Gut Filling

Another seafood main course, the cartoccio, proved not only the kitchen's superiority but also the waitstaff's. This dish comprised seafood -- scallops, squid, and mussels -- sauteed with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. The mixture was then sealed in parchment paper over linguine and baked "in its own juices." Upon serving the entree, the waiter slit open the paper to allow the steam to escape, then extracted and shelled the langostino that rested atop the pile, whisking away the shell as he withdrew.

Despite all the richness, desserts are a must, whether you prefer an elegant tiramisu or a homier apple tart. Indulgence is what eating out is all about.

Victor's Cafe
2340 SW 32nd Ave., Miami; 445-1313. Open noon to midnight daily.
Good Cuban food abounds in this city, with bodegas and cafeterias dishing up homestyle fare on practically every corner. Believe me, I appreciate that. But when one has a hankering for the same ingredients prepared with a bit more innovation -- gourmet Cuban, in other words -- there are really only a couple of choices. Victor's Cafe is dependable not only for the elan of its menu but also for its breezy setting and brisk, efficient service.

This fall Victor's celebrates its sixth anniversary, and after dining in the two-story restaurant, surrounded by greenery and falling water, I can easily see why it retains its reputation. I couldn't keep my hands off the appetizers we ordered -- unless it was to pick up my mojito. Tostones rellenos were four little fried plantain baskets, each filled with fricasseed shrimp. The shrimp, set in a puddle of savory sauce, were so fresh and meaty they rivaled the bananas for substance. We also delighted in a pair of pollitos mandraques. These "fingers" of minced, moist chicken encased in a crusty, quick-fried shell were similar to croquetas, and absolutely terrific (but no mas, alas; this fowl was recently removed from the menu).

In a rare move, I systematically consumed a side dish before I even tried my entree. Tamal en cazuela -- cornmeal cooked in a cast-iron (or these days, aluminum) pot -- was fantastic, the creamy Cuban-style polenta veritably addictive. The asopao de camarones, a Puerto Rican-inspired dish I ordered as an alternative to paella, wasn't too shabby either. A savory tomato broth contained six fabulously fresh jumbo shrimp, pitted Manzanilla olives, fresh green peas, and slices of pimiento. White rice settled near the bottom, a rich find once the broth was depleted a little bit.

Buttered rice and aromatic black beans, whole and perfectly cooked, accompanied a main course of vaca frita con mojo. This pounded, shredded steak, cut into bite-size sections, was crisp on the outside, tender in the middle. A tangy marinade of lime juice and garlic zinged on the white onions that covered it, rendering them almost pickled. Gourmet Cuban, yes. Small portions, no.

Last year Victor's added a cabaret stage to showcase Latin entertainment; this year it ran a Cuban sushi-and-jazz night. The only laurels that rest here are the bay leaves that adorn the black beans.

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