Tapas at Las Culebrinas in Coconut Grove

Las Culebrinas is a family style Cuban – themed restaurant with locations in Coconut Grove and Little Havana.Visiting the Coconut Grove location, before entering the restaurant  on a Saturday afternoon the first observation is that even though Las Culebrinas has their own parking lot, there is an attendant in the empty lot wishing to charge you $4 for the privilege of parking and dining at the establishment even though Berrie’s next door has their own free parking.

Entering the establishment through a large, rustic door,  one is immediately greeted by a host and offered seating. The restaurant was largely empty this afternoon, though it was almost 2pm – not a peak hour.  The servers were very attentive and a delicious bread was immediately brought to the table along with water.  The decor was striking – The restaurant looks like a time capsule from 1974. It is obvious that a lot of money was spent on the original design but it has not been updated since then. Perhaps this is intentional, part of their motif?  Movie site scouts should know about this place for filming period pieces.

I sampled their tapas selection on two different occasions. They have reduced tapas prices during happy hour and their regular prices are not bad. Calamares Fritos ($7.95) were not good. For some reason, every Cuban restaurant seems to have fried calamari on the menu, but every one also seems to buy them pre-breaded and frozen and does a pretty awful job of them.  Their Camarón Ajillo ($7.95) or garlic shrimp was much better. This is also an authentic Spanish – style tapas dish. The large shrimp were properly seasoned and well presented in garlic, herbs and olive oil without the shrimp being overcooked or greasy.  The mejillones  al vapor ($7.50) or steamed mussels were surprisingly good. This is a dish many restaurants mess up, often due to inferior quality mussels, poor preparation or overcooking.  Las Culebrinas got it right.  The mussels were not at all bitter – which is a common shortcoming, and were hearty in flavor without being fishy or overpowering. The buttery sauce went well with the bread brought to the table, which also paired nicely with the manchego cheese plate ($7.95). The cheese was ample in quantity and perfectly acceptable – though not exceptional quality.  Ice tea was $2 per glass and there are no free refills.

Overall Las Culebrinas cooks passable food, the high point was certainly very polite, friendly and attentive – though somewhat formal service.  As the restaurant experience includes ambiance as well as food, though the food is decent I would not take a date to Las Culebrinas because the decor looks like an old funeral home or a haunted mansion. It’s the kind of place to stop into when you are in the neighborhood alone and have 40 minutes to kill, to take advantage of their happy hour prices.

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Cinco Cantina & Tequila Bar = Cinco horas to get served? #FAIL

There is a new restaurant in the beautiful Merrick Park shopping center in Miami’s upscale Coral Gables suburb. I was recently invited to the grand opening of this new Mexican themed eatery. Those of you who know me also know that I have a constant complaint that I have yet to find really good Mexican food in Miami. That complaint still stands.  Typical for Miami, restauranteurs take something simple and try to make it complicated, thinking that complicated is a synonym for sophisticated.  Oh, I have had Haute Mexican Cuisine – as part of a diplomatic delegation in the Hotel Intercontinental in Mexico City.  It really worked.  What happens north of the border goes more like this:  Restauranteurs try to scam people by serving simple food in a snooty way and think they can charge exorbitantly for it.  If you want to serve something innovative and iconoclastic from the Mexican vernacular, go for it. But chicken tacos, chips and salsa are not haute cuisine.

So I arrive about 5:30.  Cinco was very busy due to their grand opening celebration. I assume they had a soft opening to work their kinks out so the fact that you have a grand opening means you should be prepared to handle it.  I headed to the bar where they were supposedly serving free margaritas.  After waiting over 10 minutes (imagine you are in a busy nightclub and you’re not a VIP) a pleasant but clearly overwhelmed bartender asked me for a “ticket.” Nobody said anything about a ticket.  He instructed me to go back outside where I had to fill out a form signing up for their email list, at which point they gave me a ticket. Now I am no lush but the invitation I received, and I have it in front of me as I write this, says “Complimentary Margaritas.” It does not say “Enjoy one margarita if you sign up for our e-mail list.” In fact, the email says specifically “Enjoy Complimentary Maragritas” (sic).  Anyway, fine.  Ticket in hand, I returned to the bar that was stacked about 3 deep with people patiently waiting for their “maragritas.”   To his credit, the same overwhelmed bartender recognized me, asked me if I wanted salt or not, and served me my pre-mixed margarita from a pitcher in a water glass.  I always like quantity, but this was lime Kool-aid.  Not the bartender’s fault I don’t think, this stuff probably came from some kind of tank in the back. It was not too sweet, which is a plus with me. Margaritas generally give me a headache not from the alcohol, but from sugar shock.  Still there was no detectable alcohol in this. It tasted like the green stuff that you buy by the gallon in the grocery store for the cub scout meeting.

