MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Year after year, many vacationers return to familiar haunts in the mountains, the country or a resort because they are predictable, familiar and comfortable. "Nothing ever changes," they say.
Not us. My husband, Bob, and I return to Miami's South Beach because it is never the same. This Southern city-that-never-sleeps is vibrant with cutting-edge art, restaurants, architecture and intensity. South Beach constantly reimagines and reinvents itself.
When our luck holds, the weather is balmy, the food is exciting, and even though the vacationing mostly international population transports itself by taxi, bus, bike, trike, vintage auto, Rollerblade, stroller, scooter and Segway, we prefer good old shank's mare, and we log several miles a day. A good thing, too, because our travels usually involve a lot of calories.
When we heard that our friend, celebrity chef Jose Andres, opened a new place on the beach, that was excuse enough to book a trip.
The Bazaar by Jose Andres, billed as a traditional and modern tapas restaurant, is in the SLS Hotel South Beach on Collins Avenue. The pairing is brilliant.
The building opened as the Grossinger Beach Hotel in 1939, in the height of the international Art Deco period of architecture, with its bold geometric shapes, colors and lavish ornamentation. It was also the first air-conditioned hotel in Miami Beach. Later, it transitioned into the Ritz Plaza Hotel, with a red neon sign on top of the 12-story building that still lights up the skyline. The latest reincarnation of this historic hotel opened in 2012.
To bring sizzle to the space, the SLS Hotel owners tapped Philippe Starck, a prolific French designer of interiors, industrial design and especially architectural creations. For the past 30 years or so, Mr. Starck has specialized in hotel design down to the most minute detail. Grand, dramatic and eclectic are Philippe Starck signatures. He also designed SLS's next-door neighbor, The Delano Hotel, which is worth a walk-through to experience the lobby.
Mr. Starck's interior of the SLS hotel says hello in dramatic fashion. It has no lobby; it takes only seconds for a visitor to realize that a traditional lobby has been replaced by a very busy open kitchen. Dead ahead, intense line cooks are flipping, tossing and assembling, and just steps to the right, diners are socializing with drinks and noshes. A community table that has maybe 40 covers dominates the space. And high on the wall is the stuffed head of a black bull wearing a glistening red mask.
The head belongs to Tepoli, a stud bull that lived on a ranch in Teruel, Spain. After fathering more than 350 offspring, it died of old age at 17 years, likely with a smile on his face. The bull's owner, Carlos Sanchez, sent the head to a taxidermist, not as a trophy but as an homage to Tepoli's studliness. Artist Mikel Urmeneta, who has passion for bulls and bullfighting, bought the head in 2011 and commissioned the mask, which was made in Mexico. It's a bit hard to see, but there's an Asian symbol on the forehead that means "the tree," as in tree of life.
A Spanish black bull as art is an icon of, and proper introduction to, an equally dramatic and iconic Spanish restaurant.
The Bazaar by Jose Andres
Enter Spanish chef and James Beard Award winner Jose Andres. He is to the culinary world what Mr. Starck is to the design world: on top of his game, acclaimed and an irrepressible force. A disciple of famed chef, restaurateur and innovator Ferran Adria, Mr. Andres designed the Bazaar's upscale tapas menu in keeping with his Spanish heritage and tradition, with ingenious influences from South Beach's local Latin flavors spiced with those of Asia. It's all over the place, but the fusion adds great fun to the dining experience.
But Asia? In the 1930s, both Miami and Singapore embraced the architectural style known as Art Deco. Both cities adopted the fashion because it represented modernity, elegance, extravagance and probably decadence, too. When I vacationed in Singapore a few years ago, I remember seeing, and being a little confused by, Art Deco fins and pyramids applied to shophouses and old buildings.
The all-tapas menu, titled Spain Yesterday and Today and Miami Meets the World, is divvied up into sections. We chose one dish from each category.
■ Kueh Pai Ti, one of Singapore's favorite street foods, combines shrimp, peanuts and chili sauce packed into a one-bite explosion of flavor in a thimble-sized crunchy rice cup.
■ A Japanese Taco of grilled eel, shiso, cucumber, wasabi and pork chicharrones is a delicious bite. But Jose's Taco combines two luxurious foods in a wink to the genre, sevruga caviar mounded on shavings of black-foot Jamon Iberico. Roll it up, pop it in the mouth. Finish with champagne. Why not?
■ King crab with raspberry coulis and edible flowers in sherry vinaigrette are served in the can in which they were preserved. Spain is known for producing the highest quality canned goods in the world, and all the tapas in this section are presented in cans. I once had to buy a suitcase in Barcelona just to carry canned goods.
