A Key to Miami's Underground Eateries
By Omar Sommereyns
You knock on the stranger’s front door, extend a password, and gain access to a dinner table with even more strangers, all awaiting the unveiling of a voluptuary menu that’s been kept secret until this moment. This may seem daunting to less adventurous sorts, but to many—intrepid foodies, professionals intrigued by the unconventional, even singles looking for an alternative to artificial, slapdash dating sites—the notion isn’t so far-fetched. It’s all part of a growing underground dining scene here in Miami, appealing, in part, for its clandestine nature.
These aren’t mere catered dinners, but instead gatherings of like-minded eaters and chefs at offkilter locations (including covert warehouses, outdoor expanses, art galleries, and private homes). Some have passwords, others don’t. Some are hosted by award-winning chefs, others by gifted, though not necessarily highly trained, cooks. But all emphasize thoughtful cuisine and a rather unscripted approach. As pointed out by Jeffrey Brana, chef at Norman Van Aken’s Tuyo, who previously launched an underground dining series back in 2008 with his wife, Anna, “It really is similar to performance art, with the host/chef as director, the patrons as actors, and the cuisine as the storyline. It’s often at its best when guests meet for the first time and the lines are improvised as the story unfolds.”
Here, we’ve uncovered Miami’s most compelling underground dining experiences.
Culinary Safe House: Copperbox
Operated by Gabriela Machado, a Venezuelan with 12 years of experience in high-volume catering, Copperbox feels like a hidden gem. You enter through a copper-painted door on the side of a converted woodshop just west of Midtown, but inside is an elegant, dimly lit “gastronomic studio” with a distinct hush-hush ambience. Here, Machado designs five-course dinners (plus amuse-bouches and hors d’oeuvres) for 10 to 30 guests at a time. Thursdays are open to the public by reservation, and other nights are invitation-only. Start with a glass of bubbles and some hors d’oeuvres as you mingle, then sit down at a long table to enjoy Machado’s creations. Dishes are often innovative—foie gras ice cream with cocoa-crusted croûte (or even a foie gras crème brûlée with gold leaf and orange crackle)—or simply prepared with fine, locally sourced ingredients, such as Florida yellowtail snapper with fresh baby artichokes, golden beets, capers, and tomato confit. “Cooking should be an intimate affair,” says Machado. “We nourish people and take care of their souls. In most restaurants, I feel that cooking becomes overly mechanized, and some of the magic gets lost.” $125–$150, 305-392-0983
Password-Protected: Shelley-Belly’s Underground
Originally from South Africa, Shelley (who prefers to not disclose her surname) honed her hospitality skills as a restaurant manager in Chiswick, London. She recently moved to a house in Coconut Grove with her husband, Paul, where she hosts a convivial supper club of about eight people at a time (and yes, you must know the password to get in). Once inside, you get to know the other guests in the living room over cocktails before sitting at a large communal table. Shelley occasionally pops out of the kitchen during the five-course meal to describe the dishes, which have mostly European influences and high-quality, seasonal ingredients. Recent highlights include delicate quail eggs with exotic dipping salts, braised pork belly, a chilled minted pea soup with whipped goat cheese, and peach/almond tart made with frangipane. After dinner, you may opt to have a digestif and continue socializing as you look over the calm Biscayne Bay. “Guests like the idea of going to someone’s home and how they can’t get in without a password,” Shelley says. “So far, everyone’s got on, though that’s probably because they’re all like-minded.” $65; firstname.lastname@example.org
For Your Health: Conscious Bite Out
Helmed by Veronica Menin, owner of Peace A’ Cake, and Marcela Llodra, a holistic health counselor, Conscious Bite Out invites esteemed chefs to create meals using only organic, seasonal, or local ingredients with no dairy, fried, or conventional foods. Themes vary, ranging from raw vegan dishes to sustainable seafood. Typically held for around 60 people in a serene, candlelit room at The Sacred Space in Wynwood, the dinners include three passed hors d’oeuvres, VeeV Açai cocktails, a four-course meal with an organic wine pairing, plus a goodie bag with treats from local businesses (e.g., vegan muffins). Chefs also interact with the guests throughout, explaining where each course’s ingredients came from. “You get a night filled with information and inspiration about taking action towards your health and the environment,” says Menin. “This is a way deeper experience than dining at a regular restaurant.” $85, 305- 608-9101
Mad Food Scientists: Cobaya
If you attend one of the Cobaya dinners, you become a guinea pig for some of Miami’s best chefs as they step out of their own restaurants and experiment with culinary boundaries. Founded by a trio of local epicureans (who prefer to not give their names), these events take place at various locations that are revealed via e-mail only after you secure a seat. The Cobaya mission statement advises to steer clear “if you have food-related allergies, strict dietary requirements, religious restrictions; are salt-sensitive, pregnant, vegetarian, pescatarian, or vegan; or don’t like your meat cooked medium rare.” Past dinners (for 16 to 60 guests) have featured such talents as gastroPod’s Jeremiah Bullfrog, who prepared uni with whipped Benton’s ham fat, sous-vide endive with candied walnuts, and madeleines with bone marrow butter. Says Cobaya’s cofounder, who goes by the name of Frodnesor: “There are South Florida diners who are more open-minded than restaurants give them credit for, and these meals can give them a true sense of discovery.” $50–$100; email@example.com
photography by rebecca sahn (plate)