By Michelle Payer | Photographs by Ricardo Mejia
Basic, But Not
Expect the unexpected at CHARCOAL Garden Bar + Grill.
Fifteen years ago, a global real estate developer swept his arm about the vast darkness and desolation of a then-menacing Wynwood landscape and said, “Invest any money you have here.” I nodded dutifully, but thought, “I wouldn’t want to be here alone at night, much less buy empty lots in No Man’s Land.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Writers don’t generally invest, but entrepreneurs and visionaries do; thus, Wynwood is now a hip destination, home to galleries (including the Rubell Family Collection in a repurposed warehouse), Wynwood Walls street art, brew pubs and experimental concepts. A pebbled swath of empty land became Wynwood Yard, the al fresco go-to gathering place with bar, curated food trucks (including one by a Michelin star chef) and live music, and attached to it, a restaurant that is more than meets the eye.
CHARCOAL Garden Bar + Grill’s owner, Ken Lyon (of Fratelli Lyon and Lyon Frères fame), broke through roadblocks and barriers to create one of the country’s first full-service restaurants built entirely out of modified shipping containers in a space that allows no permanent structures. And lest you think you’re dining in grubby port surroundings, this spot is well designed, welcoming and what one could accurately describe as industrial chic. Step past lush foliage into a magical space with hanging lights, a brightly lit bar, an open dining room, Spanish tile, and a glass-enclosed “conservatory” for indoor dining. It’s a relaxed, come-as-you-are spot without pretense that attracts visitors and a cross section of the local population every night (and Sundays for a delectable brunch. Try the Spanish Inquisition, or if you have a sweet tooth, the Belgium “Liege” waffles).
No one would ever guess that this restaurant could conceivably be broken down and removed in a matter of days. In fact, the massive containers are so subtle, they blend into the background and are overtaken by the ambience, lively open kitchen and uplifting surroundings. If you’re looking for a “happy” place to dine, this is it, and it’s full of surprises.
Order a martini and it arrives in an etched crystal coupe glass, the kind you’d see Cary Grant gesturing with in a vintage film. It’s an unexpected elegant detail, of which CHARCOAL prides itself with what it calls an “analog” approach to its menu. It’s an unusual term, but it means “back to basics,” according to Lyon, and it starts and ends with charcoal cooking over enclosed Spanish Josper grills that were initially born in Barcelona, Spain, to combat wind coming off the coast. The entire menu at CHARCOAL comes from two Jospers housed in an 8×20′ container kitchen that’s run by an equally small army of chefs whose scarred arms are a testament to the massive power and 700-degree heat emanating from charcoal grills. There are no fryers or sauté pans here; every delectable dish, including the not-to-miss desserts of bread pudding and Bananas Josper (a take on the classic Bananas Foster), is created in these grills.
“It’s not digital, not high-tech,” says Lyon. “There’s something primeval about cooking over charcoal versus a modern digital kitchen,” he says.
Primeval and flavorful. Main menu highlights include octopus, which is slow-simmered until tender, sliced and Josper-roasted, then tossed with sorrel, oregano, thyme, lemon and olive oil. Branzino, served in a style Lyon observed in Barcelona, is cooked whole and then divided into steaks. Then there’s Choucroute Garni, roasted pork belly, praised pork shoulder, grilled Proper Sausage, beer-braised house-cured sauerkraut, tiny potatoes and grainy Dijon mustard. New to the menu is a farm-raised Hudson Valley duck breast, which is sliced and served medium rare, “as it would be done in France,” says Lyon.
Chicken, pork and beef are all sourced in Central Florida, breads come from Lyon pals Zak the Baker and Sullivan Street Bakery, charcoal-grilled vegetables and must-have macaroni and cheese are all served “en casserole” in piping hot, cast-iron skillets, and nearly every dish is garnished with herbs from CHARCOAL’S garden. With 30 tub-like containers, Lyon lays claim to the largest edible organic garden in the country.
The menu, says Lyon “has an American sensibility with a Spanish, French and Italian style. We’re letting the food speak for itself with simple cooking, good ingredients and great flavors.” And of course, charcoal.