When AZUR Food Group opened Brasabana in early 2014, their goal was to create a menu and atmosphere that celebrated the flavors of a culture Chefs Jeremy Ashby and Miguel Rivas both love.
Rivas was born and raised on a family ranch in the Dominican Republic where “farm to table” was second nature. Inspired by Sunday dinners prepared with fresh meats and produce straight from the garden, he honed his skills in culinary school and began working as an apprentice in several New York City restaurants. He is fondly remembered as the “fish preparer” at the famed Jean-Georges in Central Park, and as the head cook at Patria Restaurant, which featured Latin and island cuisine. Now, as co-owner and executive chef of Brasabana, Rivas is proud to bring the tradition of fresh, bold flavors and locally sourced ingredients to Lexington.
While working at AZUR restaurant with Ashby, the two would often discuss plans and ideas for a Cuban-themed restaurant. “As time went on, the idea became stronger and stronger, and we finally decided to put it in motion,” recalls Rivas.
Rivas and Ashby, along with partners Bernie Lovely and Rob Mudd, own the AZUR Food Group, which includes AZUR and Brasabana restaurants, as well as Dupree Catering and Events.
Ashby explained how the concept evolved. “It really was a natural progression. I had lived in Miami where there is a strong Cuban influence, and I worked at a restaurant that was considered the mecca of Nuevo Latino cuisine. When I came back to Lexington and started working at AZUR with Miguel, we cooked dishes from all over the world together. It was interesting to work with a native Latin American chef, because we knew the same language when it came to food.”
Once the pair began rolling out more dishes with South American, Latin American and Caribbean influences, they developed a love affair with the cuisine and knew it was time to open a restaurant where those flavors could really shine.
“It’s about sunlight and spice, garlic and citrus”, said Ashby. “Our dishes are filled with bold, unapologetic flavors. But at the same time, we really believe that Latin American food is comfort food.” And indeed, many of the dishes served at Brasabana can find their distant cousins in American cooking, particularly from the Southern region. For example, Ropa Vieja, a classic Cuban dish made from slow-cooked shredded beef with tomatoes, peppers, and onion, has many of the same qualities as a pot roast.
“People are familiar with Cuban culture,” said Rivas. “We knew we wanted to serve Nuevo Latino, Caribbean and Cuban food, but we chose a Cuban theme because we know the familiarity is there. There are a lot of people in the horse industry that live in both Lexington and Florida, and we thought food would be a great way to bridge that gap.”
In addition to Cuban favorites, Brasabana’s menu offers a generous sprinkling of Island and South American flavors. A Peruvian-inspired dish, Chicken Fricasse, is made from slow cooked chicken with potatoes and vegetables, served with congri (a combination of black beans and rice cooked with bacon and spices). The Plantain Crusted Whitefish is served over mashed sweet plantains with bacon, poblano salsa and tamarind black olive aioli. Served often throughout the Dominican Republic, the Pollo y Pina, El Dominicanito consists of a chicken breast topped with fresh pineapple, Spanish cheese and ham over poblano mashed potatoes and sweet plantain salsa.
Popular appetizers and bar snacks include Empanadas, flaky pastry dough stuffed with beef and served alongside mushroom ceviche and chipotle aioli. Another customer favorite is Papas Rellenas, a mashed potato ball stuffed with crispy beef picadillo meat, papaya rosemary mojo and a chipotle queso dip. Desserts include Tres Leches cake and the “Smokeless Cuban Cigar”, chocolate cake roll served with warm rum caramel cream.
Serving locally grown food has always been a top priority for Brasabana, and for AZUR Food Group as a whole. “We found that the foods that grow plentifully in Kentucky – tomatoes, peppers, cilantro – are the backbone of Latin American cuisine,” said Ashby.
Rivas added, “People sometimes think that Latin American food is all very spicy, but that’s not the case with Cuban food. It’s more about recipes cooked at home for large families, and meals that have stood the test of time for generations. And that kind of food is what Southerners like, too. We are used to the big Sunday spread, slow cooked meats and plenty of side dishes. Some of our dishes may seem foreign at first, but once you take a bite, they’re surprisingly familiar and comforting.”
Q & A with Miguel Rivas
What is the last meal you prepared for yourself? I think it was a Sunday dinner for my family. I made meatloaf with lots of BBQ sauce and chopped vegetables.
Tell us about your family. I have two kids, ages 5 and 17, and a grown stepson.
What was your favorite food as a child? Chicharrón (fried pork belly). I grew up on a farm in the Dominican Republic and my father used to raise pigs and cows. But we’d also go to the local butcher shop to buy fresh meat for the family. Pork was always my favorite. If there was a feast or some kind of celebration, we would always roast a pig on our property.
Do you have a least favorite food or dish? This surprises people, but I rarely eat bread, unless it’s a hamburger bun.
Describe working in your kitchen. I refer to cooking as my “daily dance”. Some people sing in the shower; I’m always whistling, singing or dancing in the kitchen. We also love listening to merengue, salsa, country, and pop.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a professional chef. While I was living in New York City, I was going to school for computer science and washing dishes for a Kosher catering company. The owner became a mentor to me, and eventually made me his sous-chef. He encouraged me to go to school and become a cook.
How did you end up in Lexington? I was looking for a more peaceful environment. New York was fun for a while, and I enjoyed watching the East Village change and grow over the years. But after I had a child, I wanted a more relaxed, family-oriented atmosphere.
What food trends would you like to see continue? I would like to see the Nuevo Latino concept continue to develop all over the United States. I think everyone should experience the culture and the food that comes from Latin America.
Any trends you’re not in favor of? I have read about certain restaurants that have eliminated tipping for servers. I think it will do more harm than good for the industry. If everyone is paid the same, where is the incentive to work harder and provide a great experience for the customer?
If you weren’t a chef, what would be doing? I’d probably be in the military. That was one of my childhood dreams, and I had a few relatives that were in the military back home. But I ended up on a different path, which made my mother very happy!
Plantain Crusted Tilapia and Sweet Plantain Mash, with Poblano Salsa and Tamarind Aioli (serves 6)
2 poblano peppers diced
1 small tomato, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons red onion, diced
2 tablespoons cucumber, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix well and refrigerate
3 ripe plantains
3 slices of bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon white onion, chopped
Boil sweet plantains until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain and set aside, keep hot. While plantains are cooking, place bacon in a sauté pan and cook slowly until most of the fat is rendered, add diced onion and cook until translucent.
Mash the sweet plantains with a potato masher or in a mixer to a smooth puree; add bacon and onion mixture and season with salt to taste.
Make the Plantain Crust
6 green plantains
½ cup canola oil
Thinly slice the plantains and deep fry in the oil until golden brown and crispy. Drain well on paper towels. Chop finely in a food processor and place in a shallow dish or plate.
6 tilapia fillets
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
Season the fish with salt and pepper, lightly coat it with flour on the skinned side, dip the same side in the egg mixture and then in the plantain crumbs, heat ¼ cup of oil in an oven proof saute’ pan and place fish coated side down, cooking slowly (crust will burn if fire is too high) until crust browns, then turn fish and finish in the a 350 degree oven – 6-10 minutes. Fish should be just white and flake. Do not overcook.
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon grated white onion, finely chopped
¼ cup black kalamata olives, finely chopped
¼ cup tamarind juice
Mix all ingredients well and refrigerate
To assemble, place plantain mash in the center of plate, place tilapia on the plantain, top it with poblano salsa and spoon the aioli in front of the fish.