I always cry a little inside when a chef claims to be cooking something no one has ever done before. Sometimes that cry is a tiny whimper. Yes, sigh, I think I have seen every possible permutation of Asian fare by now. Other times, it’s a howl of anger. Absolutely in no way should sushi and marinara be paired, and darn it, never do it again. At Cultura, the cry was one of joy, however. When Argentine native chef-partner Sebastián La Rocca says he’s doing something original, he’s right. The kind of fusion he’s practicing, pan-Latin American with some Caribbean ingredients and Mediterranean techniques thrown into the mix, really is new to this city.
Located at the ME by Melia hotel across the street from the American Airlines Arena and Museum Park, Cultura’s concept is cocina de mercado. This translates to what’s familiar to us by now: seasonal fare that uses the best from local markets and artisanal vendors. Listed under various menu headings, plates are meant to be shared by guests in an expansive dining room that is an architectural rendering of a rainforest: a variety of green-hued tiles climb up columns; potted plants contrast with the pale wood of the floor and central bar; and contemporary fixtures dropping from the high ceiling provide just enough light to mimic sunshine coming in through a leafy canopy. To add to the airiness of the space, the restaurant presents some of the first sidewalk dining on Biscayne Boulevard.
But it’s how La Rocca, who hosts the Costa Rican televised cooking show Sabores, conceives the dishes that makes the real difference. Octopus, for instance, seems like it’s always grilled and plated with minimal garnishes that allow it to shine. Not here. La Rocca and executive chef Fabian Di Paolo, who has worked with luminaries including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, do grill it, but then the octopus is popped on top of pangrattato-topped braised beans that have been infused with bright, strong curry, orange and roasted tomato flavors. It leaves a very “cassoulet” impression.
You can find another one of the most innovative dishes under the same Del Mar section of the menu. Billed as king crab leg, the description is arresting: chilled lettuce soup with heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and shallots. Don’t be fooled by connotations. Served in a large molcajete, this concoction is more like a savory, pale green puree than what Americans would think of as broth. The refreshing base, more reminiscent of guacamole than lettuce, is then speckled with oil, seasoned with rings of red shallots and dotted with triangles of cucumbers and juicy, halved cherry tomatoes. A large section of fresh king crab perches directly in the middle. Good luck divvying this up, as a war of spoons is likely to erupt when it arrives.
The molcajete reappears with conch ceviche. This dish excites La Rocca—who is perhaps one of the most passionate chefs to walk through a dining room in recent memory—because of the mollusk’s availability in the South Florida region. In Costa Rica, where he lives part of the year, conch is banned from restaurant menus because it would decrease the population too much. Here, La Rocca can indulge his love for it, which he does by drenching it in an irresistible leche de tigre that he makes citric with tomato. He further differentiates it from other ceviches by adding grilled hearts of palm and heaps of thinly sliced red onion. He attributes the tenderness of the conch not to the fibers breaking down in the juices or to pounding, but to proper slicing on a bias.
A bamboo steamer is a second vessel that La Rocca prefers for serving. In these, you’ll find everything from Caribbean rice and beans arancini to Caribbean-style osso buco empanadas. The former, served with a zippy habanero aioli, is a rice-and-red-bean recipe that he gleaned from a Costa Rican friend; he simply turns it into crisp, greaseless croquettes. The trio of empanadas contain hunks of slowly cooked beef in a tender, fried crust.
If these leave you hankering for more meaty items, order the sticky, guava-glazed baby pork ribs, which are also slathered with chimichurri on top for additional flavor. Or move on to a heftier portion of Worcestershire-braised short rib garnished with pickled shallots and pepitas, and served with roasted ayote for creamy contrast. The short rib is simply outstanding, falling into shreds at the touch of a fork tine.
Does it sound like not much is mild here? That would be an accurate assessment. Even generally bland preparations, such as crunchy chicharron, are given piquancy with sweet habanero sauce. The pork Milanesa, which exemplifies La Rocca’s Italian ancestry, reminds me of a terrific Wiener schnitzel because the pork is pounded but still a good chew, and because the battered crust lifts off the meat with enough space to slide a knife in between. Yet it too carries a punch, given that slices of jalapeno, radish, shallot, cherry tomato and avocado all kick it like they’re doing a line dance down the middle of the presentation.
Desserts blend the Latin American with the Caribbean and Mediterranean even more seamlessly, if only because many of these flavors already overlap. The pears are the only callout in coconut-ginger rice pudding with banana ice cream and dulce de leche pears, but you only know it when you read the description. Those caramelized pears reappear on a cocoa-heavy plate of chocolate marquise, where Greek yogurt and orange zest also vie for a little attention on the palate.
In fact, every dish jostles for some extra notice. If La Rocca is strolling around the dining room, try to resist his enthusiasm or you’ll wind up ordering everything on the menu. That’s never a bad thing, really, when the food is this fresh and pleasantly prepared. It’s just that you may want to save something—anything—for when you return.
The entrance to the valet is on 11th Street and is almost immediately to the right. If you miss it, you come upon the hotel valet, who will redirect you back to the first valet.
Even the classic pisco sour is given a twist. Here, La Piscolito is made with Ocucaje pisco, egg white, lime, Angostura bitters and papaya salt. Happy hour is weekdays from 4 to 7pm.
Up the Stairs
If you’re not in a rush, adjourn to the library bar and lounge on the second floor, especially on nights when American Airlines Arena is hosting a game. You might be surprised by the VIPs you spot.
1100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, 305.808.3507
Breakfast, lunch and dinner: Mon.-Wed., 7am-11pm; Thur.-Sat., 7am-midnight; Sun., 7am-10pm.
Nibbles, $7-$10; vegetables, $9-$15; seafood dishes, $13-$36; carnitas, $12-$39; side dishes, $5-$8; desserts, $7-$13; cocktails, $15; wines by the glass, $8-$14; wines by the bottle, $42-$210.