Just as the preparation cart for my liquid nitrogen caipirinha pulled up to the table at the 3-month-old Bazaar by José Andrés on Collins Avenue in Miami, I spotted three tacos nestled in compartments of a chrome serving platter. They were folded in what seemed like some sort of rice paper. A cool smoke then captivated the room as the server stirred the liquid nitrogen, cachaça, and lime. Amid the fog's mystique, I took a bite.
Perfectly grilled eel, shiso, and wasabi were enveloped in slivered cucumber topped with crisp pork chicharrón flakes. But then it hit me: I had been so entranced by the look that I had ingested the inedible wrapping.
Our amicable waiter quickly apologized, remarking that it happens all the time. It's the result of the flirtatious genius of Asturias-born powerhouse restaurateur, cookbook author, and Made in Spain television star José Andrés.
Who else could cast such a theatrical spell encouraging this ephemeral lapse in reason? The dining experience at the Bazaar is influenced by adventurous takes on the cuisines of the world: Spain, Singapore, and Japan, as well as South Florida's Latin American connection.
From the start, roasted cherry tomatoes and liquid spheres of mozzarella elevate the traditional flavors of an insalata caprese. With one bite, the cheese bursts, infusing one's mouth with the essential flavors of the classic salad. The Peruvian dish of papas a la huancaína enthralls with petite purple potatoes and an unexpectedly addictive addition of luscious sea urchin swimming in a bowl of rich sauce. It's fun and utterly exciting.
Raised near Barcelona, Andrés worked with some of the region's best, including influential chef — and personal friend — Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. He then went on to front the empire known as ThinkFoodGroup, based primarily in Washington, D.C. The nation's capital has been the home of his many award-winning restaurants, including Minibar and Jaleo.
The chef first teamed up with the SBE Hotel Group and renowned designer Philippe Starck to open the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, which debuted in fall 2008. This summer, he brought the fete to Miami. The Bazaar's launch in South Beach was one of the most highly anticipated openings of the year, and the hype was well-merited.
The new, chic SLS occupies the space on Collins Avenue where the historic Ritz Plaza Hotel previously reigned. The Bazaar fills almost the entire lobby, and guests are greeted near the entrance with the first of two dining areas. Anchored by the view of a bar and open kitchen, this brightly lit, casual space exudes drama with tall white walls, sleek black tables, and theatrical floor-to-ceiling red curtains. It boasts three kitchens with a staff of more than 40, all led by chef de cuisine David Thomas — previously of Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc and Beverly Hills' the Bazaar. The 50-seat room, appropriately called Rojo, is overseen by a Spanish bull's head covered in a Mexican wrestler's mask — it was created by artist Mikel Urmeneta, Andrés' friend. A hallway leads to the more formal 60-seat Blanca dining area, where the soft light of a colossal seashell chandelier kisses the mismatched picture frames and artifacts spread across the lustrous cream-colored room.
The menu lists more than 60 tapas, priced from $5 to $50, and diners are encouraged to order about four plates per person. Divided into two sections, the pages offer dishes under thematic titles such as "Miami Meets the World" and "Spain Yesterday and Today." The Magic City's two pages begin with text associating Miami and Singapore through their shared art deco architecture. The invented affiliation is unwarranted, but much is forgiven after a sample of the bao con lechón — a soft fried Chinese bun stuffed with rich pork belly and refreshing pickled cucumber. Less seductive is the ultrafeminine bowl of jejune dragon fruit ceviche — a bewildering combination of tuna, lime, out-of-place pecans, and vibrant hibiscus foam served in a hollowed-out fuchsia dragon fruit.
A halved coconut proves much more delectable. Creamy coconut rice delights with an exotic fusion of sepia and delicate bursts of tamarind and ginger. Baby Japanese peaches — alongside burrata, hazelnuts, and arugula — produce an effect comparable to the caprese. A bite of each of the components is a celebration of balance and Andrés' signature ingenuity.
The Bazaar also pays tribute to Miami's affinity for Cuban fare. The sandwich cubano — advertised as a nod to Calle Ocho staple Versailles — explodes with cheese foam as the stuffed bread yields a surprisingly fluid interior. But the Cuban-coffee-rubbed churrasco isn't nearly as effective. With an excessive dose of bitterness and sourness, passionfruit pulp and coffee foam overwhelm the meat.
Homage is likewise paid to Spain's practice of canning goods, with three distinct menu offerings: Mediterranean mussels, king crab, and stuffed olives. Although the dishes are prepared fresh daily, the tin-can presentation is a playful honor to the age-old practice.
Another import from Spain is the selection of hams, including the prized jamón ibérico de bellota, as well as cheeses — mostly under Spain's regulatory classification, Denominación de Origen — La Serena, Valdeón, Manchego, Garrotxa, and Idiazabal.
But perhaps the richest and most comforting dish on the extensive menu is the black rossejat — a paella-style pasta of thin noodles boldly tinted by squid ink and topped with shrimp and an ivory aioli. Priced affordably at $22, the plate is one of the most generous portions on the menu and could certainly function as a main course for two. It's no surprise, then, that the parade of high-heeled ladies and suited men exiting the restaurant bore ebullient grins of ebony teeth and lips — a silent symbol of the black rossejat's undeniable popularity.
Desserts sustain the restaurant's focus on South Florida, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Spain. The "pastel chocolate café con leche" — a short tower of dark-chocolate mousse cake topped with ganache — is flawlessly paired with not-too-sweet, potent Cuban-coffee ice cream. Key lime pie delicately finishes the meal in "José's way" with piped, zigzagged ribbons of Key lime cream alongside dollops of toasted meringue, foam, and scattered bits of cracker. Other desserts include tembleque, tres leches, a traditional Spanish flan, and a banana mojito served atop a bowl of crushed ice.
Overall, the service is cordial, even during lengthy rote tableside recitations of plate descriptions. Be sure to set aside a whole evening, though. A meal typically takes at least two hours to enjoy.
The dining experience is as grand as its price, and the average ticket reaches about $75 per person. But the greatest problem might not be the cost of the first visit or the second or the third. Instead, the issue with the Bazaar by José Andrés is the extensiveness of the exciting menu. It would likely take a dozen dinners to sample the entire offering. And for the chance at another entrancing adventure, I'll definitely keep going back.