I wanted to eat.  They had a full patio, which said alot because they have a large attractive patio. I should say that generally Cinco is beautifully decorated with the glaring exception of a caricature mural of Emiliano Zapata painted by someone who is either an awful artist or really really hates (Mexican historical figure) Emiliano Zapata. Seeing that I was not going to be greeted in a traditional way, I went up to a manager type near the hostess station and asked about the appetizers which he graciously but quickly ran through. Every appetizer was $5 during happy hour except for the ceviche.  I asked for a table – which one should not have to do in a restaurant. “Well you can just order at the bar.” I turned around and looked at the bar stacked 3 deep. There were absolutely no seats at the bar, so perhaps he expected me to stand around, wait for my food, then take the plate and eat while standing around.  By this point it was clear that these people don’t know what they are doing.

I grabbed a menu (I was not offered one). I went out to the patio and there were no tables but at least I found a seat.  This was odd. There were some seats set out with no accompanying tables. Now why you would have random seats at a restaurant with no accompanying tables is not necessarily a bad thing but it is odd. Perhaps I hoped, someone would come by and serve me at my seat? Maybe with a TV tray from the 1960’s and 1970’s?  Well I sat there, overhearing a senior manager type (he had on a more expensive shirt and was older so even if he was not a senior manager, at least he was a senior) chew out a junior manager type for someone sitting a long time (like me) without being served. The junior manager type just went and chewed out the hostess and a server (I saw and heard it all).  So while I was sitting there hungry, I read the menu. To be clear  I am a gringo from Ohio, I can be excused for bad Spanish.  Miami is 65% Latino.  If you run a Mexican restaurant in Miami, make sure the Spanish on your menu is at least Spanish.

Since I didn’t get to actually TRY any food, due to their lack of interest in serving any, let’s play editor, going down column by column. Just like you amuse yourself on a long boring trip, This is how I amused myself during my long boring fruitless wait for service:

  • Ceviche Al Tun =  Al Tun?  No, Tuna in Spanish (even in Mexico) is Atún
  • Empanadas Di Jaiba = what is this, an Italian trattoria? “Di” does not exist as a word in Spanish. That is an Italian word.
  • Flautas Di Pato = “Di” #FAIL
  • Diarbol BBQ = I suppose they mean De Arból, which is a delicious fiery pepper from Mexico that grows on especially large bushes
  • Tortas = Ok, in Mexico that means sandwich and they have sandwiches listed. I can even understand having a Cuban sandwich as they do, after all this is Miami. But Instead of 2 hamburgers why not include the famous and delectable Mexican sandwich that is a specialty in the Mexican state of Michoacán:  Torta Ahogada?
  • Under “Sliders” they have:  “Braised Aciote Pork” = No, the word is Achiote, or if you are going to describe it in English, “Annato.”
  • Cochanitas = WTF? Really? Was this written by a drunken tourist from DuBuque Iowa (no offense to Hawkeyes) on vacation in Cozumel?  The word is “Cochinita” from the Spanish word “Cochino” meaning “Pork.”
  • PLATILLOS PRINCIPALES = Ok, so a “plato principal” means “main plate” or entrée. Is this a warning? Will your entree ($12-$27)  be served on a little saucer? Platillo means ” little plate” or  “saucer.”  I understand “jumbo shrimp.” But this, I don’t get.
Oh, another thing. I went to their website before writing this. It doesn’t work. None of the links on the website located at http://www.cincomiami.com work except for the menu link which opens a pdf version of a menu SUBSTANTIALLY different than the one they were actually using when I visited. If you do something people, do it right. Hopefully by the time you read this, they wil have fixed it. But this day in June 2011 it does not work. Somebody is not taking this seriously.
I wanted to write a review on the food, but I never got any. I was never asked if I wanted any. I asked a manager for some, he told me to go stand in line at the bar, even though the dining room had plenty of empty tables.  Maybe one day someone will drag me back here, which is what it will take for me to return. Many restaurants have to work out opening kinks and do get better eventually. I will even admit my bar had sucky service, which is why I did the honorable thing:  fired everyone and closed it.  Cinco Cantina & Tequila Bar left me hungry and dissappointed. The only bright spot was the amusement I got from reading the menu, apparently edited by Google Translate accidentally set to Italian.

