Friday, July 27, 2012


There weren't many chefs starting back in the '90s whose career trajectories I followed. But Douglas Rodriguez was always one of a handful of creative culinary figures of interest to me, in large part because of the exciting cuisine he pioneered along with his south Florida-based colleague, Norman Van Aiken: Nuevo Latino

Though he started in south Florida, his ground-breaking PATRIA in New York City was what brought his food to national attention. I loved that place: raucous and fun, yet sophisticated, like a great party. And the food was always not only delicious, but truly beautiful on the plate: plantain arcs bisecting ruby chunks of tuna speckled with electric green cilantro and creamy white coconut milk. Plus, my friend who's been a vegetarian since the age of 9 claimed it as one of her favorite places to eat in the city, because when you asked for a "vegetarian option" you left it up to the creativity of the kitchen, which always presented a gorgeous combination of vegetable and starch that was clearly no afterthought. 

Eventually Patria closed after a long run, and Rodriguez opened both Chicama and Pipa, one block apart, still in the Flatiron area. And Chicama became one of my favorite spots: great drinks, and an amazing assortment of ceviches that were out-of-this-world. Now, I could eat ceviche all day long and never tire of it. I hope to tour Peru and the rest of Latin America on a "ceviche grand tour 2013." To say that I still have dreams about his spicy, tart, and sweet ceviche with tuna, octopus and tamarind (note: if anyone can get their hands on this recipe for me, I'd be forever indebted!) -- reflects that it was truly one of the best things I ever consumed.

So when, after closing his New York outposts, I read that Rodriguez had opened in Miami, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage to worship at the altar of my favorite ceviche master. Though I have faith that all of his restaurants have been and will be excellent, his De Rodriguez Cuban place holds less interest for me than his ceviche-centric cocina, OLA, opened in late 2010. It was voted as "The Best Ceviche" by The Miami New Times's Best of Miami list. So to OLA I went.

The space is intimate, sultry, with Latin music humming in the background (this was lively, but certainly lacked the din and energy of the old Patria). We settled in for a very comfortable dining experience. The enthusiastic wait staff brought us some deliciously strong cocktails, including a cooling watermelon mojito that hit the spot on a steamy summer evening. The perfect accompaniment? Ceviche, of course: but how to choose?! I went for the mixto ceviche, with octopus, cobia, and shrimp in lime and orange juices with limo pepper, cilantro and kalamata olives. Delicious. 
But other amazing and diverse ceviches include the wahoo (love this fish!) with watermelon jalapeno juice, basil, diced cantaloupe, red onions and cucumber sorbet. Also interesting and rich is the tuna and foie gras, with kumquat-yuzu sauce, lemon oil, black pepper, serrano chiles and baby arugula. And for ceviche with an Asian twist, the himachi nikkei is mixed with yuzu, thai basil, togarashi peppers, cilantro, sweet soy glaze, and crushed seaweed and sesame seeds. And these are a separate menu from the starters, which are a series of mostly empanadas (try the short rib, lobster, or foie gras versions) and salads.

I must include some gorgeous photos of Chef Rodriguez's ceviche creations: truly edible art...

Back to OLA. Main courses tend to be generous portions of well-prepared proteins -- again, it's difficult to select from among all of the enticing options. I chose the sugar cane tuna, several pieces of adobo-rubbed and seared bright pink loin skewered on sugar cane and served over malanga goat cheese fondue, spinach, and shrimp escabeche. It's a playful preparation and offers a nice interplay of flavors and textures. Another signature dish is the mahi mahi crusted with green plantain, served over a braised oxtail stew with tomato escabeche
Another friend got the pescado a lo macho (macho fish?), which was the day's catch seared and served over sauteed baby spinach, grilled red onions with aji amarillo sauce, and clams, calamari, shrimp, and black mussels for a sort of deconstructed Latin seafood stew. And for meat lovers, there's the filet mignon churrasco, the signature carne, with grilled asparagus, chipotle crabmeat dressing and chimichurri. Of course, after all of this great food we were stuffed, but the desserts at Rodriguez's restaurants are always a treat as well, and worth saving a little room for.

Perhaps Chef Rodriguez's most iconic dessert, the "chocolate cigar," is an almond chocolate cake enrobed in semisweet chocolate mousse made to look exactly like a cuban cigar, and is served in an ashtray dish with coffee ice cream and a candy matchbox. Clever, adorable, and exquisite. It was my friend Mauro's birthday when we went, so when he excused himself to head to the men's room after the main course, we ordered a birthday dessert for him. Once he returned to the table, out came a beautiful plate on which was written "Happy Birthday Mauro" in chocolate sauce, with a flan de queso ice cream, pistachio cake, mixed berry salad, guava foam, and balsamic vinegar reduction: delicioso! 

Kudos to chef de cuisine Horacio Rivadero and Rodriguez's entire crew at OLA. I wish you all continued success, and hey Chef: come back to New York soon, we miss you!

