Tuesday, December 6, 2016

first thoughts: Olla | Miami Beach

I have always had a particularly soft spot in my heart for good Mexican restaurants. I'm not talking about taquerias, though I have another very soft spot for those too. Rather, I mean higher end restaurants that treat Mexican cuisine with reverence and genuine curiosity rather than an excuse to blanket everything in melted cheese and decorate with piñatas and sombreros. I don't remember much about my long-ago college years, but I fondly recall such a place on the outskirts of Atlanta called Mexico City Gourmet.[1] Even after a couple decades, I can still taste in my mind the outstanding duck fajitas they made at a spot called Las Puertas on Giralda Avenue in Coral Gables, and the gorgeous chiles en nogada that would occasionally turn up as a special.

So when I saw a preview menu for Olla, a new restaurant which opened last week from chef Scott Linquist (who also runs Wynwood's Coyo Taco), I was pretty excited. Far from the garden variety selection of tacos, burritos and enchiladas, here's something creative and different that explores the variety of flavors of Mexico: chapulines and huitlacoche and menudo, a kaleidoscope of chiles, four different kinds of moles. Yes, I could really get into this.

We popped in at noon this past Sunday, just as they were opening the doors, to try it out for a pre-Art Basel brunch.[2] (You can see all my pictures in this Olla Miami - South Beach flickr set).

The menu leads off with several "tarros," or jars, with a variety of different layered compositions inside. You hear so often these days about dishes "designed for sharing," when they are really nothing of the sort – either a few measly bites, invariably in a number not divisible by the number of diners at the table, or something so preciously constructed as to be impossible to split. These tarros are truly designed for sharing, and do it well.

The "remolacha" has cubes of garnet and golden beets nestled over a walnut cream, topped with jewel-like pomegranate seeds and toasted walnuts, served with spears of pale endive. Scoop some into an endive spear; crunch; repeat. I liked how the combination of walnut and pomegranate echoed the traditional toppings for that chiles en nogada dish ingrained in my memory so many years ago.

Maybe even better was the "ahumado," with hot smoked salmon, chunks of boiled egg, crema, a dark green poblano-tomatillo salsa, and a dollop of salmon roe, with soft toasted bolillo bread soldiers for dipping.

Another section of the menu is given over to masa in various forms (supplied, I believe via masa maestro Steve Santana of Taquiza). We tried the gordita, similar to a Colombian arepa, split and stuffed with duck carnitas rubbed with pasilla Oaxaca chiles, and sauced with an orange-kumquat marmelada which ran a little too sweet for me. There's also a sweetbread sope, a skirt steak huarache, and a chicken tamal with mole coloradito.

"Olla" means "pot" in Spanish, and another section of the menu is given over to more than a half-dozen different dishes all served up in this fashion. Some are stews, like this rich, sticky menudo chock full of tripe, pork, and hominy in a red chile broth, topped with a fried egg and a garnish of chicharrones. There's also frijoles charros – cowboy beans – enriched with pork belly and cheek. There are also vegetables dishes, like huitlacoche (corn fungus) with wild mushrooms, toasted garlic, arbol chiles, queso fresco and epazote; and esquite, seared corn with the typical Mexican accompaniments of morita chile, mayo, cotija cheese and lime.

(continued ...)

The brunch menu also adds a "huevos" section stocked with egg dishes: huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, chorizo and eggs just like The Duke liked, and this delicious frittata[3] with wild mushrooms, nopales, potatoes and roasted chiles. Then there are whole other parts of the menu we didn't even reach: a selection of enchiladas with fillings including king crab and lobster in a cascabel crema, or short rib with guajillo chile salsa; and four different moles including a mole amarillo served with diver scallops, a pipian mole verde with pumpkin seeds and octopus, and a mole coloradito with duck breast.

Though we'd already eaten enough to seriously slow us down for our planned post-brunch Art Basel expedition, the kitchen sent out a dessert for us to sample: a cajeta flan topped with a raspberry compote and toasted nuts. It was not just cloyingly sweet, but still carried the rich, slightly funky flavor of the goat's milk caramel; I thought the berry compote actually came on a bit too strong, overshadowing a really good flan.

There's a whole lot to like about Olla: it's a sharp-looking, colorful room which nicely re-purposes the old Altamare space it took over; there's a solid selection of tequilas and mezcals at the bar which get used in a mix of cocktails that go well beyond the usual margaritas; the prices, with almost everything on the menu under $20 other than seafood and big meat dishes, make it locals-friendly; and the food, while not bound by rigid notions of "authenticity," really captures the vibrant, vivid flavors of Mexican cooking.

I'll be back in for dinner soon.

1233 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida

[1] After a very long run, Mexico City Gourmet apparently gave up the ghost about six years ago.

[2] Full disclosure: I was "spotted" upon entering and the tarro remolacha and the dessert were sent out by the kitchen (which I hopefully made up for with the tip). Nice to meet you, Caviar Chronicles.

[3] So you want to be confused? This dish is called a "tortilla" on the menu in the Spanish fashion; and it's served with tortillas.

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