La Pupusa Factory should be renamed…

Why Should La Pupusa Factory be renamed? Because this establishment is anything but a factory. The food is clearly homemade with care and attentiveness at this truly mom & pop establishment located in the heart of Little Havana, at 1947 West Flagler Street in Miami. Upon seating, I asked the teenage waiter for the best Salvadorean beer. “Let me go ask my dad which one is the best” was his honest answer – I guess it’s a good thing that he wasn’t sure, no? I ended up with a Salvadoren Pilsener ($3.50) that was a typical hot weather pilsener, but good enough. Anyway, my quest to sample the Loroco – the flower bud of a plant that grows in El Salvador and other parts of Guatemala & Central America led a friend and me  to La Pupusa Factory.

The Pupusa is a Central American bread similar to the Mexican gordita. It is to El Salvador what the tortilla is to Mexico or the Arepa is to Colombia and Venezuela.  Like the Arepa, it is often stuffed with savory fillings such as meats and cheeses. Our waiter immediately brought out some nacho chips and salsa, and at this point I asked him to go ahead and have the kitchen start on a couple of loroco and cheese pupusas.($2.50 each)  The pupusa is a soft cooked bread that is reminiscent of  a pancake, but savory rather than sweet and made from alkali treated corn. Though the ingredients are similar, this gives the pupusa a very different texture than the arepas of South America. The nachos were not that good – some were nice and crisp but others were chewy and stale. It seemed like a quality control issue of not strictly adhering to a first in – first out serving method. Less experienced restaurant staff will often dump fresh nachos into a big bin and serve from the top while the ones on the bottom get older and older. I am not saying this is what necessarily happened but that is how they tasted. On the other hand, the mexican style sauce was excellent. It was the runny version instead of the chunky version I prefer but this is a preference. The flavor was very very good and well balanced.

As we waited, the juke box came on and off with various unpredictable tunes and wild volume variations. Fair warning:  The take out menu clearly states: La Pupusa Factory / Tienda de Musica Garcia Records. So as long as you know what to expect – you’re eating in a restaurant slash music store – you should take it as par for the course.  Anyway, in a reasonably quick time we were served our pupusas along with a couple versions of the typical Central American onion based slaw called curtido, and a very mild hot sauce.  The pupusas were delicious. Hot, with long strings of white cheese dangling from every fork full. The mild flavor of the loroco was subtle and did not serve as the center of attention but was a supporting ingredient, like pickles on a hamburger The cheese was clearly the standout in our pupusas, but they also can be ordered with a myriad of fillings such as chicken, beef, shrimp or beans.

The Pupusas are very filling but continuing on our culinary adventure, we ordered the Honduran dish known as a Baleada. A baleada is a large soft wheat tortilla filled with refried beans, sour cream, Central American white cheese, and perhaps other ingredients such as meat, eggs or curtido. We ordered a Baleada con Carne ($4.50) which came with 2 small slabs of very flavorful flank steak.  Cutting into the baleada released a delicious aroma from the combination of sour cream and spices. The steak was not overly tough, even though flank or skirt steak is not known as a tender cut. Honestly, a baleada is not that different in flavor or concept from a burrito but the execution and quality were very well done here and it was a great value for the price and size. The menu at La Pupusa Factory is extensive, with several platters, seafood entrees, appetizers, breakfasts and ala carte items.  After the pupusas and sharing the baleada there was no room to venture anywhere else on the menu. All the more reason to return.  La Pupusa is a small family operation with 2 locations (the other is 1804 W 68th St. in Hialeah) and the pride of ownership is evident. The bathrooms are well maintained, tables are properly set and though located in a humble Little Havana storefront, it was spotlessly clean during our visit.  The young waiter not only checked up on us constantly, but he voluntarily and vigilantly tended the meter where my car was parked out front.

La Pupusa serves hearty, blue collar food from 8am until after midnight every day at affordable prices. It is what I imagine as the Central American version of a family diner. Take into account that it dabbles as a record store and according to the Spanish language announcements, provides live entertainnment on certain weekends (oh yeah, and there is a DJ booth) but the food shows that they are paying attention where it counts. Maybe not the place to impress a first date, but maybe a good place to cheer up your steady girlfriend after a bad day. Fill her up on El Salvador’s version of comfort food while you play her favorite ballada on the jukebox. Definitely worth a visit.

Luisa Pulido – perhaps the best kept secret of Miami’s art scene.

This may be somewhat off topic but it is worth mentioning. Last night I attended the opening reception at the Museum of the Americas http://www.museumamericas.org/ for the exhibition “7 Artists from 7 Countries” and an adjunct showing by Mexico’s Cyntia Caballero. Since this is a culinary blog i will mention that the hors d’oeuvres were tasty but pedestrian, the wine was of the supermarket variety (this is not a complaint, there was no charge for admission, either) and most of the art was ok, with some noteworthy abstractions by Italian Corrado de Benedictis; however the standout work was undoubtedly that of Colombian artist Luisa Pulido. I had efficiently been moving from room to room, painting to painting but when I encountered her works I no longer moved. I just stared. Pulido’s paintings are not art you look at, rather art you look into. There were some individual pieces yet the most impressive was an abstract series that took up several canvasses and the majority of a 20′ exhibit wall. I know food, not art; so I won’t pretend to write an art review. I know what I like, though.

A curator noticed and as Ms. Pulido was in attendance, introduced me. Pulido explained that these were her earlier works, her style has evolved somewhat since then. None of her recent works were present though she was able to show me several images and they have only left me anxious to see more.  Showing the most consistent and well thought out work of this entire international exhibit,  I was stunned to learn that Pulido is entirely self taught! Miami is home to successful and world famous Colombian artists like Romero Brito, but I will be following abstractionist Luisa Pulido from now on. http://www.luisapulido.com/

The Grand Crew

I am not a wine expert.  I know wine perhaps better than the average diner, I know my grapes, I know how to order and pair wines and I can usually identify a wine by taste. Being somewhat of an oenophile, I have made wine successfully at home, but again I am not a wine expert. I don’t qualify as a sommelier and bottle to bottle, my beer to wine ratio is surely over 10:1. However, one of my best friends on this planet is an accomplished wine connoisseur since his days at Lindey’s, an esteemed Columbus eatery. Having been bitten by the wine bug (surely a weevil), he traveled to Napa Valley, then to France where he not only obtained a master’s degree, but put in work at the vaunted Domaine du Closel under the tutelage of  Madame Evelyne de Pontbriand.

I strongly recommend following his wine blog  http://thegrandcrew.org/ which is extensive and well written. Kenny is fluent in English, Spanish & French and is quick to offer advice and counsel on all things wine related.  Talk is cheap but Kenny knows what he is talking about.  Kenny is famous as someone who has eaten or will eat practically anything, trust his advice if you are facing a difficult or unusual pairing. He won’t let you down.

Gigi’s in Midtown: Trendy, delicious value

“Ugh, this looks like one of those artsy, overpriced places!”  was my first thought as i walked in and perused the surroundings. I had been invited to meet at this Midtown Miami establishment located at 3470 N. Miami Avenue after attending an event at the very impressive De La Cruz Collection http://www.delacruzcollection.org .  The interior is very attractive, dominated by an open kitchen with fresh ingredients prominently on display. An ample dining room, busy, noisy but in a good way, not cramped. Bustling would be the word.   Self parking in the rear was a reasonable $3.

We were greeted immediately by a stylish friendly hostess. Upon our request, she seated us on the street-side patio.   Right away, a very attractively plated grilled butternut squash snack was brought out. Listed on the menu at $5 we were not charged for it. Squash was cooked then finished on the grill and served with yogurt and spicy vinegar. It was very hearty and were I not sharing, by itself it may have filled me up.  The service was very attentive but not overly so. Better than I have had at restaurants 4 times the price.

Reviewing the wine list, we settled upon a bottle of South African Star Tree Chenin Blanc. Fruity yet dry, it was very well paired to the light dinners and tapas fare Gigi specializes in. The Chenin Blanc was very good and if the other wines on the list are comparable in quality then Gigi is to be applauded for outstanding value. Every wine was under $30 a bottle except for one top champagne and one top sake. Beer starts at $2 and these are not happy hour specials!

Though they bill themselves as “noodles – bbq – beer” one would be dissappointed if expecting a traditional American style barbecue joint. They do have ribs served with Asian hoisin sauce and Peruvian rocoto peppers ($16) and they also have a 16 ounce grilled ribeye steak on the menu ($26) served with perilla (shiso) and hollandaise. This is not a rib shack.

