There were times during my meal at Bazaar Mar by Jose Andres when I felt like belting Jim Carrey’s signature line from “The Mask”: “Somebody stop me!” And there were times when I felt like the enormous character Earl from the classic movie “Diner.” You know, the one who ate the whole left side of the menu.
Earl ate 22 deluxe sandwiches and the Maryland Fried Chicken dinner at the Fells Point Diner. My group had 24 dishes, including dessert, at Bazaar Mar. Twenty-three were outstanding, flawless plates with exquisite ingredients, meticulous technique and balanced flavors. This was a seascape dream of a meal, nibbles and bites that made us feel as if we were eating an entire aquarium, with platters of decadent, acorn-fed Spanish Iberico pig thrown in for good measure. Peekytoe crab, salt cod, cobia, sea urchin, hamachi, smoked salmon, geoduck clam, lionfish, live scallops, oysters, monkfish, abalone, mullet roe — yes, we devoured them all.
We didn’t go into the meal thinking we would stage the culinary equivalent of a marathon. It was one of those things that just happened, one delicious bite leading to another. Before we knew it, four joyful hours had passed. Involuntary, beatific smiles crossed our faces. I was sated, but I could have kept going.
“Standing O for the Earl!” the “Diner” gang yelled when he finished his feat.
“Standing O for Bazaar Mar!” I almost shouted on the way out. This was the best dining experience I’ve had in over a decade, my second best meal ever in North America. Not since I floated out of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley in 2003 have I been so ecstatic. Yes, I spent a lot of money (sorry, boss). But it was worth every penny. I’ve been reflecting on this meal since I left the restaurant, with flashbacks that I hope will pop up for years to come.
The way I remember Keller’s “oysters and pearls” is the same way Bazaar Mar’s “ceviche oysters” ($5 each) will inhabit my eternal food soul. Using a molecular-gastronomy technique called spherification, which I usually find more showy than tasty, the kitchen takes Hama Hama oysters from Washington, infuses them with leche de tigre and tops them with corn nuts and a wisp of micro herb. You slurp, there’s a crunch, and then the oyster melts and bursts in your mouth, briny sea mixing with lime juice and garlic. And then, there’s the California funnel cake ($13), a thin, crisp waferlike base made of seaweed topped with peekytoe crab, avocado, flying-fish roe and Japanese mayonnaise. It is majestically served on a silver stand. Carnival food never tasted so good.
I could go on and on, but this is a place best experienced instead of described. Bazaar Mar opened in November in the new SLS Brickell Hotel. If you like fine food, you must treat yourself. The only drawback: If you don’t like seafood, this isn’t the place for you. Nearly everything comes from the sea, except for one $75 steak, one South Carolina chicken dish and two mouthwatering Iberico pork dishes. There is a platter of thin-sliced, 48-month-cured bellota ham ($56), sliced from a leg displayed near a seafood case. It is served with crunchy “pan de cristal,” bread flown in from Barcelona and streaked with crushed tomato. And there is a plate called “secreto” ($36), insanely good slices of “skirt steak” from black-footed Spanish pigs, topped with silken and pungent anchovy chimichurri.
From the first sip of a Key lime pie daiquiri with a meringue topping kissed golden with a kitchen torch to the last bite of a deconstructed Key lime pie dessert ($13) that made me rethink my disgust of foam, this was a revelatory experience. The lime foam was a perfect touch: a final, frothy sea wave to say goodbye to the meal.
Andres shows food can be playful and serious at the same time. The service was polished yet not stuffy, with a small, well-synchronized army swooping in with dishes from the three open kitchens that line the walls. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was in South Florida, because this is a staff that obviously cares about people and food. The Philippe Starck-designed room is bright, airy, elegant and whimsical. There are giant fish-head sculptures mounted to walls, tiles decorated with mermaids and half-human-half-lobster creatures and end tables with diver’s helmets.
That Andres is a celebrity chef who runs a far-flung empire with 27 restaurants from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., makes Bazaar Mar all the more impressive. It means he trains and treats his teams well. The crew here executes Andres’ vision with passion and near perfection. Chef de cuisine Manny Echeverri is a Colombian native who got his culinary start at Fort Lauderdale’s Blue Moon Fish Co. before working his way up the ladder at Andres’ Bazaar in Miami Beach.
Andres came to the United States from Spain, where he learned under molecular wizard Ferran Adria. His homage to Adria, marinated gelatinous liquid olives ($12) that burst in the mouth with a sheen of olive oil and a piquant, umami splash of piparra peppers and anchovy, are at many of his restaurants, but they’re still a must-have.
The challenge with Bazaar Mar is there are so many must-haves. You must start by stopping by the dark and sophisticated Bar Centro for inventive cocktails, including margaritas topped with ephemeral “salt air.” You must treat yourself to a dramatic nitrogen-blasted caipirinha from the mixologist who roams the dining room, his table disappearing under a cloud of steam until a potent round of adult slushies emerges. You must try the funky sea-urchin cone ($12). You must have the menacing lionfish ($38), served fried and whole and looking right at you, complete with its scary spine intact (although the venomous bits are removed). You must have the “bagel and lox” ($12) with smoked salmon from New York’s famed Russ and Daughters perched atop fish-shaped puffed-up “air bread.” You must have the decadent Jose Asian taco ($16), seaweed layered with a sliver of Iberico ham, hamachi, osetra caviar and ginger that you roll up and slide in your mouth. You must have the cobia rose ($26), petals of cobia and leche de tigre served atop pink watermelon radish. You must have the “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” dessert ($12), pineapple shaved ice with condensed milk and fennel fronds served in a glass, pineapple-shaped dish.
The only discordant bite I had was the Avgotaraho ($12), pita puffs of cured mullet roe topped with Greek yogurt and za’atar spice. The flavors clashed, and it didn’t work.
Andres, who became a U.S. citizen three years ago, has distinguished himself as a chef, restaurateur, philanthropist, humanitarian and provocateur. He is currently being sued by President Trump for pulling out of a restaurant deal at Trump’s new D.C. hotel. It was Andres’ response to Trump’s anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric during the presidential campaign.
Andres was recently honored at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival’s annual tribute dinner, and he used the occasion to deliver a strong rebuke to Trump, proclaiming allegiance with those who flee poor countries for better opportunity in America, including many in his kitchens. During his speech, he ripped off his chef’s coat to reveal a T-shirt that read, “I am an immigrant.” He told the crowd, “The American dream of the 21st century is to be an America of inclusion, not of exclusion.” Andres realizes that some people don’t like mixing politics with food, but he doesn’t care.
No matter your politics, you have to respect the man’s food. For me, the fact that Andres has a heart and conscience is just the cherry foam on top of a culinary dream.
BAZAAR MAR BY JOSE ANDRES
1300 S. Miami Ave., Miami
Cuisine: Stylish seafood in a whimsical, Philippe Starck-designed room
Cost: Expensive to very expensive. Small plates (some bite-size) $12-$36. Whole fish and lobsters $60 and up. Steak $75. Desserts $12-$14
Hours: Dinner 6-10 nightly (until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday)
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Inventive cocktails served from adjoining Bar Centro, good wine list with many by the glass
Sound level: Convivial but comfortable
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Metered street or hotel valet