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.

Opting against three dishes that highlighted hake, a fish favored in the north of Spain, we ordered a grouper fillet in the hopes that it would be from local waters. We needn't have bothered. The grouper tasted about as fresh as if it had traveled the world (dead) before hitting our table. Grilled and sauced with a gelatinous parsley-garlic mess decorated with two anemic-looking spears of bone-white asparagus, the fish was irredeemably foul.

In restaurants where the food is absolutely inedible, I usually forgo dessert. But we were hungry -- and brave -- enough to try torrijas, slices of bread soaked in a combination of milk and white wine, then deep-fried. What we got was one single ice-cold slice, which rested on a sweet, milky substance. To put it as kindly as I can, this dessert would have been better served warm. As in hot off the griddle. As in prepared within, say, the past half-hour.

One of my guests remarked that our meal proved her theory: Spanish food stinks. Throughout her travels in that country, she said, she couldn't find a good meal anywhere. Having also visited Spain, I disagreed. You can find plenty of great food there A if you're willing to pay for it. When it came to Diego's, though, I had to concede she was right.

Side Dish
I generally avoid restaurant openings for one reason: While I can taste enough to tease my appetite, I can never eat enough to satisfy it. This was especially true at the launching party this past Saturday for Norman Van Aken's new restaurant Norman's (21 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables; 446-6767), where the food was so finely prepared that guests A hundreds of them A were literally shoving each other out of the way to get at it. I don't blame them, considering the savory qualities of the steak tartare, the yucca-stuffed jumbo shrimp, the bacalao fritters, the spinach tortilla, and the seared tea-marinated tuna, to name just a few.

Then again, I didn't expect anything less from Van Aken, the chef who coined the phrase New World cuisine. An innovator, he transformed the South Florida dining scene with his early work in Key West at Louie's Backyard, then revitalized South Beach at the original a Mano. Van Aken has written three cookbooks (two of them are to be published later this year), and authored the popular "Exotic Fruits Posters," framed copies of which hang in his new establishment (and in my kitchen). His partners in this latest venture, which opened to the public on Monday, are Marsha Sayet, an established caterer, and Carl Bruggemeier, a nationally successful restaurateur. Chef de cuisine Randy Zweiban and pastry chef Kevin Kopsick, both talented members of Van Aken's original a Mano team, are also aboard.

My biggest regret about Norman's is that it wouldn't be appropriate for me to review his restaurant: Van Aken and I have begun collaborating on a book project. (More on this at another time; suffice to say it's still in the early stages.)

So great are the pains I take to maintain my integrity that there was a bit of a hassle on Saturday at Norman's, of all places. When my name was accidentally left off the guest list of the opening, a $35-per-person charity benefit for Daily Bread Food Bank, I had to waste valuable nibbling time convincing the dork at the door that I was indeed the New Times food critic.

Anonymity can be such a drag. But at least it keeps me hungry.

Suggestions? Write me at New Times, P.O. Box 011591, Miami

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