Before Leku was established in 2019, authentic Basque cuisine was nearly nonexistent in Miami. Located in the city's Allapattah neighborhood, the new Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner shares its space with the Rubell Museum, one of the biggest private contemporary art collections in North America. Despite the pandemic, which forced the 148-seat restaurant to postpone its opening and run at half capacity from the start, Leku has quickly become a hotspot for adventurous wine drinkers, collectors and famous names.
General manager and wine director Alex Perez weaves around tables and past the restaurant's Guernica-inspired mural every night, familiarizing new guests and regulars with the gems and rarities on his 245-selection list—80 percent of which is devoted to Spain—such as R. Lopéz de Heredia bottlings, CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva and old-vine Albariños.
But when Perez got his start in hospitality, wine wasn't on his mind. Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Perez took to mojitos, daiquiris and cocktails during his training in the late 1990s, until a mentor showed him the path to wine. Perez quickly climbed the ranks in the restaurant business, only to have to climb the ladder again as a U.S. immigrant.
Perez recently sat down with Wine Spectator contributor Shawn Zylberberg at Leku (which means “place” in the Basque language, or Euskara) and spoke about the bottle that changed his life, Miamians’ curiosity about white wines and his passion for being on the floor every day.
Wine Spectator: How did your restaurant career begin?
I started in small restaurants in Havana, Cuba, around 1997, and ended up at El Patio de la Catedral in 2000, which was one of the most important restaurants of the city at that time. My first interest was more around bartending, so I studied bartending and service in order to work in touristic restaurants. One of my co-workers had won the IBA (International Bartenders Association) World Cocktail Championship in 2000 and working with him got me interested in cocktails. We were young kids, and it was exciting making drinks together. At first, Cuba didn't have a big wine culture; it was the capital of the mojito and daiquiri.
And how did you switch over to wine?
I grew up really fast in the industry and became the youngest captain of my entire company of waiters at El Patio. One of my mentors, Reynaldo, is the reason I fell in love with hospitality. He was the director of operations at El Patio and gave me opportunities and pushed me to go to sommelier school. He said, 'I signed you up for the sommelier course, and we're going to open a bottle of wine so you can get an idea of what you're getting into.' He popped open a 1989 Bodegas Vega Sicilia Unico. I still remember the taste of that bottle, how balanced it was and incredibly perfect it tasted. It was a changing moment in my life. After that day, I tasted and read everything I could about wine.
Cuba in the ’90s did not have a lot of access to those important wines. Options were restricted, and there were two to three main Spanish brands that controlled the market, along with a little bit from Argentina and Chile at that time. The most available wine was Concha y Toro. Freixenet was another brand with a large presence, and they co-sponsored the sommelier school with the National Sommelier Association. Every tasting we did was around Familia Torres or Freixenet, which were predominant wines there, along with a little bit of Porto and wines from Marqués de Cáceres.
I worked at El Patio from 2000 to 2008, then left the country to go to Neuquén, Argentina, for a year, where I visited my first winery, Bodegas del Fin del Mundo.
And you continued your hospitality career when you came to Miami?
I came to the U.S. in 2009, and Miami made sense because I had family here. I was thinking, 'Do I want to continue in restaurants? Why not?' There's something about this industry that keeps pulling me on. But I barely spoke English at the time. In Argentina, I started again, and when I got here, I had to start from scratch as well. I tried to get into management in Miami, but it was impossible. When you get here, you realize your English is very basic [laughs]. I worked in a few Cuban restaurants in 2009, and then I started as a busser at a Mexican restaurant that opened in 2010. I spent a year working there and became close with chef José Mendín. I joined his Pubbelly restaurant company and spent eight years opening concepts in Miami such as Pubbelly Sushi. Then I was presented with the opportunity to open the Leku project at Rubell Museum as a general manager.
What was it like opening during the pandemic?
The idea was to start the restaurant with dinner service, then add lunch service and grow from there, but then 2020 happened. We never got to open on time. At the end of June 2020, the museum decided it would open its doors in July and wanted us to do it together. At the time, outdoor dining allowed us to do that. We were only open for lunch, and it changed the dynamic of everything.
This was my first restaurant where I was able to have fun selling white wine. It was lunch during summertime, outside, and everybody was trying to drink white. I always loved white wine, but from a business standpoint, our Miami clientele leans toward red wine, even when it's 90 degrees outside. But here it was totally different.
We have a different offering of whites, including local Basque Txakoli wines, Albariño, Godello, Priorat whites, Rioja whites, things that I was never able to sell before. Those were always hard sells, something you have to explain to guests. But people came and still come to try new wines. In this city, Spanish whites are usually considered cheap and easy to drink. But I put a $200 bottle of Raúl Pérez’s Sketch on the menu to see if it would sell, and it didn't last a week. We ended up getting everything the supplier had.
At the beginning, white wine was king. Lunch outside was conducive to it, along with the sauces and the seafood, which paired well with that acidity. But once we started opening for dinner, we saw the tendency go toward traditional red Spanish Riojas. The two main tendencies of our clients are the big, bold Tempranillos compared to Bordeaux drinkers, and then adventurous wines such as those of Raúl Pérez.
Do you see the Miami wine scene changing?
There are days that you see every single table with a bottle of wine. I believe it's a growing tendency in Miami. A big portion of our clientele has been people that recently moved to Miami from New York, Chicago and California. [People from] other regions are coming here as well and experiencing Miami culture and its wine and spirits expansion. Those national and international wine collectors are moving their collections down here and bringing more of that wine culture to Miami. It's not that there wasn't one before, but a big portion of those people that have become our clients are bringing their passion for wine into Miami and challenging you to make lists more interesting and giving you a reason to provide those difficult-to-find wines, adding depth to the wine list. It has created a challenge. Last year we got 10 cases of Bodegas Aalto. I thought it would last us the entire year and it lasted two months [laughs]. We also worked really hard to get Bodegas Mauro's Godello on the list, a wine that wasn't imported and we pushed for our customers.
How would you describe your clientele?
Up to 40 percent of our clientele are Spaniards who have become regulars, some of them local to Miami. Tourism accounts for a maximum of 20 percent of our clientele, so it's a very local restaurant. But chefs such as Francis Mallmann and Paul Liebrandt have also become big fans of Leku, and Queen Sofía of Spain visited us last month.
What are some interesting wines you've opened recently?
We opened a 1976 Viña Tondonia the other night. That was incredibly good and one of the best wines I have tried in my life. One of those things that wowed me too was a 2001 Rioja Alta 890.
As a wine director, are you always on the floor?
Yes. Being on the floor is what I like the most. What is most important to this restaurant and our clientele is for me to constantly have my finger on the pulse of the community, as well as on the current market trends of what my guests are saying they would like to experience. That doesn't happen from behind an office, but from interacting and building relationships with our guests. Those people that come expect to see me on the floor and offer them something to try.