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Fried snapper with trifongo and criollo slaw

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Labor of Love

By Jen Karetnick

Photography by Michael Pisarri

09.17.18

At Obra Kitchen Table, chef Carlos Garcia presents a savory tribute to Venezuelan cuisine.

Every so often, a Miami establishment inspires you to re-evaluate certain preconceptions. The Venezuelan-rooted, pan-Latin Obra Kitchen Table in Brickell is one of those restaurants. Every component of Obra, from location to design to El Bulli-trained chef-owner Carlos Garcia, forces a restructuring of opinion on contemporary fine dining.

For one thing, Obra isn’t installed in some elegant hotel the way you might have expected for this first sibling of Alto, Garcia’s much-lauded Venezuelan eatery, to be. Instead, it’s on the ground floor of Jade, an amenity-heavy condo building. There, it’s not even in the lobby but off to the side, with its own entrance.

While designed by James Beard Award-winning architect Alejandro Barrios Carrero (Juvia, Sushi Garage), the interior is playful rather than palatial, with aqua subway tiles on the walls. Almost everything else, barring the photographs and honeyed oak floors, is white: a painted wood ceiling inspired by that of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, a 25-seat countertop curving around the open kitchen and contemporary bar stools. Considered the best spots in the house for their proximity to Garcia and his staff, the counter and stools also say a lot about Obra’s corner coffeeshop ambiance.

But then, Garcia is hardly what you’d expect from a world-renowned chef. He’s convivial, unpretentious, a salt-of-the-earth type of guy. You’ll most often find him aproned, leaning over the counter chatting with customers, many of them fellow Venezuelans.

Dining here for the first time, you’d be forgiven for not guessing that the luxury part comes subtly like in Carl Sandburg’s Fog. But you’ll discover that soon enough—from the very first taste of the crisp, nut-brown tequeños nestled in a dot matrix of tricolored dipping sauces—that even basic Venezuelan snack foods like these are elevated to a mountainous tier in Garcia’s hands.

A pastry chef puts the finishing touches on the coconut tres leches desserts.

If that doesn’t say enough to you, add this: yuca and bacon mille-feuille. Somehow managing to be delicate and robust simultaneously, this take on the French pastry using savory ingredients is topped with sauteed foie gras and a mix of baby greens. It’s a stunning visual, but even more appealing on the palate. (If you’re not a fan of foie gras, order the roasted chicken for dinner; the mille-feuille is a side.)

Indeed, nearly every dish is plated beautifully. For instance, starters such as the hiramasa tiradito (sliced yellowtail kingfish) surrounds a shallow, brightly hued well of pineapple rum leche de tigre and sofrito paste. A few leaves of fried baby kale garnish the fish, making it pop with more color; they also supply a light touch of herbaceous bitterness.

The sea urchin fried egg might be an exception to the beauty rule, however. Not that it’s ugly. But the second that this dish is served, you’ll want to cut it up and mix in the shoestring french fries. Swirled into the ultrafresh, briny sea urchin and the runny egg, this creates an addictive concoction that has many different layers of flavor to it, but is admittedly a little less lensworthy than its menu mates. Likewise, a corn and avocado risotto is given pizzazz with a smattering of toasted pine nuts. The balance here is also terrific, with the sweetness of the corn kernels playing off the creaminess of the avocado. Pair either one of these dishes with a kale, Brussels sprout and white asparagus salad for a variety of textures and you’ll be in fine cruciferous form.

Main courses, which range from roasted prawns and seafood bollito (boil) to a bone marrow-chickpea stew, often depend on the Josper oven. Take advantage of its hot-headed way with meats by ordering a pork shank that eats like short ribs. The presentation of the shank is impressive, with the upright bone practically dropping hunks of the meat into a whip of carrot puree.

For a less filling choice, look to the fish selections, which include a catch of the day with a roasted sunchoke and salsa verde, and a whole snapper with trifongo, a take on mofongo, and guasacaca (avocado sauce). The snapper is fried, but it’s so greaseless and crisp-skinned that it feels like clean eating to your stomach. Not that it matters, because you know you’re going to end the meal with the Toxic Chocolate. After all, who can resist a dessert with a moniker like that? And, of course, Venezuelan chefs like Garcia certainly appreciate chocolate. This particular decadence, which you can watch being assembled, is a terrine of sorts, with sweet, sour and bitter layers all wrapped in a dark chocolate shell and finished with cacao powder. If you’re in the mood for something more traditional, or longing for home as many guests are, a frilly, edible flower-topped quesillo—creamy Venezuelan caramel flan—is also on the menu, as is a surprisingly airy coconut tres leches lidded with meringue.

The etymology of the word obra, which means a literary or theatrical work, is opera. As a setting, Obra Kitchen Table is perhaps not the grandest of stages, but any way you look at it, the cuisine here sings arias.  

Marinated tuna tiradito with truffles, chicharrones and pineapple puree

OBRA KITCHEN TABLE 
Jade at Brickell, 1331 Brickell Bay Drive, Miami, 305.846.9363

Lunch and dinner: Mon.-Fri., noon-11:30pm; dinner only: Sat., 6pm-midnight; closed Sunday

Starters: $10-$37; rice and pasta, $21-$32; fish and seafood, $26-$32; meats, $29-$49; desserts, $10-$12; cocktails, $12-$13; wines by the glass, $8-$20; wines by the bottle, $32-$95