These exquisite bites demanded an extraordinary wine. We think the servers must stay up nights tasting, memorizing and becoming expert in the mysteries of oenology. Our server actually has an advanced degree in hospitality, and in 20 years, surely he'll have his own place. He chose a tempranillo.
■ Bao con Lechon translates to sous vide-cooked pork belly on a Chinese bun, topped with a Jamon Iberico chicharron. And that's funny.
■ Pa amb Tomaquet is Catalan-style toasted bread with grated fresh tomato, drizzled with the best new olive oil. A chip of Manchego cheese topped the toast. I rarely had a breakfast in Spain without it.
At this point in our dinner, I was having nostalgic flashbacks to Seville, Madrid and Bilbao, and I asked our server to please bring side dishes of both the house olive oil and alioli, the ubiquitous Spanish garlic mayonnaise. I liberally dabbed and doused every bite, probably ruining the composed flavor profiles of the remaining dishes.
We weren't eating with eyes cast down on the table, either. All around us, the softly lit dining room hummed. We heard bits and bobs of Italian, French, snips of Arab dialects, Aussie-accented English and, of course, Spanish. Handsome Latin men steered the elbows of elegant partners high above their Jimmy Choo's and Christian Louboutin red-soled spikes. And when I stared as a tall, fashionable dude swept by with an entourage, our server said, "Oh, that's Dennis Rodman. He's a regular here."
Pressing on, more tapas. True to form, each of them about four bites.
■ Dragon Fruit Ceviche pairs the lipstick-red-skinned fruit of Southeast Asia with tuna, pecans, lime and hibiscus foam.
Time for a sandwich? Butifarra Flauta combines Spain's famous sausage with piquillo peppers and aioli on an eclair-sized baguette.
And another? The smallest Cuban sandwich, with all elements accounted for.
We had a good laugh over The Ultimate Spanish Tapa, Ensalada Rusa. Better than it sounds. Cooked and cubed potatoes, carrots and canned tuna with mayo are topped with globes of trout roe. In Russia, with the addition of dill and canned peas, the dish is called Salat Olivier. Such is the diaspora of a good dish.
With two more dishes to do, I needed a breather. As I looked around, I saw the walls moving. No, not an earthquake, and, no, not too much wine. The ornately painted walls aren't walls at all. They are printed fabric panels as thin and transparent as scrim, with its stage curtain magic. That Philippe Starck! Playing games with the eye, he can change his interiors at whim.
■ Going for the big finish, we ordered seared scallops with toasted pine nut dust and a sauce of Pedro Jimenez. And, finally, Cuban coffee-rubbed churrasco: fingers of rare grilled beef and passion fruit garnish.
We would have folded our napkins, but our server would have none of it. "Dessert is coming," he said. Deconstructed Key Lime Pie and a plateful of rich chocolate confections.
Sated, although stuffed is the better word, we decided to come back during the day to check out the pool and catch the action at Bar Centro, Bazaar's bar adjacent to the dining room, throbbing that night to Latin music and packed with the young, the hip and the future deaf.
But wait. Something in this experience is off, I thought. Here, the service, the tapas and the dining room represent fine dining, very fine and very expensive. And that's the disconnect. In America, the word "tapas" translates to a series of small plates eaten at a restaurant.
In Spain, tapas represent a culture. They are bar food, snacks. Many's the time Bob and I have squeezed into a tapas bar, usually a very loud one, ordered a tinto and noshed through a couple of inexpensive dishes. There's a knack to it, and here's the drill. Walk into a tapas bar. Jostle your way up to the counter. Order a glass of tinto or beer and check out the dishes, sometimes set out on platters on the bar, sometimes in a display case or made to order in the kitchen. Offerings might include a cazuela of sizzling garlic shrimp, Spanish egg-potato tortilla, marinated fresh anchovies, chicken or ham croquetas, and so much more. The bartender sets the plate in front of you and you tuck in, often standing at the bar or leaning on a counter. In some places, sitting (at an extra charge) is strictly for amateurs and pensioners. When you are done, you hail the bartender and settle the check. Then move on tapa hopping to the next bar and repeat until full, tiddly, tired or all three.
So we have two sides of the same tapa coin. In Spain, casual and accessible, in Bazaar, state-of-the-art as imagined by an artist. I like both, thank you.
Marlene Parrish: 412-481-1620 or firstname.lastname@example.org.