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Carmen González Returns With Fine Fare

Chef working new wonders


May 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

News flash: It's the return of the Mighty Mite. That five-foot-tall, white-aproned blur, whisking from table to table in the stately lobby restaurant of the Gables' David William Hotel, talking a mile a minute with one side of her mouth and air-kissing familiar cheeks with the other, is Carmen González, one of Miami's early star chefs. Underground in the catering business since leaving Tamarind at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel in the mid-'90s, González has resurfaced as chef/owner of Carmen The Restaurant, a 2-month-old hit in the spot formerly occupied by Donna's Bistro.

Gables old-timers remember González from Clowns, a whimsical early-fusion space that lasted a bit less than two years, done in by underfinancing and the first Gulf War. González opened Clowns with an uncomplicated, honest menu peppered with spicy and exciting influences from her native Puerto Rico, and she has not wavered here. Items from the Isle of Enchantment -- gandules, sweet plantains, mofongo, sofrito -- dance in and out, but the main theme is simple, expertly prepared dishes. The chef visits each table at dinner, and the hospitality works: On our visit, two tablesful had tracked González from Clowns to Tamarind to 2003. They were able to recite favored dishes from 14 years ago, which might be too much information, but it's good to have fans, right?

Carmen's flavors -- and portions -- lean to the light, subscribing to the philosophy that a mountain of food on one's plate is an appetite disincentive. This is generally true, and a welcome invitation to eat everything brought to the table, although we'd say a special starter, barbecued shrimp ($15), erred on the light side, especially in price comparison. Four jumbo shrimp were marinated 48 hours (as are all Carmen meats) in garlic and olive oil, then dabbed with homemade barbecue sauce and quickly grilled. They arrived draped over a martini glass piled high with deliciously crunchy shoestring potatoes, and a shot glass filled with the tangy sauce.

Roasted duck tamale ($10) isn't large, either, but it's outstanding. Marinated duck is slow-slow roasted and then ''pulled,'' like you would Carolina barbecue. It's cooked with cornmeal and onion to make the tamale, which is remarkably moist and fresh, curling with steam. On the plate is a vintage port sauce with shallots and red wine vinegar, butter and cream. Mighty rich, but it's readily offset by a bright relish of roasted corn, black beans, red pepper, scallions and cilantro.

González likes to use bits of meat with lighter dishes to create an illusion of richness. This works well in a colorful salad of bibb lettuce, avocado, orange slices and red onions; the sharp vinaigrette gains heft from a fat handful of Italian pancetta, and it does wonders for texture here.

Monkfish is a favorite. At Tamarind, she served it with calabaza fritters; here it's sliced into medallions over warm French lentil salad. The lush, full-textured loin is pan-seared, finished in the oven and coated with a glaze of aged balsamic vinegar and butter. The lentils make this an earthy, meaty dish, and you'll eat every one.

Most expensive entree is grilled Colorado lamb chops ($30), a half-rack marinated in rosemary, olive oil and garlic and grilled, properly juicy. The surprise here is a fruity puree of potato and Jerusalem artichoke; grilled asparagus adds green. The beauty of simplicity. Same goes for pork tenderloin ($18), marinated in garlic and adobo, pan-seared and then roasted, cooking in its own juices. Puerto Ricans will gobble up a stew of gandules (pigeon peas) with sofrito and ham hock, as well as a lush puree of boiled sweet plantains.

A ragout of shiitake and cremini mushrooms helps make rosemary marinated tenderloin ($22) Carmen's top-selling entree. The succulent beef is served with simple mashed potatoes, and the mushrooms, cooked in butter and white wine, add luxury.

Desserts are few: Our menu featured three, plus a new one that night: pineapple upside down cake ($7). Straight-ahead cake, with caramelized pineapples, but González's twist is a sauce of roasted macadamias soaked in Captain Morgan rum and a reduction of pineapple juice. It's a happy return.

• Restaurant: CARMEN.

• Food: VERY GOOD.

• Service: Outstanding. Our server had deep knowledge of the menu and a terrific sense of humor.

• Atmosphere: Calm, soothing. Adult.

• Price range: $$$$. Most entrees $20 or more.

• Address: In the David William Hotel, 700 Biltmore Way, Coral Gables.

• Telephone: 305-913-1944.

• Hours: Noon to 3 Monday-Friday for lunch, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; till 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

• Reservations: Recommended on weekends.

• Credit cards: All major.

• Children's menu: No.

• Designated nonsmoking area: No smoking.

• Bar service: Full bar.

• Wheelchair access: Yes.

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