The accumulation of luxury at Amara at Paraiso, chef-restaurateur Michael Schwartz’s latest culinary effort, should impress even the most jaded Miamian. First, there’s the natural wealth of its bountiful bayside location. In addition to serving the general public, Amara is the centerpiece of Paraiso Park, the green space for four condominium towers. It faces east with prime sightlines of neon-lighted South Beach. If you appreciate some pliant yuca cheese puffs, scented with Parmesan and dotted with sea salt, with a glass of Uruguayan Albariño on the deck in early evening, when a slow-rising super moon tempts like a globe of ripe mango, this place is Snapchat gold.
Don’t fret if all the tables outdoors are claimed. More architectural riches, provided by Schwartz’s longtime design support system, Meyer Davis Studio, await inside. On pleasant nights, the staff opens all the floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows between interior and exterior, and any perceived barriers disappear.
Continuity is helped by a neutral color palette that includes white-washed paneling and natural wood finishes that stretch from inside to outside. Live trees punctuate the rectangular dining room like commas in an overly long sentence, with leaves reaching up from sand-hued planters to the ceiling trusses and occasionally falling into a frothy Nikkei sour made with Japanese whiskey. Although the dimensions of Amara, at 4,500 square feet, approach McMansion size, with a double-wide steel staircase greeting customers in the foyer, two-story ceilings and an open kitchen on one side that is echoed by a sizable bar space on the other, you don’t quite realize it given the warm detailing.
As for the menu? It’s on par with what we’ve come to expect from the James Beard Award-winning Schwartz, who consistently sources locally and seasonally, and his executive chef Michael Paley. Schwartz calls Amara his “love letter” to Miami. The dishes, then, are something like valentines, sent with a grateful nod to the multiple Central and South American cultures that make our city’s collective culinary character vibrant, singular and inimitable. And they strike diners with Cupid’s arrows right where it counts: on the palate.
In other words, if you’re a fan of bland fare, Amara isn’t for you. Even the chilled Atlantic shrimp, which you might think is something like a shrimp cocktail, is actually half a dozen head-on shrimp liberally coated in red Fresno chili paste, freshened by cilantro and tempered with lime. They’re about as close to shrimp cocktail as Payless is to Prada—and as mouthwatering as the latter. The tamest dish we sampled, a chilled mix of snappy grilled corn cut off the cob and tossed with heirloom sungold tomatoes, a smattering a red quinoa for extra texture, and queso fresco, still contains chopped cascabel chili peppers for oomph.
Much like at his other restaurants, the menu is divided into snacks and small, medium and large plates. Here, Schwartz has also added a From the Wood Grill section that refers to the open wood grill as well as the Spanish-origin Josper grill he’s installed. On it, Paley prepares meat or seafood parrilladas, whole local fish, 32-ounce grass-fed ribeyes that are ideal for sharing, giant prawns and house-made chorizos. The chefs actually prep three different types of these plump, crisp-skinned sausages: traditional, verde and seafood. Because it’s hard to decide on which highly seasoned chorizo to order, choose the sampler platter, which comes with a trio of the Amara mother sauces—a slightly sweet golden raisin chimichurri, a bold tomatillo salsa and a rich smoked paprika aioli.
Do the same thing with the short rib empanadas with baked lard crust and the corn-and-leek empanadas with fried yuca crust. If you ask for just one flavor, you’ll get two of them, but if you want to try both kinds, you can score one of each. The baked empanadas, served again with the raisin chimichurri that complements the saltiness of the olives and beef inside, showcase an expert crumb that rivals that of any Latin grandmother’s version. Meanwhile, the corn-and-leek pies, offered with the smoked paprika aioli, are puffier and lighter, despite also being filled with mozzarella and roasted poblano peppers. They’re also remarkably greaseless.
Although the dish descriptions read as multi-ingredient mouthfuls, most plates arrive with a protein partnered with a robust sauce and a grilled citrus half or vegetable. For instance, the wood-grilled pork collar is two fillets pounded into tenderness and covered with the tangy tomatillo sauce. They’re lent crunch by toasted pepitas and moistened by a squeeze of grilled lime. Likewise, grilled tilefish is presented skewered, with fennel root alternating between generous chunks of fish (on another night, this was mahi-mahi) and accompanied by the now-familiar chimichurri.
More complex dishes include a sort of impromptu feijoada—ideal for sharing—that features pork belly, the aforementioned chorizo and short rib, as well as Domingo Rojo beans (which you can also order as a side dish) with chunks of braised meat and garnished with toasted cassava. The short rib can also be enjoyed as a separate dish with shaved cabbage and Marcona almonds. Clearly, the team here is masterful at managing the menu so that nothing spoils, which is a trait to admire. You can see this element of no-waste cooking again with the banana-leaf-wrapped cobia, which is gently amped up with a coconut pesto and set over mashed yuca and pickled vegetables; this, too, is available as a side dish (and the pickled carrots, onion, jalapeno and cucumber are in the Snacks category as well).
Desserts are designed to calm the palate, which is necessary after the spice-driven excitement of most of the fare. Dulce flan and an assortment of housemade ice creams and sorbets are soothing, but the wood-grilled pineapple upside-down cake, with its smoky vestige and sticky texture, is certainly the most interesting. Its golden hue is another reminder that no matter how many treasures you’ve managed to plunder during a dinner or brunch, there is plenty of capital yet to invest in at Amara at Paraiso.
AMARA AT PARAISO
3101 NE Seventh Ave., Miami, 305.702.5528
Dinner: Mon.-Thu., 6-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 6pm-midnight; Sun: 6-10pm; Sunday brunch: 11am-4pm
Snacks, $5-$97; small plates, $11-$21; medium plates, $16-$23; large plates, $29-$42; wood grill specialties, $7-$99; vegetables and sides, $7-$9; desserts, $10-$12; cocktails, $13-$19; wines by the glass, $9-$30; wines by the bottle, $44-$224
In the mood for Sunday brunch? Have it a la carte or have it off the carts. In addition to the written menu, which is extensive, Amara’s brunch offers food on the move as savory and sweet dishes roll around the dining room on deluxe wagons that visit diners at their tables.
In addition to a wine list that showcases unusual vintages from Spain and South America and a terrific cocktail program, nonalcoholic beverages include many that are Latin or Latin-influenced, like fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, carafes of horchata, Mexican Coke and Jarritos tamarind soda.
IN THE HOT SEAT
Although not on Open Table yet, reservations can be made via an email to email@example.com. If you want to dine waterside, alert the staff, but don’t be surprised if your table changes. A light breeze elsewhere becomes unexpectedly stiff around the restaurant, where a wind tunnel has been created by the surrounding high-rises.