Seville Servile

Diego's Restaurant ought to be the quintessence of Spanish dining in Coral Gables. The four-month-old restaurant possesses all the elements: a wide-ranging menu highlighting the various regions of Spain; an extensive wine list heavy on the Riojas; a 140-seat dining room handsomely outfitted in earth tones and contrasting textures; and a prime location in the Columbus Center, directly across from the Hyatt Regency. Restaurateur Diego Lozano has experience in his native Andalusia, where he runs two other eateries. And perhaps most significantly, Diego's tends to be open later -- until 1:00 a.m. on weekends -- than most of the competition in the vicinity.

But having eaten there once, I wouldn't go back for all the sangria in Seville. Service during a recent Friday night dinner was comically sycophantic: After profusely admiring our good taste (as he did whenever we ordered anything) in wine, our waiter presented the cork by balancing it on the back of his wrist. You'd think such an accomplished toady would have remembered to bring along glasses. And you'd think he'd have the presence of mind to pour for each and every member of our party. All evening long, the pretentious pacing and ineptitude seemed so at odds with the inviting Spanish-courtyard look of the restaurant that we wondered whether the staff had been tippling a bit too much of the Rioja themselves.

In an ideal world, the chef makes up for what the waiter lacks. At Diego's the kitchen got off to a good start, then plummeted like a bullet on New Year's Eve. Hot, crusty rolls implied culinary competence, especially when smeared with the accompanying garlic butter. A gratis presentation of pan con salm centsn ahumado A bite-size open sandwiches thinly layered with smoked salmon A was even better. But an order of pan andaluz, rounds of coarse bread topped with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil, ruined the illusion of careful preparation. In this Spanish take on bruschetta, the bread was tough and old, unable to support the oily tomato mix; the dish would have been better served as a C centsrdoba-style gazpacho, in which stale bread is pulverized to provide a textural base for the vegetables.

For a bowl of gazpacho, a necessary start to any Spanish meal, we left country life behind for the urbanity of a cold sopa de ajo blanco, a gazpacho that originated in Malaga as a puree of bread, water, olive oil, and sherry vinegar. Innovative chefs later added crushed almonds and garlic to make the soup more sophisticated, and garnished it with fruit to provide a juicy foil for its thick, tangy properties. White as a virgin's mantilla and about as tasty, Diego's version utilized balsamic vinegar instead of the less intrusive jerez; rather than the innovative garnish of melon promised on the menu, more traditional white grapes were bogged down in the unappealing mixture.

For hot appetizers, our quest took us to the Basque region, way up the coast from Andalusia. Pimientos de piquillo con dos salsas (red bell peppers stuffed with seafood) draws its influence from this northeastern corner of Spain. Diego's rendition was decent if not particularly inspiring: three skinned pepper halves cradling a filling of chopped shrimp that lay atop a sauce derived from more peppers. A second sauce, which had been described to us as "saffron-flavored," didn't make an appearance at all.

Saffron was aggressively aromatic in a bowl of clams, as were onions, garlic, tomatoes, parsley, and dry white wine. A recipe from Galicia, in the northwest corner of the country, almejas marinera had first been sauteed in oil to open the shells, then boiled briskly for far too long, rendering the meat rubbery.

Among the entrees, many specialties -- such as paella valenciana, baby lamb or pork baked in a firewood oven, and whole red snapper baked in salt -- are prepared only for two or more people. For the hungry diner, time may be a deterrent in ordering the paella or the roasted meats, which require about 45 minutes of preparation. Price ($44.50 for the lamb, for instance) is another splash of cold water. Instead, we sampled four preparations intended for one diner, all of which sounded enticing on the menu, all of which proved indigestible.

Lac centsn con patatas was a perfect example. Another well-known Galician preparation, a pork shank is either smoked, salted, or pickled. At Diego's the pork, as red as ham, was neither smoky nor salty. Nor was it anywhere close to being pickled. Dry chunks of an extra-strong chorizo and strands of cabbage that chewed more like cellophane in an Easter basket were traditional complements, while boiled white potatoes provided neutral accents for the bland meat.

The same potatoes added little spark to an inch-thick veal chop, a special on the evening we visited. Fatty and tough, the chop was covered with a salty brown reduction in which fresh sliced mushrooms and sweet red peppers drifted like life rafts. Likewise, not even the most beautiful of produce could have saved conejo al jerez, rabbit in a mushroom and sherry sauce. Half of the tiniest bunny I've ever seen served on a plate (had it been a fish, no doubt it would have been thrown back to grow a little more) was so overseasoned with rosemary I couldn't help envisioning the poor thing hopping around an herb garden. Bereft of any real meat, the rabbit was dry and stringy, the touted sauce practically nonexistent.

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