If you haven't explored Cuban dining recently, you're in for some surprises. The fare offered in many of the newer restaurants goes well beyond ropa vieja and boliche, and the ambiance is elegante.
La Casona, a villa-style restaurant that opened a couple of months ago on Calle Ocho, is a case in point. Two of the owners of the restaurant are members of the Valls family, the dynasty behind Versailles, Casa Juancho, and most of the La Carreta chain. The Vallses' partner is restaurant magnate Jose More, of Segundo Viajante fame.
Noting our city's apparent culinary trend toward game and assorted fowl, and sauces laced with fruits, nuts, liquors, and liqueurs, La Casona offers such innovative preludes as coconut shrimp with an orange-guava sauce, and an unusual array of entrees including baby goat marinated in red wine and fresh thyme and cooked in a casserole, and pork loin stuffed with ham and brandy-laced prunes, roasted in a sauce of sweet malt beer.
As we surveyed the cozy maze of rooms that makes up La Casona, I sipped sherry (in the only missed cue of the evening, the waiter brought sweet dessert sherry rather than dry cocktail-style) and my dining companion enjoyed a mojito, a refreshing drink made of rum, lime juice, and crushed sweet basil, served in a Tom Collins glass. The drinks and the menu seemed to work in concert to whet our appetites.
Enchanted at the prospect of combining plain and fancy, my dining companion chose to start with the tostones concaviar y crema, a plate of fried green plantain rounds topped with caviar and sour cream. The comparatively bland flavor of the tostones happened to be an ideal base for the marvelous black caviar, and the texture of the starchy fruit - crunchy on the outside, smooth inside - provided an interesting counterpoint to the roe. Ladling on plenty of hard-cooked egg garnish and sour cream, my dining companion seemed to forget all about his low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.
The caviar-toston dish was such a refreshing twist on a classic, I decided to try one of the restaurant's other unconventional concoctions, a vichyssoise prepared with yuca instead of potatoes ($2.95). The ice-cold, creamy concoction could easily have fooled a Frenchman. I had to applaud such a beautiful dish made from what has to be one of the world's homeliest tubers, with its barklike skin and lumpy shape. Other soups include the ubiquitous black bean, as well as chicken, seafood, and a Cuban soup-of-the-day.
We skipped over the four salads ($3.45 to $4.75), although the caesar with Serrano ham momentarily sparked our interest, and went straight to the main dishes. The emphasis is on meat, although eight fish and shellfish offerings diversify the menu. Whether you choose one of these, a paella-style dish, or one of the numerous fowl, goat, roasted beef, veal, lamb, or pork loin offerings - more than 30 in all, ranging from $6.85 for a picadillo with fried egg and other sides to $24.95 for a charbroiled prime sirloin - might well depend on which accompanying sauce most tempts your palate.
The melding of ingredients is inspired at La Casona: veal scaloppine ($15.95) is topped with almonds, bananas, and avocado, flambeed in liqueur, and glazed with a Hollandaise sauce, for example. Of the many possibilities, I opted for a roast guinea hen stuffed with moros y cristianos (black beans mixed with white rice) and topped with almonds. Complementary textures and flavors were imparted by the nuts, purple cabbage served alongside, and a helping of scalloped potatoes.
My dining companion, on the other hand, chose to feast on roast goose, which was cooked to perfection, doused with a fig sauce, and sprinkled with pine nuts. A leg and a thigh covered almost the entire surface of his plate, leaving little room for his sides of white rice and sweet, caramelized plantains. The large goose reminded me of when I left Zagreb, Yugoslavia, last year, and relatives presented me with a package at the airport gate. The gift - warm, aromatic, and wrapped in white paper - was a huge goose leg. My relatives had given it to me because they had never been on an airplane before and were worried I'd have nothing to eat during the long flight home.
As for my dining companion, he thoroughly enjoyed the deeply bronzed, distinctively fig-flavored bird so much, he barely managed to touch his sides - among which was an extra-small order of black beans ($1.75) he had requested in an impulsive ordering frenzy. Since he barely had room for a taste of the beans, I went to the rescue. They were so rich and highly seasoned, I waved away the passing dessert cart, which was festooned on several tiers with a dazzling assortment of flans, cakes, and fruit concoctions.
As the dining-out crowd in Miami continues to burgeon, so do the restaurants - and with that some of the veteran restaurateurs are branching out and offering uncommon dishes and new creations. As long as the results are as positive as at La Casona, the more the merrier.
6355 SW 8th St; 262-2828. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight.