Weight and Si

Chef-proprietors rise up in all manner of ways. Some go the academic route, attending culinary school and scoring internships under well-known chefs. Others work their way up the line, discovering a love for cooking accidentally, perhaps as an end product of part-time teenage jobs. A few (too many) jump headlong into the business, convinced, even if they've only cooked for family and friends, that a restaurant is the proper outlet for their talents. Everyone has his own tale of inspiration and struggle. After the last pot is washed and put away, however, they all have one thing in common: ambition.

Angelo Rodriguez, at the helm -- and the stove -- of Cafe Festival, practically defines the word. A 41-year-old Cuban who has lived in the United States since 1970, he recently sold his partnership in Blue Sky Food by the Pound in order to open an upscale Cuban cafe in South Dade.

I have to admit that the words food by the pound send a bit of a shiver down my spine; though I'd always heard Blue Sky was among the best in the cafeteria-buffet business, the thought has crossed my mind that it's like saying the Burger King on this corner is better than the one on that corner. On the other hand, cooking in volume is great experience, as is producing the same recipes over and over: The school of practical application is often the best. So if Rodriguez and his wife Yamilet seek to move up the restaurant food chain -- if they want to spend a quarter of a million bucks renovating the former Natural Eats space, hidden in the recesses of a shopping plaza off South Dixie Highway, into a stuccoed, wall-sconced, 66-seat double-tablecloth eatery with a spanking-new stainless steel kitchen, and if they want to call their cuisine "Cuban international" and hire a keyboardist named Vicente (an Italian who was born in Cuba) to entertain guests every night from 6:30 until closing, and if they want to charge nearly 30 bucks for paella -- well, as long as they don't burn the suckling pig, I'm all for it.

Unfortunately, they did burn the suckling pig, which was offered as a special the evening we went. (Roast suckling pig, which serves eight, is always available if it's ordered a day in advance.) I can't help but compare any roast pig to the garlic-scented, crisp-skinned masterpiece Casa Juancho produces, and this didn't come close. Three ribs' worth were virtually tuxedoed in evening wear -- their skin blackened and inedible as cloth. The stringy flesh was gamy, too pungent, exuding a musk that not even the healthy portion of sliced raw white onions and shaved garlic could disguise.

Two main courses were far superior. Vaca frita in particular was tremendous, a heaping pile of shredded beef, soft with a crunchy edge. This flank cut was thicker than the usual steak one finds in a Cuban restaurant, and certainly a bargain at $8.75. A garnish of raw onions and lime wedges gave the grilled meat some punch. Garlic and a splash of wine were the main flavorings in a mixed seafood grill, which, like the suckling pig, was offered as a special. Clams, jumbo shrimp, sea scallops, a small Florida lobster tail, and a stone crab claw had all been browned in a terra cotta casserole dish and presented still sizzling. Though basically plain fare, the array of fish-in-a-dish was impressive and filling, each piece of seafood cooked to its own exuberant juicy succulence.

Rodriguez emphasizes shellfish on the menu and backs it up with a steady, fresh supply, replenished six days a week. Rueda de mero al ajillo, grouper in garlic sauce, was indeed sweet and fresh, a large fillet brought to the table in another terra cotta dish. Its downfall, though, was the garlic sauce; the fish tasted more like it had received an oily rub with a bitter bulb.

This lack of refinement had been foreshadowed by an appetizer of camarones al ajillo, four small shrimp doused with a characterless olive oil. Given the $6.95 price tag, we'd expected the shrimp to be larger; my guests, who'd eaten at Cafe Festival once before and raved about this starter, were disappointed at the stinginess this time around. A second appetizer, tostones rellenos con cangrejo (green plantains stuffed with crab meat), wasn't much better. The pair of fried plantain baskets were cold and tough, their minced filling too fishy to finish. Carimanolas rellenas con langosta proved to be a better example of what Cafe Festival can do with seafood: Two flaky half-moon pastries (like empanadas but the dough is made with yuca) were stuffed with fragrant and savory sauteed lobster meat.

Rodriguez dishes up generous portions -- a carryover from his Food by the Pound stint, perhaps -- and includes two side dishes with every entree. These main-course partners were easily the stars of the show. Black beans were soft but whole, needing only a sprinkle of salt. White rice was buttery, the kernels firm. Sweet plantains had a caramelized exterior, and fried green plantains, unlike the tostones appetizer, were tender and grease-free. Only a vegetable ratatouille, chopped sauteed zucchini and summer squash, was inconsequential; for vegetables, stick to yuca with garlic sauce, which was hearty and tasty without being starchy.

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