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The lunch crowd at the restaurant

Spice Route

by Jen Karetnick | Photography by Michael Pisarri | Miami magazine | April 22, 2014

Miamians may have a problem with geography. I say this because when I’ve told interested parties about Seasalt and Pepper, the establishment that launched earlier this year on the edge of the Miami River, the response has been: “What river? Miami has a river?”

In fact, Miami has more than one river—if you count the Little River, that is. But when you speak of the river, you’re talking about the Miami River. Two decades ago, in-the-know diners used to flock to joints located alongside it for stone crabs and manatee spotting. These restaurants included Big Fish and Garcia’s Seafood Grille, just yards away from where Seasalt and Pepper now stands.

On the other hand, Magic City denizens certainly seem to be well versed about celebrities, whether they’re on the A-list, B-list or reality TV. Mention that Seasalt and Pepper is where Beyoncé and Jay Z dined on Executive Chef Alfredo Alvarez’s black cod casserole, tuna and salmon tartare, tuna sashimi, octopus planche, and lobster risotto when they were staying in town and the filaments in some very dim bulbs begin to gleam. “Oh, yeah,” these not-so-bright lights say. “I know. The place on the river. Wait, isn’t it dangerous there?”

Actually, the Miami River area has been cleaned up quite a bit, no matter what old-timers might like to share about drug smuggling, murder and mayhem in the 1980s, and not only celebrities with bodyguards are safe in its environs. If you haven’t been to the restaurant, though, it’s not easy to find. The establishment doesn’t hang an exterior sign, so look for its telltale signs: burning torches and well-heeled patrons headed in a certain direction.

Once inside, the reinvented warehouse, courtesy of the ever-creative Stephane Dupoux of Dupoux Design, boasts a large number of seating areas for drinking, dining and lounging—enough for 200 guests, plus private dining and event spaces. On gorgeous South Florida days and evenings, the waterside tables are in high demand, but inside is just as fine: Lofty ceilings hung with sculptures comprised of shipyard scrap and geometrical basketry remind you of the waterfront nearby, and the glass garage-style doors that separate the interior and exterior will remain open until the weather permits. Meals begin with a puffy, pita-style bread dripping with garlicky oil and flakes of Parmesan cheese. If you didn’t already know that chef Alvarez is formerly of the highly regarded Giacosa in Coral Gables, the garlic-cheese combination may be your first clue that the menu is largely Italian influenced. The menu itself is your next big hint. It features everything from reinterpreted caprese salad—which is plated with black heirloom tomatoes and pesto dressing and features flash-fried burrata—to platters of artisanal cheese and charcuterie accompanied by mostarda and roasted figs to homemade taglioni with porcini and arugula.

If you want to get those umami-detecting muscles working right away, start with one of the cocktails that feature bitters, such as the aptly named Devil Went Down the River, which includes Pink Pigeon rum, King’s Ginger liquor, Briottet Creme de Mure, Fever-Tree club soda and lime juice in addition to a dash of Angostura bitters. Then choose a salad that doesn’t overwhelm with acids, such as the shaved fennel and marinated zucchini with Parmesan crostini and Champagne-shallot vinaigrette.

Truffles make several stellar appearances: augmenting braised short ribs, the shredding meat entwined with pappardelle; in a sauce over ravioli stuffed with sweet pear and pungent Gorgonzola; in the crust of a filet of Chilean sea bass; curling over a wood-fired veal chop; and enhancing a side dish of mashed potatoes. Of all the truffle opportunities, I like mine best with meats and starches—particularly the tender, perfectly roasted veal.

While hearty, riverboat-captain types may look immediately to the organic filet mignon with shiitake mushrooms and a red-wine reduction as the ideal meal—and who would blame them?—it’s possible to dine on the less-caloric side and still get full-flavor main courses. Wood-fired casseroles, mostly fish or shellfish cooked with very little fats, have their own Wood-Fired Casseroles category—and justly so. If you have at least two members of your party willing to order it, go for the Classic Seasalt Seafood pot; it’s like a cioppino with Dungeness crab, lobster, jumbo shrimp and fish in a light tomato broth. Vegans or those who don’t love seafood can still partake in this part of the menu with chicken with lemon confit and green olive, or ratatouille casseroles. There’s even a casserole starter, though it’s not billed that way. Instead, the braised Mediterranean calamari, succulent enough to cut with a fork edge, and baby artichoke, integrated beautifully with smoked tomatoes, is listed under appetizers. It’s an excellent introduction to the sea-salty nature of the venue.

As far as desserts go, do yourself a favor and disregard the implied simplicity of the peanut butter cheesecake and try it for yourself. More accurately named as the Seasalt PB&J—described as ricotta cheesecake with a side of peanut butter crunch, swirls of strawberry-balsamic jelly on the plate and a scoop of berry sorbet that tastes like grape jelly—this is one of the best dishes of the house.

Likewise, don’t believe naysayers’ complaints about Seasalt and Pepper as a see-and-be-seen venue. Sure, it’s a hangout for celebrities, but mostly those who are based in Miami or on location. This eatery is one of our new culinary stars. So, bone up on your map-following skills; book a reservation well in advance; prepare to be patient as you would in any other hot-spot-of-the-moment; and see how the Miami River, led by this venue, is fast becoming a most desired destination.

Boat Show
Guests can arrive at Seasalt and Pepper by water, but it’s not easy. The 250 feet of dock space is usually occupied by two 125-foot yachts and others waiting their turn.

High Demand
Bookings are already at a premium, so expect to wait up to a month for a table. If you want to dine in July, reserve now!

Wardrobe Check
Don’t be misled by the restaurant’s casual location. Patrons here dress to impress. Bikinis are for Finnegan’s on the River—that’s on the other side of the water.

Seasalt and Pepper
422 NW N. River Drive, Miami, 305.440.4200

Lunch, brunch and dinner: Wed.-Thu., 11:30am–10:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 11:30am–11pm; Sun., 11:30am–7pm
Appetizers, $13-$29; soups and salads, $16-$19; artisanal cheeses, charcuterie and a la plancha selections, $7-$22; pastas and risottos, $20-$29; entrees and casseroles, $13-$50; sides, $8; desserts, $12