and Chicago) often spend much time obsessing over whether and when their city's dining scene has "arrived." And you could spend endless hours debating the criteria for determining the moment of such "arrival."[5] But surely one of them is the ability to recognize and sustain creative, chef-driven restaurants.

There are some genuinely interesting and exciting things going on in Miami's dining scene right now, and Eating House is right at the front of them. And to me, what's just as exciting is that - on this small scale, anyway - there seems to be an audience for it. Though they only have about 30 seats to fill, Eating House has been doing a good job of filling them, even on weekdays, and in Coral Gables, no less, not exactly a hotbed of hipster dining.

For all the big-name chefs and other visitors who were just in town for the South Beach Wine and Food Fest and didn't make it anywhere other than Joe's Stone Crab and spinoffs of New York restaurants: you're missing out.

Eating House (pop-up)
804 Ponce de Leon Boulevard
Coral Gables FL
305.448.6524 (after 5pm)

Eating House Miami on Urbanspoon

[1] As much I enjoyed this, I'd love to see a little more refinement to the texture here, maybe something more of a granita instead of the clumps of varying sizes melting at different rates. And ultimately, the dish is still only as good as the tomatoes, which were much more flavorful on my first visit than the next - luck of the draw.

[2] Rapicavoli uses several different house-made salts throughout the menu, an interesting and effective method of flavor-boosting.

[3] If 2009-2010 was the era of bacon-wrapped dates in Miami, 2011-2012 may prove to be the era of chicken and waffles. I've seen versions at Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, Sakaya Kitchen, Yardbird, and Morgan's, to name just a few.

[4] The fish, also, may be a bit overcooked, sacrificing tender flesh for crispy skin.

[5] For a particularly thoughtful discussion, I would highly recommend Misha Govshteyn's recent piece, "Houston: The Next Great American Food City?" in My Table magazine.

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