It’s a Monday afternoon, and R House in Wynwood is quiet. A scant few diners munch on arugula salads and margherita pizzas. But the place is not devoid of color. A painting on one wall shows jellyfish swimming gracefully in an orange sea. Another depicts a field of blush-colored flowers swaying in the wind. And in a third, a glitter-covered white astronaut floats in blue space.
Despite the coffee-chili-rubbed braised short rib ($24) and lamb shank with port reduction ($28) on the menu, R House (2727 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-576-0201) is more than a restaurant. It is also a gallery with paintings by artists such as Dietmar Brixy, JonLouis Gonzalez, and Sara Conca priced in the $3,000-to-$10,000 range. In the past, larger pieces have fetched even more. Just months after R House opened in 2014, a customer purchased a nine-foot-tall oil on canvas from Brixy’s “Discover“ series for $40,000 after spotting it while drinking beer with a friend.
“They’re here for a meal or a drink, and they can sit here and look at the pieces,” says Tom Shirk, the immaculately groomed, silver-coiffed founder and curator of White Porch Gallery, located inside the eatery. “It’s a captive audience.”
This weekend, the art world will set its sights on Miami as the 15th-annual Art Basel and countless satellite shows transform the city into a glittering circus of color. The partying this year started Monday and continues through Sunday, December 10. The not-so-hidden secret is that most well-heeled galleristas and celebrities are mainly here for the parties and food. To accommodate them, restaurateurs open pop-up satellites and hire temporary staff.
Even if they don’t profit directly from art sales like R House does, some restaurants will make a month’s worth of bank in a few days. Others might end up on Page Six of the New York Post.
Sunny Oh, the executive chef at Juvia in South Beach, prepares for the restaurant’s sixth Art Basel siege as he would for a war. “It’s going into battle,” says the handsome 46-year-old, who sports a crisp white chef’s coat and jet-black hair slicked back in a discreet ponytail. “You have to go against 2,000 people with 200 people.”
The Basel crowd is particularly fond of Juvia (1111 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 305-763-8272), which won a James Beard Award in 2013 for outstanding restaurant design in an establishment with 76 or more seats. The restaurant offers not only a spectacular view of Miami Beach but also an interior filled with artistic touches.
Oh says every aspect of Juvia is meant to be appreciated as art. A two-story wall of living greenery, designed by botanist Patrick Blanc, re-creates a rainforest in the middle of South Beach and requires a behind-the-scenes hydroponics system to keep it healthy. Table lamps are specially designed in Australia to provide a precise balance of lumens and warmth that make both food and patrons look divine.
The menu is created with as much care. Oh opts for a clean, contemporary style, reminding his kitchen staff not to overdo plates with edible flowers and foams. Emphasis is on the quality of the product rather than flair. “We strive for our food to complement the plating,” he says.
The key to thriving during Miami Art Week is precise time management, the chef says. When tickets begin lining up, a five-second delay on the first order can translate into minutes of delay in getting meals to diners. “You really have to stay focused and look at what’s directly in front of you,” he says. “When you start losing your seconds, that’s when you run into problems.”
A streamlined menu is also important. So for Basel, Juvia will offer favorites such as Maine lobster salad ($36) and Chilean sea bass ($43). At lunchtime, the restaurant will serve a king crab eggs Benedict ($32). “If you have too many meat dishes or the menu teeters on either side,” Oh says, “the kitchen can get buried.”
Wynwood Kitchen & Bar might be Miami’s most extreme marriage of art and food. The restaurant opened in 2010, two years after developer Tony Goldman had the vision of pairing an eatery with curated murals to create the beating artistic heart of a neighborhood that was once a decrepit area filled with empty warehouses and shuttered clothing factories.
Seven years later, Wynwood Kitchen & Bar (2550 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-722-8959) finds ways to expedite dinner service. Through most of the year, it serves around 250 covers a day, but during Miami Art Week, that number almost triples to about 650. To streamline service, the regular menu is condensed. “It’s our Super Bowl,” says food and beverage director Tony Puche, who came onboard nine months after the restaurant opened. “We strive to give the best hospitality possible year-round. During Basel, though, it’s just with double the people and triple the expectations.”
At Alter (223 NW 23rd St., Miami; 305-573-5996), the decor is not particularly artistic. Concrete walls and floors remain unadorned, while exposed air ducts and lights frame the ceiling. The only color is a squiggle of pink neon hanging in front of the open kitchen. The minimalist approach puts diners’ attention on the imaginative and colorful plates.
For his fourth Miami Art Week, chef Brad Kilgore will create a menu that caters to sophisticated palates. One item will be crispy lobster tempura kataifi with persimmon and squash curry pearls ($24/$36). Another will be a foie gras sweet potato pie with pear confit and marshmallow ($14/$23).
Though Kilgore is known for his beautifully composed plates, he doesn’t consider himself an artist. “I don’t believe it’s necessary for a chef to be an artist,” he says. “I think most of what we do is craftsmanship. I always say in my kitchen: ‘Flavor before aesthetics.'”
Back at R House, Shirk and chef Rocco Carulli discuss the origins of the gallery and restaurant. In 2005, the two met in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a summer vacation retreat that attracts an artistic and wealthy LGBT clientele. Shirk, who still owns the White Porch Inn Art Hotel there, would refer guests to Edwige, a restaurant Carulli owned. (The restaurant is still open, but the chef decided to seek new fortunes in Southern climes.)
The friends lost touch, but in 2013, Carulli learned that his old colleague had also moved to Miami. Feeling the symmetry, they decided to collaborate on a combined restaurant and gallery.
When R House debuted in time for Art Basel 2014, the kitchen wasn’t completely ready, but the gallery was, with 40 pieces that had been commissioned months earlier. The restaurant opened anyway, serving drinks from the bar and hosting several events.
Sixty percent of art sales are driven by diners, Shirk says. Thursday evenings, tables are stored, and the space is transformed into a gallery showing works by emerging artists such as Chris Reichenbaum, who sold her first piece at R House during Art Basel a few years ago for $10,000. Today her work hangs at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
For Basel this year, Carulli will serve a special palette pizza ($12), topped with sauces made from beet purée, arugula pesto, and yellow heirloom tomatoes in shades of purples, greens, and yellows, it’s an edible version of the artist’s tool.
Whether or not a new artist is discovered, one certainty is Art Basel’s frenetic pace. “It’s nonstop,” Carulli says. “By the end of the week, some of the staffers have meltdowns.” The chef reminds them there’s a silver lining to tired feet and lack of sleep. “You can make a month’s worth of business in one week — in one week. That’s amazing.”
– Laine Doss, The New Times