How does a Miami restaurant with a regional bent interpret duck a l’orange, a classically French dish with little sense of place this side of the Atlantic?
At Kris Wessel’s new Oolite, steps off Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, succulent, glistening slices of roasted duck combine with Florida oranges and tamarind in a sweet-sour flourish that’s l’Miami in the best possible way.
Oolite’s commitment to gluten-free ingredients cooked with regional flavors does not limit its ability to impress. Wessel paints from a subtropical-seeped palette, squeezing acid from Key limes and sour oranges; sussing sweetness from guava, guanabana and late-season mangoes; and sourcing proteins from Florida farms and local waters.
Unlike at his past two endeavors — the seedy but beloved Red Light and the hotel restaurant Florida Cookery — Wessel seems to have all the necessary elements in place for a sustained run at Oolite.
That includes a strong team led in the kitchen by workhorse chef de cuisine Lisa Odom and in the front of the house by affable general manager Dale LoSasso (both previously worked at Tongue & Cheek).
Wessel earns kudos for his Worcestershire-doused barbecue shrimp wherever he’s cooking at the moment, but the dish isn’t close to the best item among Oolite’s appetizers.
That honor belongs to green-tomato arepas: crunchy, cheesy corn cakes plated with a cooling tomato-cilantro relish, a nutty romesco sauce and toasted pepitas. It’s the kind of starter that excites you for the next course while making you seriously contemplate a second helping.
Several entrees have a similar effect.
I felt genuine sadness when a dining companion beat me to the last bit of lechon — pork slowly cooked with sour orange and onion until it’s impossibly tender and savory.
And the Creole roasted oxtail, something I wouldn’t have ordered without our server’s ringing recommendation, blew me away with its deep, meaty flavor and complete lack of gristle that so often rears its head in that cut.
Sides like mac and cheese and a simple spaghetti with tomato and basil exhibit less of a wow factor, until you realize you’re eating pasta made without wheat flour. That spaghetti, extracted from a corn-rice flour mix and tossed with Parmesan and black garlic, was a sleeper hit on one of my visits.
After tasting so many well-seasoned and exciting dishes, I found a milder-than-mild Florida grouper poached in coconut water to be underwhelming. Ditto the bland, roasted local boniato as well as potatoes mashed with coconut milk and salt that would benefit from more coconut milk and salt.
Sweets like Wessel’s family-recipe mango pie snap palates back to life. An avocado cheesecake with pumpkin-seed crust and a plate of (I can’t believe they’re) gluten-free cookies satisfy dessert cravings without busting the calorie bank.
LoSasso oversees a fun wine, spirits and beer program that includes sparklers from Tasmania, creative cocktails and the exceptional Sculpin IPA from Ballast Point Brewing Co. on draft (thank you!).
As for the space itself, Oolite, located in the former Cooper Ave. restaurant, is big. Like, whole-city-block big. When it’s not full, it feels empty.
To add some buzz to the place, Wessel and his partners just opened a bar/music venue/art club next door called A.I.R. (Artist in Residence). It doesn’t detract from the dining experience at Oolite.
And the dining experience at Oolite is one I look forward to repeating many times. Regional flavors and gluten-free food never tasted so good.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.