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Wagyu beef Milanesa carpaccio with black garlic soy, pickled romaine and tomatoes

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Home Fires Burning

By Jen Karetnick

Photography by Michael Pisarri

01.22.18

Chef José Mendín turns up the heat on tapas at Habitat.

THE PHENOMENAL GROWTH that Miami has experienced in the past two-and-a-half decades has been both driven and mirrored by its culinary scene. Every time another condo tower, luxury hotel or uniquely designed office building has gone up, a restaurant group has come along with it. More often than not, though, these restaurateurs and chefs have been, like the property owners, big-name out-of-towners who add cachet to the project.

It would be untrue to say that I don’t enjoy the fine-dining concepts that, say, Jean-Georges Vongerichten brought to the EDITION and Tom Colicchio launched at 1 Hotel South Beach. I can be a celeb chef fangirl just as much as any Food Network binge watcher. But so far, I’ve liked it a whole lot better when the talent is local. That’s why I downright cheered when chef José Mendín and his team—Sergio Navarro, Maximiliano Silva and Juan F. Ayora of Pubbelly Group fame—took over the Beachcraft space when Colicchio left the 1 Hotel. Not because Colicchio couldn’t make it, but because these four men, who have formed the newly branded Food Comma Hospitality Group (FCHG), truly know this eclectic city and the tastes of its diners. And that makes me, and many others I know, feel much more welcome and at home.

This truism is evident at Habitat, the restaurant that FCHG opened to replace the erstwhile Beachcraft. FCHG is the rebranded Pubbelly Group, encompassing everything from a food truck that plays with fusion bao buns to the rapidly developing mini-chain of Pubbelly Sushi. Habitat is the group’s crown jewel, which sparkles noticeably with the design, a soothing model of sustainability that features plenty of woven aquamarine-and-straw-hued textiles, hanging basket lamps, patterned blond wood tables and split wood inserted into bar racks and room dividers.

The wood is both decorative and useful, feeding a 15-foot fire grill that sears both local and North Atlantic fish, including turbot and monkfish. The whole fish are kept tucked into a bed of ice in a raw bar that also includes stone crab when in season, massive king crab legs, whole cold-water lobster and a couple of choices of oysters—two each from the West Coast and one from the East Coast. It’s not so much a raw bar in the American sense, where you sit and slurp, as it is a European type of display, where you can view what you might be served. The dinner menu is divided into three main categories—Sea, Land and Fire—and you’ll find these offerings first in Sea, then later in Fire. 

Chef José Mendín by Habitat’s food truck

Try the Sea-listed stone crabs, not just the ones served cold with yuzu Dijonnaise—although that’s a nice take on the usual mustard sauce—but rather shelled and spun into a homemade fettucini coated with miso-citrus butter that clings to each strand like knitting needles on the loops of an eternally half-finished scarf. Shavings of fresh, zesty jalapeño and just-pungent, sautéed bok choy keep the sauce from becoming cloying. Alternatively, a take on spaghettini carbonara made with top neck clams, La Quercia Guanciale Americano (pork jowl) and dashi butter, is equally rich. The house-prepped pasta is twirled into three clamshells for decorative effect, and while the piles look as high as a pompadour, there’s not so much of a good thing that you get full.

That’s important to note, because the concept at Habitat is influenced by tapas culture, which means dishes are meant to be shared. However, some plates are bigger and heartier than others. The Sea category also allows diners to open a meal with a choice of several cold and hot fish dishes, ranging from a tender, sweet-and-sour hamachi aguachiles (with the fish flash-marinated in watermelon juice and vinegar along with guajillo chili, radish, red onion and cilantro) to a subtle Japanese-Cuban take on fish and chips. The latter, dubbed yellowtail snapper chicharron, offers skin-on chunks of greaseless fried fish scattered over a display of bleached white coal, with a duo of dipping sauces: butter amazu, which tastes like a balsamic vinegar reduction, and nori béarnaise, which has an upscale tartar vibe to it.

Under the Land category, the Wagyu beef Milanesa carpaccio is a Mendín creative punch-and-counterpunch—succulent ruby-red beef dusted with panko, then topped with pickled romaine and tomatoes. The dish is brought together with a lick of sticky black garlic soy sauce. If you like mushrooms, the black truffle rice from the Land section is bomba (paella) rice fleshed out with fungus of all kinds, from black truffle shavings melting into the grains to shiitake. But if you really like mushrooms, go straight for the maitake mushrooms under Fire. These fabulous grilled fungi come stuffed with a yuzu-truffle-Parmesan filling. You can practically inhale the umami along with the steam as you slice into them. The whole Maine lobster, also in this group, is a singular match, bathed in miso-lime butter, cracked wide open and sliced into supple, slippery chunks for easy spearing access.

Wistfully labeled Air, desserts hardly qualify as simple oxygen. The chocolate s’mores, for instance, are variations on lava cake, with fondant spilling out of a crust, graham ice cream melting on top and a whole lot of marshmallow and hazelnut praline garnish. This is, of course, not a terrible thing at all. It’s one of the soothing elements, in addition to the hometown restaurant group running the show, that makes Habitat feel like a home you’d like to visit again and again.  

The Fifth Element cocktail, a mix of Avión tequila, pineapple, cilantro, avocado, agave, lime, egg white and citrus salt

HABITAT
1 Hotel South Beach, 2395 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305.604.6700
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., noon-4pm | Brunch: Sat.-Sun., noon-4pm | Dinner: nightly, 6-11:30pm
Sea dishes, $18-$44; Land dishes, $14-$48; Fire dishes, $14-$42; sides, $9-$14; cocktails, $13-$16; wines by the glass, $12-$33; wines by the bottle, $24-$1,650