Perfumed by burning oak that wafts like incense from an open kitchen, Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann is a study in contrasts. Mallmann is Argentina’s most famous chef and one of the world’s most acclaimed grill masters, known for his rugged and primitive fire-based cooking that was spotlighted on an episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table.” Los Fuegos is his first restaurant outside South America. Aside from flame-charred and smoke-kissed meats and a kitchen that does not use electricity or propane to cook, there is nothing rugged or primitive about the place.
The restaurant, which opened in February 2016, is stunning, a multimillion-dollar showstopper at the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach, which opened a few months earlier. The 84-seat dining room, bathed in gold and red, evokes the grandeur and formality of Paris or New York’s finest restaurants, with heavy drapery, lacquered wood tables, leather chairs, leopard-skin banquettes and dramatic modern chandeliers with 800 bulbs that are programmed to flicker whenever lightning strikes the Pampas plains in Argentina. Outside is pure South Beach playfulness, a 108-seat veranda with a retractable canopy and a colorful tropical motif. The bar overlooks a glass-encased Damien Hirst sculpture of a woolly mammoth skeleton with golden bones, through which one can see the ocean.
“Life is about opposites, contradictions,” Mallmann says during an interview after my initial visit. “I like that sometimes you sleep under a giant tree, and sometimes in a comfortable bed.”
Comfortable beds at the Faena run $325 a night in the off-season and soar toward $700 in winter months, but I’d be happy to curl up next to the Hirst sculpture if I could be fed scraps from the kitchen and hang out at Los Fuegos every day. Los Fuegos had enough flaws in some dishes to keep me from awarding a perfect four stars, but it is the South Florida restaurant I’d most want to marry. It is drop-dead gorgeous, much of the food is delicious, and the service is impeccable, attentive without being stuffy or overbearing. The bar is wonderful, with creative specialty cocktails that are expensive but addictive, prepared by mixologists who use eyedroppers and other precision instruments. The sacrament of charred flesh takes on almost religious overtones for Mallmann and his crew, and gawkers can linger and stare at the fiery show through the open kitchen window overlooking the veranda.
Now, if I could just figure out how to afford it on a regular basis, I’d be set. The $78 bone-in rib-eye and the $155 mixed parrillada platter — with wagyu New York strip steak, 12-hour smoked short rib, Colorado lamb chops and a curled rope of thin salchicha parrillera sausage — are a carnivore’s dream. The grilled meats are artfully simple, hit with salt and flame. All came out to appropriate medium rare. The kitchen crew, headed by chef de cuisine Cristian Menendez, also has a way with grilled seafood, with a bacon-wrapped giant prawn ($28) and a prettily plated octopus tentacle ($29) atop rounds of crisp golden potato and garlic aioli. Pastry chef Frederic Monnet’s desserts ($14) are excellent and also feature singed and smoked ingredients, such as the dulce de leche pancake with burnt orange.
Los Fuegos is definitely worthy of a splurge for occasions, and the good news is the restaurant is participating in the upcoming Miami Spice promotion, with $23 lunches and $39 three-course dinners from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30. Food lovers owe themselves a trip here, even if they need to beg or borrow.
The Faena represents unabashed glitz, with Argentine developer Alan Faena calling his $1.2 billion multiblock multipurpose project “Futopia,” a combination of “Faena” and “utopia.” The models and others coated with the moneyed sheen of success that waltzed through Los Fuegos during my meal looked as though they had just stepped out of “The Great Gatsby.” I suppose that was appropriate, considering Baz Luhrmann, the film director who did a “Gatsby” remake (along with “Moulin Rouge”) and costumer designer Catherine Martin, his wife, handled much of the hotel and restaurant’s design. The chandeliers were made by Italian artist Alberto Garutti.
Mallmann, 61, oversees the kitchen. His restaurant empire is growing and now stands at seven on three continents, with his latest opening in the Provence region of France in May. He has five restaurants in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. Despite the demands on his time, he says he is in Miami three to seven days every month and that his well-trained crew has been loyal, with roughly 90 to 95 percent remaining from opening day.