OLA Miami at The Sanctuary
1745 James Street (between 17th and 18th Sts.)
Miami Beach, FL  33139
Phone: (305) 695-9125

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

ESCAPES: Isola di Ponza, Italy -- Part 2, Eating on the Island

It's that time of year again, the early months of summer, when I would head down to Ponza for my annual trip to the magical hidden gem of an island off the coast south of Rome. This year marks the first in a long time that I won't make it there, and that I won't even be in Italy during June and July. Which, of course, makes me long all the more for the blindingly sunny days and bracing swims in turquoise waters, as well as aperitivi in the main piazza with locals and visiting Romans and Neapolitans. And it really makes me miss the wonderful dining one does while on Ponza. Whether in one of the local restaurants, or cooking in one's apartment (the way to go on the island, where hotel rooms are limited and overpriced -- and which of course allows you access to your own cucina), the fresh local seafood is the focus of the food on Ponza.

To really get a feel how you'll be eating on an "Avventura Ponzese" (Ponza adventure), we should start with the pizzeria in the port of departure, in Anzio, the beachside resort town 35 miles south of Rome, birthplace of both Nero and Cicero, as well as famed site of the World War II Battle at Anzio. But for our purposes, it's where the hydrofoil departs from, and where a dockside pizzeria serves a damned good seafood calzone, rich with an herb-laden tomato sauce and stuffed with octopus, calamari, and shelled clams and mussels. Perfect for filling your belly up before the hour-long journey to the island of Ponza.

Once you arrive in the port, you can see all of the fishing boats coming in with their daily catch. Some of the white foam crates filled with maritime goodies go directly to the back door of the island's best restaurant kitchens, and some items are for sale in the island's fish markets located among the winding rings above the harbor that are the tiny piazze and vicoli of Ponza town. Among the catch are always various sizes of shrimp (gamberi) and squid (calamari), octopus (polipi) and anchovies (alici or acciughe), as well as various types of local white-fleshed fish in the bream family, prized among them the sarago, fragolino (for its rosy hue), and pezzogna (recognizable by its oversized eyes). 

A great place to try the local catch, with a view of the port from on high, is at Ristorante EEA. It's fun to treat some of these restaurants a bit like tapas bars: ordering various antipasti,when they're this fresh, can be a great way to try various preparations of the local catch. Marinated anchovies are a fairly common preparation of the fresh fish in southern Italy: they have a lemony-vinegar kick and are refreshing in hot weather. Served here with panzanella, a cold summer salad made from old bread and ripe tomatoes, is a brilliant way of kicking the old standard up a notch. We also tried the octopus salad, and a tasty tempura-fried merluzzo (fresh codfish) with a sea urchin mayonnaise: fabulous.

One of my favorite types of crustacean in the world is the gambero rosso, or red shrimp. It's in fact bright red before and after it's cooked, and the flavor is phenomenal. At EEA they're done in a parmigiano crust, which worked, and highlighted the pairing of shrimp and aged cheese as one of the only examples in Italian cuisine in which cheese and seafood are matched. We continued to eat our way through pasta courses (spaghetti with pressed fish roe, called bottarga) as well as the classic southern Italian pasta pairing of swordfish and eggplant. Secondi included a delicate branzino (sea bream) with a pistachio crust. Add plenty of white wine and a gorgeous view and you have the perfect meal.

One of my favorite places to eat on any Italian island in the Mediterranean is perched above the other side of the port, at Orestorante. Chef Oreste (hence the pun) Romagnolo is a lively presence, riffing on Italian seafood classics and tweaking Italian cucina novella with local adaptations. My chef ex and I discovered this place many years ago, and I've been returning ever since with various friends in tow. Everyone is wowed by the vista, the light breeze up high, the tranquil candlelit setting, and the always-gorgeous and tanned crowd the place pulls in. The food is pricey, but it's also really delicious. 
The plates that arrive from the kitchen are presented beautifully -- like the crudo di pesce, basically a mixed fish tartare, served with a citrus sauce called "acqua di Ponza" for its electric-hued aquamarine color. Another memorable and very locally-themed starter is the fish on "hot rocks." Skewered pieces of Mediterranean ricciola are sent out on a plate with a blisteringly hot sea rock, on which you sear the pieces of fish, and then you dip them into a lemon-olive oil emulsion.
It's what a gourmet Robinson Crusoe might conjure up if he'd been lucky enough to be stranded on the Pontine islands.  And it's interactive. And zen! And then, to remind us we're still in Italy, the pastas are plentiful and most include some kind of shellfish or crustacean, like the rigatoni with mussels, gorgonzola, and tomatoes. A great choice is the playful primo piatto called Calamari due volte ("squid times two"): the chef uses fresh local rings of calamari and the pasta shaped like these rings, and tosses them with fresh tomatoes, capers, and wild fennel.
Paired with a crisp white with mineral and fruit nuance, like a local Fiano di Avellino or Falanghina, these seafood dishes soar. If you want a main course, there are items like the swordfish cutlet, simply seasoned, breaded and fried like a veal scaloppine might be served in northern Italy. I'd recommend, rather, that you leave room for a light dessert -- get the "chocolate salame" if it's on the menu -- and of course, the best digestivo one could have in these parts: ice  cold limoncello. 
Cin cin!
Ristorante EEA
Via Umberto I
04027  PONZA
+39 0771 80100 // +39 338 445.6849 (cell)

Via Dietro La Chiesta 3
04027  PONZA
+39 0771 80338 // +39 338 813.5730 (cell)

To be continued...