By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
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By Laine Doss
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On Thursday nights I watch TV. Sit-coms, to be precise. There, I've confessed. An almost-comatose couch boniato, I munch from a bag of chips and snicker until my cats meow in chorus, begging me to stop the high-pitched wheezing. Okay, so the chips are more likely to be gourmet spiced yucca rather than Wise salt-and-vinegar. But the shows are the same ones every other exhausted, overworked Jewish Jane watches, hopelessly aspiring to the characters' lifestyles: Mad About You, Seinfeld, and my personal favorite, Frasier.
I like Frasier Crane because his life is one big upscale party: pretensions are de rigueur; delicious food, premium coffee, and brand-name drinks are taken for granted; and guests don't vomit on the polished wood floors. I particularly enjoyed the episode in which Frasier and his uppity brother attempt to take their street-smart ex-cop father to Seattle's restaurant-of-the-moment. A comedy of errors ensues when the reservation is lost and the three wind up at dad's oft-frequented steak joint, choosing their cuts of meat from a cart the waitress wheels to the table.
Although our reservation at Coral Gables's nuevo Cubano eatery Yuca was honored promptly, I still felt like a sit-com character during a recent Saturday-evening visit there. Sitting near the stairwell on the second floor of the two-story, 220-seat restaurant, we childishly chuckled at patrons who stumbled on the top step as they came up the stairs, and blatantly stared at the party that accidentally smashed its bottle of wine on the sand-colored tile floor. Along with other customers, we got up to crack nearby windows when the open-performance kitchen filled the dining room with eye-smarting smoke and haze. But the real jokes were yet to come.
Apparently, a heavy-on-the-attitude dude seated behind us had been promised a veal chop special while he and his date waited for their table. Unfortunately, the kitchen ran out of that entree, and he was offered a porterhouse steak instead. Either to impress his date or to reaffirm his own importance, he decided he needed to view the beef before ordering it. Our waiter, who neglected to inform my party of any specials but who was practically tap dancing on his ears for this guy, brought out the marbled cut on a china plate.
The whole preferential procedure from beginning to end was so time-consuming that the ice cubes in our mixed drink had melted; meanwhile, our bottle of wine (a hearty Vina Alberdi Rioja, $25) sat on a tray, just out of reach, for ten minutes before being uncorked and tasted. Bread -- corn bread with raisins, a superior banana bread, and rolls made from yucca -- didn't appear for fifteen minutes, and our appetizers took twice that long to be prepared. Despite the comic edge to all this, I was getting cranky, and boy can I be dangerous when my blood sugar drops.
The only thing that could have restored order to such internal chaos was an exquisitely prepared meal, and Yuca -- an acronym for Young Upscale Cuban American, as well as the Spanish spelling of the versatile Latin American fibrous root of the same name -- ultimately delivered.
Yuca opened in August 1989 to numerous rave reviews and one negative one A from New Times restaurant critic at the time, Rafael Navarro. Thanks to the culinary imagination and skill of executive chef Douglas Rodriguez, Yuca thrived. Five years later Yuca has moved once (across the street, to bigger digs) and undergone a radical change in the kitchen. Last year, Rodriguez, despite his frequent validations of the Miami restaurant scene (as opposed to Manhattan's -- he was quoted in the June 1992 issue of Elle as saying, "I am sure that I get better fish here than absolutely anyone in New York"), left the Magic City for the Big Apple. His Park Avenue South restaurant, Patria, a northern version of Yuca, has startled seen-it-all, done-it-all Manhattanites into admiration in much the same way Yuca shocked Miamians.
Despite Rodriguez's departure, Yuca continues to host full houses, with former sous chef Guillermo Veloso, now promoted to executive level, preparing traditional black bean soup, "Marina's" sweet plantain stuffed with dried cured beef, and the restaurant's trademark baby back ribs basted with a spicy guava barbecue sauce. Same as it ever was. This insistence on re-creating Rodriguez's work night after night might signify the current kitchen's lack of distinctiveness, which may, in the end, result in boredom for diners.
But it doesn't prevent the preparation of an excellent gazpacho criollo, a just-chilled bowl of pureed tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, and onions spiked with vinegar, citrus juices, and olive oil. While the soup's appealing fresh vegetable flavor was potent enough to overcome its lack of piquancy, it failed to live up to its menu billing as "spicy." Several pieces of snappy poached shrimp peeked through the broth, and plantain mariquitas, sliced lengthwise and fried like potato chips, curled around spoonfuls of vegetables and aromatic fresh dill.
Seafood puteria, one of Rodriguez's favorite dishes, was a fricassee of tender rings of conch and delicate shrimp bathed in a fragrant brown sauce and then cooled with a dollop of sour cream and chunks of avocado and tomato. The mixture was loaded into a crisp plantain basket made from individual fried mariquitas that had been "glued" together, resembling, depending on your frame of mind, a tarantula frozen in motion or the open face of a flower. At any rate, the entire concoction was a wonderful play of textures and flavors.