Mallmann says he will not open any other restaurants in the United States. Why Miami? Because he knows and respects Alan Faena and he knows and likes Miami. “My oldest son lives here,” Mallmann says. He previously was consultant at a Miami restaurant that closed. Mallmann says he is still learning local ingredients, farmers and purveyors. He says there is “a language” to restaurants, and that after being open nearly two years, Los Fuegos is gaining fluency.
I suppose my biggest beef with Los Fuegos is that I felt a lack of precision and a lack of soul on some plates, always a danger when a celebrity chef starts spreading himself too thin. Los Fuegos offers a properly cooked red snapper filet ($28), but it was covered in a web of scalloped potato “scales,” a classic French preparation that Mallmann says he has been doing for 30 years and learned when he worked in France. The potatoes were languid, and I peeled them away. If Mallmann were truly in tune with local ingredients, he’d realize the snapper’s own crispy skin would be a simpler and better topper (see: Danny Serfer’s Mignonette Uptown).
The roasted cauliflower ($24) also was a bit limp, although saved by crispy rice, almonds and caper vinaigrette, and I could rattle off a half dozen other cauliflower dishes around town that I enjoy more (starting with KYU in Miami and Bubbles and Pearls in Wilton Manors). The potato gnocchi ($26) with wild mushrooms, sage butter, arugula and truffle salt, the only pasta dish on the menu, were safe but not sublime.
When I returned for a photo shoot and interview, the mixed-grill platter prepared for the cameras featured plump and sinful blood sausages, but they were nowhere on the menu the night I dined. Those moved me, and told me more about Mallmann than the beef tartare on sourdough toast ($22) I had as a starter on my initial visit.
Mallmann has been a TV star in South America for decades, and he recently told an interviewer that lately he has been more interested in writing than cooking. He writes a weekly column for a newspaper in Argentina. I asked him how he would start a review of Los Fuegos. “I’m not going to do your job for you,” Mallmann told me. But he says he is a tough critic, and he always notices things that can be better at his restaurants.
That led me to my bigger issue. Bylines used to be the province of print journalists, not celebrity chefs. But these days, you can’t throw a brioche without hitting a big name in a restaurant’s marquee: Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann, Bazaar Mar by Jose Andres at the SLS Brickell, La Mar by Gaston Acurio at the Mandarin Oriental, Brava by Brad Kilgore at the Adrienne Arsht Center.
Journalists get in trouble if the words and reportage under their names aren’t their own. But in the culinary world, the big picture, globetrotting chefs who come up with the concept and menu are rarely the ones doing the day-to-day cooking. Mallmann took umbrage when I brought up the inconsistency. He offered the everyone-does-it defense, and says the trend started with big-name French chefs. He says his imprint is all over Los Fuegos, even if he is physically absent. “This is 42 years of work behind me that I have invested,” he says. He says he trusts his staff to understand and carry out his vision.
Mallmann also says the best restaurants aren’t necessarily about the best food, but places where friends, family and lovers are comfortable conversing and enjoying life.
On that front, Los Fuegos is a knockout.
Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann
3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach (in Faena Hotel)
786-655-5600 or Faena.com/LosFuegos
Cuisine: Argentine. Wood-cooked meats, seafood and vegetables
Cost: Expensive to very expensive. Starters cost $8 to $28, mains $24 to $78, grill platters $155, desserts $14
Hours: Lunch noon-4 p.m. daily (asado brunch on Sunday). Dinner 6-11 p.m. daily (until midnight Friday and Saturday)
Reservations: Accepted, phone or OpenTable
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Inventive and expensive craft cocktails, extensive and expensive wine list
Sound level: Conversational inside and lively on the veranda, with music drifting from the lounge and performers outside
Handicapped access: Ground level
Parking: Valet or metered street