No Spain, No Gain

My office mail has been especially interesting lately. In a letter that he penned completely in French, a chef by the name of Charles Salliou recommended a Sunny Isles restaurant called Cafe Vicko. Salliou had no way of knowing, though he might have surmised from having read my columns, that I can't read French unless it's on a menu. The names of food items are the only things that I retain after six snooze-inducing semesters of the language in high school and college.

Baxter Clifford of Clifford's, a venerable meat-and-potatoes place on Biscayne Boulevard, mailed me a funny cartoon vilifying radicchio and arugula that he had clipped from Playboy, a magazine he claims to buy only for the articles. Clifford had no way of knowing that I'd already seen that particular cartoon in my husband's copy of the magazine -- which he buys for the interviews. Honest.

The missive I received from James E. Mattson, however, was the most intriguing of all. "May I suggest you hold off on reviewing Botin for quite a while," he wrote. "They have some REALLY rough edges." His emphasis, not mine. Mattson had no way of knowing I would open his letter right after I'd confirmed a reservation for four at Botin, a new Spanish restaurant in Coral Gables. An early weeknight reservation, I might add, that I had some trouble securing, given that my Spanish is as lousy as my French and that I'd called pretty late in the day.

At first I wasn't sure what Mattson meant by those two short, cryptic sentences. And I don't like to go into a restaurant expecting the worst. But I admit my curiosity was piqued, simply because Mattson's warning jibed with everything I'd already heard about Botin. The original Restaurante Botin was founded in Madrid in 1725, and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, it has the distinction of being the planet's oldest extant restaurant. In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway called it "one of the best restaurants in the world." This is the kind of place whose reputation precedes it, and crowds have been enthusiastic since the American version opened in late January on Coral Way. Both restaurants are owned by the Gonzalez family, which has operated the Madrid Botin for the past four generations.

A line was snaking out the door when we arrived. Turns out the restaurant had accepted so many parties for the precise moment they opened for dinner that what looked like a long wait wound up being a mass seating. Here's where the "rough edges" come in, I thought, as we were escorted to a table in one of the place's grottolike dining rooms (the trilevel eatery features a veritable warren of public and private rooms) along with five or six other parties. No way would the waitstaff be able to keep up with this onslaught.

Fortunately I was wrong about this aspect of the restaurant. The servers were numerous, wonderfully polite, and formally trained, replacing silverware as needed and sweeping debris off the tables between courses. I was ready to apply the rough-edges comment to the wood-beam ceiling or the stucco walls (bordered by decorative cement tile and interrupted by hewn brick archways) when I realized that I was slowly slipping from my chair. My friends also appeared to be decidedly shorter than when we had sat down, and we soon understood why: Some of the red cushions that had been tied to the backs of the hardback wooden chairs had already torn loose, making for a slippery seat. The only way we could brake ourselves was to hunch forward and park our elbows on the white tablecloth, growing distinctly more uncomfortable in that position as the evening progressed.

I was also shocked by the state of the menus, some of which were stained and ripped. But I wasn't surprised by the fare offered on those menus: traditional Spanish dishes from all regions, ranging from roast suckling pig to paella to baby eels -- or "spaghetti with eyes," as my husband calls them. We have too few truly Spanish, as opposed to Spanish-derivative, restaurants in Miami, and despite the suspect seats and the wine blotches on the menu, I was excited about the possibilities of this supposedly top-rate eatery.

I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up. One bite of the first appetizer to arrive, croquetas de pollo y jamon, and I understood what Mattson REALLY meant. My emphasis. Short as pinkie fingers, these fat croquettes were crunchy on the outside but so pasty inside that we might as well have been eating peanut butter. It took several swigs of rioja to loosen our tongues from the roofs of our mouths. Worse, the chicken and ham were mere specks, their flavor lost in the gluey filling.

Chunks of ham were more apparent in a starter of sauteed artichokes, but they were unexpected, not having been included in the menu description. They were also tough and fatty, and the artichoke hearts had a canned, metallic flavor. Fresh artichoke hearts are a labor-intensive undertaking, I know, but I can't help wishing that an upscale restaurant such as this one, whose European sibling has been lauded for the past 275 years, would break the easy-way-out mold.

Served in a terra cotta bowl, almejas Botin, clams in a tangy tomato sauce, were marginally better. The dozen or so clams were small but plump; the sauce was rich with olive oil and rife with chopped peppers and onions, but an overall fishy, salty flavor marred the dish. At least the clams evoked Galicia, the region of Spain where shellfish reigns.

The Spanish favor eggs as tapas, and Botin features them scrambled with ingredients such as salmon or as omelets (known as tortillas). The huevos revueltos de la casa, scrambled eggs with blood sausage and potatoes, were, as one of my guests commented, "genuine." A hearty prelude, these would have also made for a good breakfast, the potatoes crisp and the chopped blood sausage generous. I would have preferred, however, that the egg be thoroughly mixed -- "scrambled" to me has always meant one golden color rather than stripes of yellow and white.

Botin has several main course specialties, such as the roast suckling pig that Hemingway enjoyed, and squid sauteed in its own ink. The latter was unavailable the night we visited, as was roast veal with peas, a dish for which the Gonzalez family has installed wood-burning ovens. We settled instead for an unevenly grilled filete de ternera, veal mignon with one end medium-rare and the other medium-well. The meat -- flat, as if it had been pounded -- had a pleasantly musky, smoky flavor and was still juicy despite being overcooked on one end. Wonderfully snappy French fries were an enticing side dish, but an assortment of chopped, previously frozen vegetables, boiled until they were gray, were visually unappealing.

Two fish dishes had been destroyed. A simple fillet of grouper, requested grilled, had been pan-fried to the point of disintegration. Every time we touched the fish with a fork, more of it would fall apart. The accompaniments, a trio of peeled white potatoes and the above-mentioned, overcooked vegetable melange, provided no relief. A seafood casserole, cazuela de pescado, was practically inedible, despite a light, tasty sauce highlighted by mushrooms and pimientos. The breaded sections of sole, grouper, and monkfish fillets were indistinguishable from each other, as bland and mushy as supermarket fish sticks. One shrimp and a sole ring of squid garnished the fish.

I was most unhappy with perdiz estofado (stewed partridge). The two pieces of game bird, soaked in a good, dark wine sauce chock full of tired peas and asparagus, had been simmered so long that the bones had turned black and the flesh had shrunk. I did manage to coax some partridge free, but the meat was devoid of moisture, virtually petrified.

Many times restaurants have been redeemed in my eyes by their desserts. If anything, dessert here just made matters worse. Tarta de Santiago, a classic almond tart, was ruined by the addition of raw rum, which overwhelmed the slice we were served. And Botin should be ashamed of its crema catalana. Served ice-cold, the custard was gruel-thin and topped not with a crust of burnt sugar but with the appearance of one, as if the chef had melted a burnt-sienna crayon over the top.

One of my companions had been looking forward to taking some Spanish clients, in town for the week, to Botin. "Now I can't," she said glumly. "All they'd do is tell me how much better the food is at home." I'm sure it is, if only because it couldn't possibly be worse.

Botin
2101 Coral Way, Miami; 856-6030. Lunch Tuesday -- Friday from noon to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m.

Sauteed artichokes
$6.25
Clams Botin
$10.25
Stewed partridge
$15.90
Veal mignon
$16.90
Grilled grouper
$17.50

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