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The Miami Herald

Elegance with an Accent

At last, Latin fine dining achieves a critical mass


April 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Miami Herald. All rights reserved.

Long plantain chips tower like a sculpture over grouper ceviche arranged in a coconut half-shell that's set in a delicate wine glass. An aromatic, sofrito- and cilantro-spiced soup of shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams billed as ''Caribbean bouillabaisse'' arrives in an elegant cazuela.

''It's my mother's sopa -- but with a little more cachet,'' confides Sean Bernal, the Puerto Rican-Cuban chef behind the menu at Pescado, one of a new crop of elegant Latin-inspired restaurants in South Florida.

White tablecloths and black beans are not a new combination here, but with the arrival of Cacao, Carmen The Restaurant, Chocolate, Chispa, Mundo, OLA and Pescado, Latin cuisine has reached a critical mass on the local fine-dining scene. Call it novísimo latino cuisine, a step beyond the Nuevo Latino movement born here in the late 1980s.

'Our approach wasn't `Let's try to reinvent.' We weren't really trying to be Nuevo Latino. It was to give first and second generation latinos a stylish setting and a more modern interpretation of a Latin restaurant at reasonable prices,'' says Robbin Haas, executive chef and co-owner of Chispa.

Haas puts his 6-month-old Coral Gables hot spot in context with two traditional Cuban favorites and the late Miami branch of Victor del Corral's famed New York cafe:

``We are more expensive than Havana Harry's or Versailles, but cheaper than other Latin institutions in Miami and around the country. We're different from what Victor's was -- just Cuban cooking. We run the gamut of influences of Hispanic, Latin culture.''

Haas, a major player on the South Florida dining scene for 15 years, is probably best known for his Russian-tinged menu at the former Red Square on South Beach and the tropical/Asian cuisine he created for Baleen in Coconut Grove.

But he also was, as Norman Van Aken once quipped, ''the fifth Mango,'' an added starter to the Mango Gang of four -- Mark Militello, Douglas Rodríguez, Allen Susser and Norman Van Aken -- who created South Florida's New World version of regional American cuisine in the 1980s.

It was Rodríguez, of course, who took plantains uptown at Yuca, the groundbreaking Nuevo Cubano restaurant Efraín Veiga opened in Coral Gables in 1989. But within four years, Rodríguez was on his way uptown himself, to a string of successes in New York. Yuca, meanwhile, through changing ownership and fortunes, remained virtually the only high-profile Nuevo Latino restaurant in one of the country's most heavily Hispanic regions.

It's not that the concept was absent from our best kitchens. For three years, Michelle Bernstein has been incorporating Argentine elements in her critically acclaimed food at Azul.

''Finally, I can call it what it is,'' says Bernstein, a nominee for the James Beard Foundation's best chef/Southeast prize this year. ``It was only a matter of time before it became established as a white tablecloth food.

``I was always sneaking it into my dishes. It's in my soul. It's what my Argentinean mother gave me. Every time I made bouillabaisse, it had a sofrito in it. Every time I did escabeche, and I used to call it something different . . . It was what I grew up with made fancy.''

As a measure of the trend's national prominence, the theme of the Beard awards reception on May 10 is Sabor Latino (Latin Flavor). Bernstein, along with Haas, Rodríguez, Carmen González (Carmen The Restaurant) and Edgar Leal (Cacao), are among three dozen chefs invited to cook for the elite of American cuisine at the New York Marriott Marquis.

So after helping to launch the trend 15 years ago, South Florida is catching up to the bandwagon with a spate of upscale Latin restaurants:

Mundo and Pescado are located at the pricey Village of Merrick Park in Coral Gables. Mundo is a chic, 276-seat bistro created by Van Aken as a casual alternative to his flagship Norman's a few blocks away. Pescado is a seafood restaurant noted for its over-the-top decor, complete with waterfall walls and mermaid tails. At Chispa (''spark'' in Spanish) across the street from Merrick Park, the bill comes in a small envelope inscribed in red, ``La Dolorosa (The Painful One).''

Cacao opened 18 months ago on Coral Gables' restaurant row, Giralda Avenue. Designed by Venezuelan Andrés Alibrandi, the romantically lit interior features marble floors, silver walls and German chandeliers. Venezuelan chef-owner Leal has added Peruvian and Ecuadorian ceviches to his largely traditional menu of regional Latin American cuisine. Dishes like black tamal mixed with shellfish are served on elegant, oversized plates.

At Chocolate on Coral Way, the cuisine is Argentine gourmet -- a combination of pastas, meats and seafood dishes in a white-table cloth setting amid colorful Latin American art. Think warm, charming little meat empanadas as appetizers and a prosciutto risotto accented with chocolate shavings.

Owned by Luis Vidal, formerly of Giacosa, the restaurant is replicating the success of other gourmet Argentine ventures like La Porteña in west Miami-Dade, which combines the famed Argentine beef parrilla with Italian gourmet.

At Carmen, named one of 2003's best new restaurants by Esquire magazine, González riffs on Puerto Rican standards in dishes like grilled Key West shrimp pionono (plantain pinwheels) and papa rellena with picadillo, a ground beef-stuff potato mash, with warm, charred tomato vinaigrette.

Rodríguez returned to Miami last year to open OLA (Of Latin America), where the Peruvian side dish tacu-tacu is a vegetarian entree, Cuban imperial rice trades its homey chicken and cheese for fat grilled shrimp and mahi-mahi is served over shredded oxtail.

''My place is doing well,'' Rodríguez says. ``I see a lot of people between 40 and 60 and the same mix as Miami's population, 60 percent Hispanic, a lot of high-end Hispanics.''

Is this upscale Latin love affair a passing trend or will it last like the infatuation with Northern Italian cuisine and the universal hegemony of French?

''It's definitely here to stay and I believe more restaurants of this caliber will be opening up,'' says Rodríguez.

``When I started in Miami at Yuca . . . people would leave the restaurant and say, `Why would I want to come back and spend $35 for rabo [oxtail] when I can go to La Carreta and get it for $7.95?

``But Miami has grown as a city, and restaurants in Miami Beach have really educated Miami as to how to eat and appreciate good quality food -- not comparing oxtail for oxtail, but appreciating a restaurant for what it really is, a night of entertainment and not just having dinner. Now they are not comparing Latin restaurant to Latin restaurant -- but high-end to high-end restaurant.''

Restaurants mentioned in the story:

• Azul, 500 Brickell Key Dr. (Mandarin Oriental Hotel), Miami; 305-577-0907.

• Cacao, 141 Giralda Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1001.

• Carmen the Restaurant, in the David William Hotel, 700 Biltmore Way, Coral Gables; 305-913-1944 .

• Chispa, 225 Altara Ave., Coral Gables; 305-648-2600.

• Chocolate, 2091 Coral Way, Miami; 305-858-9088.

• Mundo, 325 San Lorenzo Ave. (Village of Merrick Park), Coral Gables; 305-442-6787.

• OLA, 5061 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-758-9195.

• Pescado, 320 Avenue San Lorenzo Ave. (Village of Merrick Park), Coral Gables. 305-443-3474.

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