Tuesday, April 20, 2010

D. Rodriguez - South Beach

It was with some dismay that I realized recently that it was more than twenty years ago that I first experienced Chef Douglas Rodriguez's cooking, when he was at a little place called Wet Paint Café that was one of the first signs of life on Lincoln Road in the late 1980's.[1]

Since then, Chef Rodriguez has gone through a number of other projects. First was Yuca,[2] where he was one of the pioneers of bringing contemporary, upscale flare to classic Latin American flavors, along with other kitchen luminaries such as Norman Van Aken and Cindy Hutson. After about five years, he packed his bags and headed for the bright lights of New York City, where he opened Patria, followed by a couple other restaurants, and further expansion to Philadelphia (Alma de Cuba).

But Chef Rodriguez eventually made his way back home to Miami. Around 2003 he opened Ola in a refurbished standalone 2-story building on Biscayne Boulevard in what is now called the "Upper East Side."[3] I loved that space, but Ola was not long for the Boulevard,and within a couple years had made its way back across Biscayne Bay to South Beach, first at the Savoy Hotel and then to its current spot in the Sanctuary hotel. It seems the expansion bug has bitten again, as Chef Rodriguez recently opened a new restaurant, D. Rodriguez, in the Astor Hotel on South Beach, and an Ola Cuban is in the works for Gulfstream Village in Hallandale.

Where Ola's menu looks all over Latin America and the Caribbean for inspiration, D. Rodriguez stays more closely to a Cuban theme. For me, this is something of a mixed bag. Candidly, I don't find Cuban cuisine to be the most exciting of those that our southerly neighbors have to offer. It's good, it's satisfying, but rarely is it transcendent. Could Chef Rodriguez make it so?

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I've also long been a fan of the Astor Hotel's restaurant space, which is down a dramatic stairway from the hotel's lobby and done in classic Art Deco style, with a dark bar on one side and a big open space on the other, part of which has a glass roof to relieve the subterranean feel. A parade of restaurants has come and gone through here: Johnny Vincenz was here not once but twice, and the most recent that I can recall having made a stopover was a brief appearance by Maison d'Azur or some sibling. D. Rodriguez doesn't seem to have done much to the space other than to add some white leather banquettes and pictures of pre-Castro Cuba throughout (there's also a somewhat discreet big-screen showing clips of Cuban nightclub acts up high on one wall). Servers are also dressed for the part, in all black with straw Panama hats. Keeping in the spirit, meals start off with mariquitas (crisp fried plantain chips) along with some sweet roasted red peppers for dipping, instead of bread.

I don't necessarily associate ceviche with Cuban food, but I do associate it with Chef Rodriguez. If he was a pioneer twenty years ago for creating contemporary Latin American food, he also deserves some credit for the popularity of ceviche over the past decade. He was among the first chefs I've seen to reinvent and modernize the basic formula of raw fish "cooked" in a bath of citrus juices, even penning "The Great Ceviche Book" in 2003 (soon to be re-released in a revised edition). The ceviches have always been some of the best items at Ola, and so, whether authentically Cuban or not, I wasn't surprised to see several on the menu at D. Rodriguez.

Unfortunately, D. Rodriguez's versions did not impress as much as their siblings at Ola. We tried two. The mixed seafood featured shrimp, lobster, clams, octopus and crabmeat, macerated in grapefruit and lime juices, and tossed with thinly shaved celery along with cilantro and tarragon. The flavors were right on target - indeed, I really enjoyed the combination of grapefruit and tarragon - but the texture was a disappointment, the crabmeat shredded to mush and all of the seafood swimming in too much liquid marinade. The lobster, which was marinated in mango and passion fruit juice and mixed with red onion, cilantro and jalapeño, was overwhelmed by the tropical fruits, which again contributed a mushy, soupy texture.
photo via www.drodriguezcuba.com
Better were the frita sliders, a variation on a Cuban classic, an order bringing two generously sized burgers spiked with chorizo, topped with little crispy potato sticks and served on sweet brioche buns shmeared with a bit of mustard. I was a bit skeptical of the "Cuban Pizzas," made with a casabe (yuca flour) crust, but the vegetarian version we tried grew on me, topped with a garbanzo bean puree, trumpet mushrooms, artichokes, red peppers, and perky fresh greens.

photo via www.drodriguezcuba.com
The crust is crisp but not cracker-like, though in a way that is almost, but not entirely, unlike an actual pizza. If you abandon comparisons to pizza and just treat this as a crispy flatbread type thing, you'll be more amenable to its charms. An alternate version with duck confit, smoked dates, radishes and foie gras shavings sounded even better, though it would have been a bit heavy to go along with the fritas as a starter.

photo via www.drodriguezcuba.com
One of the "signature" entrées at D. Rodriguez is the Rabo Encendido en Lata, a classic from the Cuban repertoire of oxtails braised in a red wine sauce. Here, Chef Rodriguez pulls all the meat off the bones after braising, mixes it back into the densely flavored braising sauce, and spikes it with olives, capers (he actually uses slivers of those big caperberries) and tomatoes, then puts it into a can to make a unique presentation for serving. The can is opened at the table, and the warm stew is poured over a cauliflower purée.

Gimmicky? Yeah, a little bit. But good. The meat is meltingly tender, and the reduced braising liquid is silky and rich. (Though I still don't quite get why no rabo encendido I've ever had actually lives up to the promise of the name: if "encendido" means "switched on" or "ablaze," then why isn't this dish spicier?) All that's missing is something a little more substantial to soak up that braising liquid: the cauliflower purée is so rich and creamy it practically melts, and the artful little swirl gets lost on the plate quickly.

The Azucar Prieta Salmon also was quite good, the meaty fish taken in an interesting direction with a brown sugar rub scented with vanilla. Filets of the salmon were served over beds of black barley, providing both a striking visual contrast for the pink flesh of the salmon and a hearty accompaniment, as well as a refreshing toss of slivered radishes, endive, and sweet peppers. Other entrées tread ground both traditional (roasted pork, vaca frita, arroz imperial con pollo, lobster enchilado) and less so (a duo of duck featuring a crepe stuffed with duck ropa vieja and crispy duck leg, sugar cane tuna with a malanga fondue). We didn't save room for dessert, and as a result missed out on another "signature" dish, the Smoky Chocolate Cigars, served in a cigar box billowing with clouds of smoke.

Entrée prices top out below $30, pretty reasonable by South Beach standards, though it's somewhat compensated for by the appetizer prices, which are mostly in the teens. The wine list, on the other hand, subscribes to the unfortunately prevalent mindset that a 3x retail markup is a starting point, and you go up from there. It's so disappointing to see a wine like the Crios Torrontes, which retails for under $12, selling for $46, or an Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero, which can be found for $26, selling for $89. Perhaps bettter to stick with the cocktails, where $12 per drink can actually appear reasonable compared to the $14+ you find at other SoBe venues. Service, on the other hand, belied South Beach stereotypes, and was knowledgeable, friendly and attentive.

Especially for tourists to South Florida, D. Rodriguez offers a particularly effective combination: it gives a taste of the Cuban cuisine that many culinarily inclined visitors seek, in an upscale, contemporary format, in an attractive, elegant setting on South Beach. But it's not terribly different from what you'll find at Ola. Locals - particularly those who have been eating Chef Rodriguez's food on and off for the past two decades - might be more curious to know if he's got any more tricks up his sleeve.

D. Rodriguez
956 Washington Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139

De Rodriguez Cuba Restaurant on Urbanspoon

[1]For a bit more historical reference, this article from 1987 is entertaining reading, noting not only Wet Paint Café but also The Strand, where Michelle Bernstein got her start.

[2]The restaurant is still open, though it's been well more than a decade since Chef Rodriguez was involved with it.

[3]Michelle Bernstein gets much credit, and deservedly so, for having the boldness to open a restaurant (Michy's) in this neighborhood on the front end of its regentrification, but Rodriguez was actually in there years ahead of her (even if he pulled up stakes and moved to South Beach after a short time). Actually, Mark Soyka was years before both of them with Soyka's. Too bad the food there is generally not worth mentioning.


  1. I recently visited D. Rodriguez Cuba and tried the Pan con biftec (short rib skewers with crunchy garlic, onions & toasted bread crumbs) - I am from the land of meat (Argentina), don't know if that qualifies me to talk about premium meat =) but Chef Douglas Rodriguez creation (and twist) of the classic pan con bistec transported me immediately to those glorious days at my grandmother's Estancia where the meat tasted like it should be (for god sake) - it was the first time in my entire American life that I have tried the most delicious, superbly executed, perfectly balanced, tastiest buttery piece of premium short rib that literally melted in my mouth. It will be very difficult, one could say almost impossible to find such unforgettable foodie bite in South Beach (at least for me).

  2. Excellent write-up, just came across your blog, and you inspired me to try this place out tonight. I am only here for about a week so reviews like this are valuable. I will be coming back for more foodie tips. Thanks.

    Luiz @ The London Foodie