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Diners in a moment of celebration
What's in a Name?by Jen Karetnick | Photography by Michael Pisarri | Miami magazine | December 21, 2013
Restaurants named after a country, region or city are usually asking for trouble. The geographical appellation can set up different expectations in every diner, depending on each person’s set of preconceived notions. For example, an establishment named Aventura may inspire dreams of luxury elements along the lines of caviar and Kobe steak in one guest, and nightmares of Bubbe’s chicken soup and secret recipe pot roast in another.
Still, one such restaurant, positioned in the budding restaurant row of Northeast Second Avenue in Buena Vista, seems to have avoided the curse of miscomprehension, despite its moniker. Maybe that’s because nobody knows what to expect from such a nebulous reference. Or maybe it’s because The District Miami (whose more formal, rather unwieldy name, The District Miami—A Cultural Taste of the Americas is relatively unknown) fulfills what prospective diners might think this place is all about.
For instance, if uninitiated patrons anticipated that The District, located just north of the Design District, would be meticulously designed using the services of nearby artists and artisans, they’d be correct. Walls are hewn from wooden planks, so fresh they actually have a fragrance, and brick columns and arches have been constructed at key points around the dining room, dividing it into sections. The ceiling is one of the selling points here, covered with a hand-painted mural done in shades of gray by local painter Juan Rozas. The place looks nothing like its best-known previous incarnation, 190, so-called for its street address.
If folks also suspect that The District was built to cater to the surrounding community, again these hunches would be confirmed. The crowd that dines here—well-heeled, of the indeterminate 25-to-45 age demographic that liquor marketers so adore—is an accurate reflection of Buena Vista, Midtown and Upper East Side residents. Regulars hang out at the bar, and there’s a big, flat-screen television that the manager will tune to Dolphins or Heat games.
Finally, would-be guests might have guessed that the fare would be made up of familiar Latin and Caribbean ingredients—beans, fish, pork, yuca and peppers, peppers, peppers—combined rather surprisingly. Well, actually, you wouldn’t have to be psychic to figure that one out. The direction of the cuisine was envisioned by two industry veterans: Managing Partner Alexander Ringleb (formerly of Casa Tua, among other high-enders) and Executive Chef Horacio Rivadero, who was a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef for the Gulf Region in 2012.
Given those credentials, it makes sense that the majority of the menu seems to stem from land and sea, as does the food inherent to the Caribbean and coastal South and Central America. Rivadero handles both fish and meat with equal aplomb. Some of the tastiest dishes I’ve sampled—lamb tartare with quail egg and toasted pine nuts, and slowly roasted, marbled pork Afro-Cuban shoulder with braised collard greens and a white bean puree—are accomplished, satisfying dishes. Larger appetites can also appreciate a lamb duo, comprising smoked ribs bathed in a pomegranate barbecue sauce, or a grilled half-rack united by a sweet potato puree and a butternut squash salad, or a 12-ounce, bone-in filet mignon moistened with a black trumpet mushroom chimichurri and served with honeyed and truffled yuca mash.
However, the very first menu items introducing The District to diners are Antojos, a selection of ceviches and crudos worth some serious exploration. In general, ceviches and crudos have ceased to be a trend and have become instead a staple (at least in Miami). As a result, chefs are feeling freer to experiment with the components of them. Case in point: Rivadero’s expertly sliced cobia, dressed in a tangy citrus sauce sweetened with watermelon juice. For purists, the beet-like bleed of the dressing may initially seem off-putting, but the gently marinated fish, touched by its companions of basil, cucumber, red onions and Fresno peppers, is a creative delight.
Menu neighbor corvina, tinged with yuzu-lime juice, tarragon, red onions and aji limo peppers, then topped with bittersweet sorbet, is equally as delicious. The subtle chill of the sorbet would keep the structure of the corvina intact—if it lasted longer on the table than a few seconds, that is. And if you’re a traditional ceviche enthusiast, there’s also a succulent dish of vuelve a la vida, the Peruvian cure for hangovers, with octopus, clams and crab ramped up with heirloom tomatoes, red onions, celery, lime juice and cilantro. Scoop this up with salty plantain chips and wash it down with a few malty mouthfuls of a craft beer from the well-chosen list, and the previous night’s excesses will also be washed away.
Similar to the combination of starchy plantain and toothsome shellfish, crunchy malanga taco shells are stuffed with a choice of lobster with crispy shallots, pickled cabbage and escabeche-influenced aji amarillo peppers, or tuna tartare seasoned with togarashi (a seven-spice Japanese condiment) and garnished with avocado, scallions, yuzu-infused mayonnaise and sesame seeds. Three miniature tacos come to an order, and I find it impossible to resist them every time I go.
More seafood is available on the menu under the sections Around the Table (salads and hot appetizers) and Supper (main courses). Among these are the scallops seared and plated in a puddle of lobster-crawfish bisque topped with pea-shoots and brioche croutons; and cobia rubbed with mild Caribbean jerk spices and posed in plank position on a mat of blue potatoes mashed with goat cheese and accompanied by heart of palm escabeche. I found both to be provocative on the palate, but I especially enjoyed the intense bisque. In fact, I was so vocal about my appreciation that the server brought me, of his own volition, a little cup of it on the side.
That kind of nicety is emblematic of the waitstaff. When an incorrect dish was brought to the table one evening, the waiter left it as compliments of the house before delivering the correct one. When we dithered over which dessert to order—the 4-Leches Parfait, with vanilla-caramelized pineapple and creamy Italian meringue; or the Black Magic, a dense, rich mousse studded with homemade marshmallows—the waiter brought both, but only charged for one. When the house Buena Vista Vineyards sauvignon blanc ran out, the bar poured a better wine for the same price. This back-of-house generosity makes any experience here all the more special. So much so that The District Miami may easily become as justifiably renowned as the neighborhood for which it is named.
The District Miami
190 NE 46th St., Miami
Antojos, $12-$18; Around the Table selections, $11-$15; Supper entrees, $15-$42; Accompaniments, $6-$8; Sweets, $8