Surfin' Safari

Hunt no more for a wild restaurant in this otherwise tame town. Now find caribou, alligator, venison, pheasant, rabbit, and elk without going even to the Everglades. Cafe Cazando - Spanish for "hunting" - brings the great outdoors to a charming corner of Coral Gables.

While the two-month-old spot has a menu perhaps more easily suited to a Pacific Northwest inn, there are neither moose heads on the walls nor pickled eggs at the bar. Instead, the flora-and-fauna paintings, seafoam-green linens, pale-canteloupe-color walls, and spanking white accents give the room an airy, elegant feel. The tropical interior is no aberration. Pineapples, mangoes, bananas, and ginger jazz up many of the unlocal dishes. With its sober, straightforward descriptions of dishes, the menu nevertheless soars over field and stream, ocean and island. No restaurant in town combines a greater range with such derring-do and virtuosity.

We perused that menu in style, sipping cocktails and eating soft, warm breadsticks, which we smothered in the accompanying herb butters - one given bravado by the aioli whipped into it, the other a pretty, pinkish mixture studded with bits of guava. All the while we marveled at entrees such as alligator scallopini, tender slices of alligator sauteed and finished with a hot-mustard-and-lime sauce, served over angel-hair pasta, and the calves brains with butter, lemon, garlic, and parsley. The wine list was equally thrilling with 104 domestics and foreigns culled from California and Washington, Spain, Chile, Italy, and France. Many bottles are available for less than $20, and we opted for a Simi Valley rose of cabernet at $16. It turned out to be a perfect companion to the bold dishes we selected.

Deciding on a starter was no mean feat, especially the choice between Martinique fish soup and the soup of the day. The special white bean, which won out, did not disappoint. Not unlike fabada this hearty soup brimmed with chunks of chorizo and salt pork rather than the standard-issue bacon. The waiter arrived at the table with a pepper mill, a subtle and often overlooked nicety, and after he noticed my dining companion poaching from my bowl, returned with a second soup spoon (much to my chagrin).

The avocado-and-heart-of-palm salad proved another stellar choice. To Gables adult-contemporary tunes by Julio Iglesias, Sade, Anita Baker, and Carly Simon, we devoured the gorgeous greens. A nutty, perfect aguacate and big, yet delicate, heart of palm sat amid slices of tomato, watercress, onions, red cabbage, and beets, the leaf bed fanned out in a lovely star shape, and lightly dressed in a fresh herb vinaigrette. Again sensing some thieving, the attentive waiter brought an extra salad dish and fork for my agressive companion, who attacked the crispy melange with a fervor he had never before granted the vegetable world.

After rhapsodizing about the salad, my dining companion made a noise of another sort as he downed his beautifully presented elk tenderloin, six or seven thick, juicy medallions of elk floating in a rich (but not too sweet) sauce of blueberries and cassis, all topped with a handful of large, fresh blueberries. With the addition of a healthy portion of chestnut puree (also not sweet and, thankfully, not too fattening), a silver-dollar-size potato pancake given chutzpah by the addition of Roquefort cheese, a cherry tomato with pesto stuffing, and a few snappy green beans for contrast, the meal provided a full spectrum of color and flavor.

As my dining companion bagged his wild beast, I made short work of my own catch - fresh quail. I had chosen the dish out of curiosity as much as anything, as the menu pronounced the spinach-mousse-stuffed quail in leek-medallion sauce to be Costa Rican-style and "garnished with a nest." I never ate quail (nor saw it offered in a restaurant) during two years of living in Costa Rica, and this "nest" sounded most intriguing.

As it happened, the Costan Rican quail was not available, furthering my suspicion that Costa Ricans do not, as a rule, eat this bird. I do, however, and tried another offering the waiter described. Glazed a golden brown and resting in a brandy hunter's sauce with green olives and pimiento, the quail tasted as good as it had sounded; and the saffron-scented cake of rice had a texture as velvety as the bird's.

Prices here vary as much as the menu. Starters range from $3.50 for the soup of the day to $6.50 for appetizer specials. Topping the regular list of entrees, a shrimp and angel-hair pasta extravaganza costs $16.95, but budgeters can still dine in gourmet fashion on a variety of nonexotic chicken, meat, and fish dishes that range from $9.50 to $15.95. Daily specials, which are a bit pricier, include more exotic fish and game. In fact, the list reads like a photographic safari from deepest Florida to the Serengeti -alligator, buffalo, and mallard were among the featured attractions.

Although completely sated, my companion and I did not want the wonderful feast to end. We had been tempted to try one of the three dessert souffles offered, but they must be ordered early in the meal. At the time, we weren't willing to admit dessert might be a possibility. Now we succumbed easily to banana cream puffs in a vanilla sauce, which tasted heavenly, and as if they had just been popped from the oven. Their odd, imperfect shapes, like miniature Pillsbury Doughboys with cellulite, gave them away as being homemade.

Over liqueur and espresso, we took stock of the evening. It had been a spectacular dining adventure in wild and wooly Coral Gables, we concurred. Get on over to Cafe Cazando before the stampede.

CAFE CAZANDO
101 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables; 446-1926. Hours: Daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

 
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