Essensia Chef Dishes on New Menu Items
by arielle castillo
The word itself is Latin for such terms as “essence,” “whole,” and “substance.” And as Miami’s premier “mind, body, and soul” restaurant, Essensia Restaurant & Lounge delivers just that. The Palms Hotel & Spa’s hidden jewel of a farm-to-table restaurant lies just blocks north of the boisterous Collins Avenue scene. But with its soothing interior and salubrious menu, Essensia might as well be on a different island. In the eatery’s circular main dining room and on its tropically landscaped veranda, tranquility reigns. Hotel guests and health-minded locals proceed unhurriedly over dishes from a book-length menu of eco-friendly but satisfying choices showcasing the best local ingredients.
With an entire seasonally changing menu committed to green principles, Essensia may well be the only restaurant of its kind in Miami. And if it’s lacking in flash or scene points, it does so on purpose as its devoted following of local regulars prefers it that way. And the experts agree. “It is only natural that the local-food movement would be growing with such momentum in parallel with the caliber of chefs we have in Miami,” says Renée Frigo Graeff, president of Slow Food Miami, a local nonprofit supporting good, clean, and fair food. “Great-tasting food starts with simple, fresh, and high-quality ingredients.”
The concept of the restaurant dates back to 2010, when The Palms Hotel & Spa’s owners (boutique hoteliers the Krause family) envisioned a lush, polished respite to contrast South Beach’s contemporary hipness, and formulated a restaurant idea to match. For the executive chef position, they originally tapped Frank Jeannetti, known for his roles at Pacific Time, Nemo, and Pearl. His menu for Essensia felt something like stealth health food: organic and responsibly sourced ingredients turned into lightened takes on global comfort classics like risotto and short ribs.
When Jeannetti departed in 2011, The Palms re-energized the restaurant and freshened up the offerings, and the owners found a perfect candidate in signature chef Julie Frans. A recent transplant from the San Diego area, her philosophy carried a decidedly progressive, inherently California attitude.
“The theme of cooking in San Diego is using local, seasonal produce. You just wouldn’t start a small restaurant without being really in touch with what’s going on at the local farms,” she says. Frans also spent several years as a traveling chef aboard yachts, honing her skills while sourcing produce in far-flung street markets or cooking fish pulled from the ocean just minutes before. “I would look for ingredients, then build the menu around them, rather than trying to build a menu first and then trying to find the ingredients.”
But South Florida’s seasons (or lack thereof) and unusual array of produce posed a welcome challenge. “In Florida, you have everything during the winter—all the typical summer ingredients like corn and tomatoes, and spring ingredients like artichoke. But then in the summer, you don’t get anything. All you get is tropical fruits and avocado,” she says.
Still, Frans has used these ingredients to great effect for the restaurant’s newest summer menu, one of the twice-annual total menu rewrites the chef has planned. For some offerings, she has taken familiar staples and given them a Miami twist, such as a reinterpretation of caprese salad that pairs meaty Paradise Farms mamey fruit with local burrata, Thai basil, and pistachio oil.
Fruit again shows up in savory form in a tangy yellowtail tartare accompanied by passion fruit, avocado, citrus, and herbs. In other, more straight-ahead savory fare, there are still local touches; for a sausage and mushroom flatbread topped with leeks and Gruyère, Frans sources the ingredients from South Florida.
Yet even with the more filling-sounding selections, the overall effect is light. Portions are moderate, and rich ingredients add just enough flavor without too much heft. It’s the perfect balance of indulgence and virtuousness for the South Beach crowd—at least those in the know. “The local fans of the restaurant already get it. It’s a small handful, but it’s a very loyal following,” Frans says. “More and more people will find out how it feels to eat that clean [type] of food and relax, and they’ll fall in love with it.” 3025 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-908-5458
photography by gary james