Ariete, an artful, new dining cubby in Coconut Grove, describes itself as progressive American, with a “supper-style, family-friendly feel.”
Don’t let the billing fool you. Unless your dad was Davy Crockett and he possessed the culinary sensibilities of James Beard, this is not a meal you’ll recognize from Sundays around the kitchen table. Grilled quail with stinging nettle and venison with calabaza are among the shareable entrees.
Eating here is an adventure, as to be expected from the kitchen offspring of Michael Schwartz and Norman Van Aken. Both Miami superstar chefs left their grill marks on Ariete chef-partner Michael Beltran. He was sous chef at Schwartz’s Cypress Room (now Tavern) and previously worked at Van Aken’s Norman’s 180 and Tuyo.
Van Aken’s encyclopedic, worldly knowledge of ingredients and Schwartz’s passion for seasonal, local fare influence the one-page menu. Wild game, craft cocktails and natural elegance strike such a familiar chord that Ariete could be dubbed Cypress Tavern South, a casual cousin to the Design District headliner.
Beltran’s first foray into restaurant ownership is with former Christopher Columbus High School classmate Jason Odio, owner of the Brickell hangout Sidebar. The childhood chums opened their nook in January in the old La Bottega Enoteca spot behind the Taurus bar. A cozy courtyard fronts the wood-and-glass dining room, with 40 seats between the two spaces. The place is named after a restaurant in Cuba where Beltran’s parents and grandparents worked, but — with the exception of sour orange and roasted plantains in the foie gras — there is no trace of Cuban cooking.
The menu is divided into a half-dozen “snacks,” along with six larger appetizers, about 10 entrees and a small selection of desserts. Remove the plural “s” from snacks if you try only one. These single servings are so miniscule they verge on being precious. Better to indulge in several for the table, particularly the silky charred grilled oyster with bone marrow butter or the creamy chicken liver mousse, served on a small piece of toast with sharp, tart red pepper jelly.
Piping hot Parker House rolls topped with salt are yeasty and scrumptious. Solid starters for sharing include the savory venison tartare peppered with espelette and topped with a silky soft egg from Lake Meadow natural egg farm in Ocoee, Florida, and the creamy burrata salad, with large chunks of juicy local heirloom tomatoes brightened by a light vinaigrette. We’d go back for the sweet, nutty bone marrow if the kitchen promises to lighten up on the jam-like caramelized onions and anchovies that overwhelmed the buttery tissue.
From the entrees, the local fish with fennel, peas and heirloom beans in a shallow bowl was the hands-down favorite. We scored wahoo on one of our two visits, and the fish was lightly seared and moist, wading in a gentle white wine broth that coaxed complex flavors from the delicate filet, vegetables and herbs. The house-made agnolotti made from spring-fresh green nettles, which gave the pasta a spinach-cucumber flavor, had an equally light touch, with heirloom tomatoes, purple-hued lila onions, ricotta and a light, golden broth.
On the heavier side, juicy short rib fell off the Flintstone-sized bone, its shredded strands of meat soaking up velvety red pepper beef jus. A shaved vegetable salad expertly balanced the richness.
The pork chop was less spectacular. Slightly overcooked, the smoked meat was accompanied by squash, farro and a natural jus that was unable to raise the dish to dazzling. The Painted Hills rib eye, which hung off the plate and could easily feed four, avoided the same fate and was cooked perfectly to order. Its Béarnaise sauce and red pepper jus may help some swallow the market price of this hefty cut, but we witnessed one diner bow his head in sorrow, like a prizefighter defeated in the final round, when handed his portion’s $99 bill.
Ariete’s plentiful servers, sporting blue jean shirts and smart menu IQs, have some trouble maneuvering around the wood tables and tight quarters, with an open kitchen and wood-burning oven to one side and a small bar on the other. We received two incorrect dishes — including somebody else’s desserts at the start of our meal — on one visit. Service was seriously slow on both occasions. The rock-’n’-roll soundtrack — Talking Heads, Al Green, Rolling Stones — was cranked too loud, making it difficult to hear our waiter and each other. Softening ambience and sharpening delivery would smooth the rough edges.
Outstanding desserts repair the snags. Pastry chef Dallas Wynne, who worked alongside Hedy Goldsmith (more shades of Cypress Room), experiments nightly with playful pleasers. One menu repeater worth topping off the meal is the simply named “chocolate.” Dense chocolate pudding, candied popcorn, pretzel crumble, sea salt, cocoa nibs and malted milk ice cream are arranged on the plate like an abstract painting. You’ll want to leave nothing behind but tongue strokes.
For now, Ariete is open for dinner only, except on Sundays, when it serves brunch. The morning-friendly menu includes fried egg sandwiches with maple bread, caramelized onions, truffles and other fancy trappings.
Along with newcomers Glass & Vine, Harry’s Pizzeria and Farinelli 1937, Ariete heralds an emerging sophisticated dining scene for the Grove. The incoming hipsters and high-rise condo dwellers better be hungry.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.