As an eater and writer, for me nothing is more exciting than seeing a young and talented chef take full flight. At Ariete in Coconut Grove, Michael Beltran pulls off a high-wire culinary act that blends his Cuban heritage with highbrow experience with local luminaries Norman Van Aken and Michael Schwartz. Headcheese croquetas with kimchi? Bone marrow with black beans? Flan with candy-cap mushrooms and sambuca crema?
Only a supremely confident chef — and a charmingly playful one — could pull off dishes such as these at a restaurant that is bold enough to offer both venison tartare and Tuesday $2 fritas (the humble Cuban chorizo patty topped with fried potato strings). Beltran, a homegrown product who graduated from Christopher Columbus High in Miami, had just turned 30 when he opened Ariete in January 2016 with high school friends Jason Odio and Andrew Falsetto.
Beltran thought he knew it all back then, and he also was burdened by high expectations. Nearly three years later, he has let all that go and just lets things fly. It’s working. Ariete now has a coterie of neighborhood regulars who pack the bar for nightly happy hour (4-7 p.m.) and roving legions of adventurous epicureans who come from afar.
Beltran, 33, says the turning point came when the restaurant was going through a rocky period in 2017. Critical praise came, but customers and revenue were not following. The brash and ambitious Beltran realized he had more to learn about running a restaurant. He decided to embrace his inner frita and allowed popular street food an equal, albeit elevated, place at the table. Hence, his Chug burger ($17) with housemade bun and sauce and American cheese and pickles.
Not everything was perfect on my recent first visit to Ariete — the black beans nestled beneath the fine bone marrow needed salt; a server did not ask how we wanted our burger, and it came out overcooked — but I left absolutely smitten.
It was not the best meal I have had this year, but Ariete may well be my favorite restaurant of the year. It is a cozy (75-seat) and comfortable place that is casual in demeanor (wood tables, pictures of Cuban grandparents on the walls) but serious about food and hospitality. It is egalitarian in spirit, an eatery that can cater to a variety of palates and wallets. If I wanted to show a tourist a restaurant that encapsulates the South Florida I love, I would take the drive to Ariete’s tree-lined stretch of Main Highway in Coconut Grove, a hidden slice of Miami that still hasn’t been swallowed whole by high-rises, luxury-brand stores and restaurants with the gall (and clientele) to charge triple digits for chicken or fish.
Ariete in Coconut Grove, chef Michael Beltran's cozy and comfortable restaurant, blends his Cuban heritage with highbrow culinary experience (with chefs Norman Van Aken and Michael Schwartz) in dishes such as venison tartare, headcheese croquetas with kimchi, bone marrow with black beans and pastrami'd short rib with fennel slaw.(Mike Stocker)
At Ariete, the highest-priced item on the menu the night I dined was a $55 grouper collar special. We went with a meaty grouper fillet instead at less than half the price ($24) and were not disappointed, a perfectly cooked piece over runner beans swimming in a delicious broth reduced from fish heads. Beltran still can’t resist some of the laborious prep, haute techniques and offbeat ingredients that he learned to appreciate from Van Aken at his Coral Gables restaurant when Beltran started his career or with Schwartz when Beltran worked at the now-shuttered Cypress Room.
At Ariete, there were enough daring plates and delicious bites to make me want to endure another hellish drive to the end of I-95. That raw, minced venison ($16) — served with black-garlic aioli, pickled mushrooms and grilled Sullivan Street Bakery bread — was superb. A pastrami-style short rib ($37), nine days in the making, was an ephemeral balance of smoke, spice and soft, buttery meat. Grilled oysters bathed in bone-marrow butter ($3) forced me to rethink my preference for raw oysters with mignonette.
The short rib is brined, smoked and pampered for longer than a Kardashian at a spa retreat, and tastes like it. Beltran showcases New Zealand venison, mild and not gamy, not just raw but also pan-roasted with sauce Diane ($34). There is foie gras with sour orange and smoked plantains on the menu and rabbit. The headcheese, bits made from animal head, is explained to patrons (this ain’t queso) before being served, with delicious, ground bits fried into a satisfying, oblong, breaded snack ($12), served with spicy and vinegary kimchi.
“There were all these heads of cabbage that were going to go to waste the last time I went to Swank [Farms in Loxahatchee, his produce purveyor], so I loaded them all in my Impala,” Beltran says. “I just love fermented things.”
With craft cocktails flowing and good wines being poured into proper stemware at fair prices, the restaurant has reached that happy place where food, drink and atmosphere converge into a satisfying whole. Customers who at first may not have known what to make of Beltran’s mix of challenging and comforting just chow down and keep coming back for more.
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Meals begin with a complimentary platter of housemade Parker rolls, and ours ended with the server bringing a complimentary taste of Alp blossom cheese dusted with dried flowers, which was being featured on the Miami Spice menu as a dessert. I liked that better than the nontraditional flan — it wasn’t the mushroom that tripped me so much as the sambuca crema (a personal dislike against anise flavor). One sip of the hot chocolate that accompanied churro doughnuts ($9), and all was right with the world. The hot chocolate is a recipe from his grandfather, who worked at a restaurant named Ariete in the Cuban city of Pinar del Rio.
Ariete, Beltran explains, has two meanings: a battering ram or a ring in a bull’s nose. The ambitious Beltran considers himself more like a battering ram. He has recently lost 120 pounds and quit drinking. This bull wants to run for the long haul.
3540 Main Highway, Coconut Grove
Cuisine: Modern American with Cuban-Latin influence
Cost: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers cost $5 to $26, mains $17-$37, sides $5-$9, desserts $4-$9
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Dinner 4-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6-11 p.m. Saturday, 6-10 p.m. Sunday
Reservations: Accepted by phone and at OpenTable.com
Credit Cards: All major
Bar: Full liquor with craft cocktails, beer and good, fairly priced wine list
Noise level: Conversational with background music
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Valet or metered street