Next we ordered cobia sashimi ($8) and tuna ($8) from the raw menu. Familiar with Cobia, a common Florida saltwater fish, I had never before seen it in a sashimi presentation. It came plated with mango, an unexpected pairing that worked well. The tuna was served in a roll fashioned out of cucumber with avocado. Oddly, I had just had this at the catered De La Cruz reception. Is this the new food couture for this season, or coincidentally could it have been catered by the same organization? Whatever the case, it was well conceived and well presented.

Moving on to the hot menu, Gigi features buns, which both the hostess and the waiter recommended as a specialty. Their buns (all $7) were actually small rounds of white spongy bread; different from, but reminiscent of Ethiopian Injera bread. They were employed taco – style around the fillings. We ordered buns of mixed mushrooms  and beef brisket.  Buns are served two per order and are larger than a taco but 2 together would equal a typical burrito in capacity to fill.  I enjoyed both types, especially the mushroom, but my companion disliked the mushroom; probably for the same reason I liked it so much. The mushroom flavor was not delicate but robust and smoky, which is to my liking. It is very mushroomy. and prepared with sesame and hoisin.

At this point we were far too sated off the snack / appetizer menu to attempt the noodle or rice bowls ($14-16) which are menu features along with entries such as short rib meat loaf ($10) and seared pork belly ($15).  Aside from the aforementioned ribeye, no entree was more than $16.  One gripe is that when the waiter asked if we wanted water with our wine, iced tap water would have sufficed and was what I expected – in fact it’s what I thought I had but evidently I had some special artsy water that cost $2.  It could be worse but we should have been offered a choice. In the past I had been rather underwhelmed with Miami’s Wynwood / Design district scene; so long on style but short on substance or value. Either I have been mistaken the whole time, or Gigi is a welcome exception. http://www.giginow.com

Fontana at the Biltmore Hotel: Elegance without pretentiousness

This is a preliminary review. I promise to update it and add more but I wanted to write this while still fresh in my memory…

Ah the Biltmore. An imposing “resort” in the bluest of blue blood enclaves, Coral Gables. The Biltmore ( http://www.biltmorehotel.com ) serves as a first class hotel, inasmuch as a country club for locals.  Since relocating to Miami, I have had 3 or 4 occasions to visit The Biltmore, usually for some type of function or another.  While valet parking is de rigeur in Miami, the Biltmore also gives you the uncommon option of free self – parking.

A beautiful structure ensconced upon  stunning, well landscaped grounds, the staff is flawlessly welcoming and helpful, not at all snooty, and obviously well trained. Still, you are left with no doubt that you are somewhere extraordinary.

Most recently, I had the occasion to dine in Fontana, Biltmore’s Italian themed restaurant.  Fontana has an open style kitchen and a busy feel to it, though not so much to detract from intimacy. The open feel with an abundance of windows fit well with the leisure-luxe vernacular of the Biltmore. One felt relaxed, but not T-shirt & flip-flop relaxed. More like upscale but open to the public golf-club relaxed, but alas that is exactly what the Biltmore is. My first course was Burrata Pugliese ($14), essentially a plate of red and gold tomatoes topped with a generous dollop of Burrata cheese, still in the form of the pouch it came from. Burrata is no pizza cheese! It is light, buttery not at all dense, with an obviously high moisture content. Burrata is a product of Mozzarella and cream.  The plate was garnished with several types of olives and accompanied by a basket of assorted breads.

The main course was Ombrina e Capperi ($29), a creatively presented plate of chilean sea bass (patagonian toothfish), perfectly cooked and garnished with what at first I thought were almonds but were mushrooms, leeks and in a white sauce that spiced but did not overpower the fish.

A co-diner had a delicious looking Tonnarelli alla Carbonara ($20) – Square pasta, cured Guanciale (similar to bacon), in a dressing of eggs, and Italian hard cheeses. I was unable to sample it this time but will report in a future entry.  I ordered an expresso and it did take longer than it should have, but otherwise the staff was attentive. I was part of a large party, perhaps 15 diners in all.  I got called away on an urgency before I was able to enjoy my coffee or dessert, but all the more reason to return.

I want to return in a more intimate setting, but first impressions are very positive. Considering the setting, Biltmore dining is actually a good value.

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