Under the Weather

Thank El Nino for providing us with an all-purpose scapegoat. The unusually potent storms associated with the weather phenomenon have wreaked havoc all over the country, handing us a ready excuse for just about everything. Late to work again? It's El Nino's fault for knocking out the electricity and rendering the alarm clock useless. Gained ten pounds? El Nino makes it impossible to jog. Can't quit smoking? Must be because El Nino's getting on your nerves.

I hold El Nino responsible for disrupting Miamians' lives in one significant way: dining outdoors. Let's face it -- balmy winter and early spring nights are a big boon for South Florida residents, the kind of thing we like to brag about to family and friends trapped in colder climes. Nothing is more alluring than delicious flavors on the palate paired with salt-scented breezes on the cheek. But El Nino's nonseasonal storms have often driven us inside restaurants (much the same way the mosquito invasion of spring 1997 did). But what happens when a restaurant doesn't have an interior?

Such is the case with the year-old Tapas Under the Trees, located in the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach -- or, more specifically, adjacent to the hotel's pool. Open only for dinner, the place's decor depends entirely on the weather. The ceiling could be a picturesque Monet: soft, midnight blue broken by a blurry canopy of leaves and branches. Or it could be a menacing Turner: stormy dark gray punctuated by slashes of orange light. This past winter's abundance of Turners threatened to rust the pink-and-white patio furniture and warp flamenco guitarist David Fernando's instrument (which would be a shame, given that the CD player management uses when he's not playing tends to skip). And the few times I called in anticipation of dining there, Tapas Under the Trees was nonoperational owing to rain. But as spring settles in and weather conditions stabilize, the eatery seems once again to be a viable dining option. (Until summer, that is, but at least then the storms are more predictable.)

As its name suggests, the restaurant serves tapas -- appetizer-size dishes of Spanish origin. And while many of the twenty-plus offerings are international in scope, several have their roots firmly planted in Spain. Champinones al ajillo, mushrooms sauteed in garlic, and gambas al ajillo, cold-water shrimp prepared the same way, are traditional Spanish starters. As was gazpacho Andalucia ($4.00). The chilled puree of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions was a smooth and tangy blend, if a bit too heavy on the onions.

We passed over tapa de la casa, another cold option comprising manchego cheese, serrano ham, chorizo sausages, and marinated olive salad, preferring our sausages hot. A chorizo-potato frittata fit the bill. Bits of the pork sausage were scattered over a crisp, shredded potato pancake; given the frittata appellation, we'd expected more of an omelet. The pan-fried cake was garnished with sour cream and chives and roasted scallions that were a little on the burnt side.

Grilled chorizo sausages were simpler and a bit more authentic. Split lengthwise, the rosy meat was skewered and served with a red bell pepper sauce for dipping. A twenty-ounce pitcher of ruby-hue sangria ($12.00), poured tableside over fresh fruit and ice, washed down the piquant sausages nicely. Several tapas exhibit Caribbean influences, including West Indian marinated Florida swordfish, grilled shrimp marinated in Scotch bonnet peppers and key limes, and baked green plantains topped with crabmeat. Bahamian cracked conch salad, a cold appetizer, was served in half a coconut -- a pleasant innovation. The zesty salad was beautifully jewel-toned, brimming with chopped red tomatoes and green peppers, but the strips of slightly chewy white conch were too few.

Black bean soup lacked beans, which means the thin, insipid broth also lacked the earthy character we expect from legumes. Salt and spices were also MIA. The touted accompaniments of pico de gallo and cilantro sour cream, which might have souped up the brew, were forgotten; the waiter brought plain sour cream instead. A Jamaican beef empanada ($4.50) was savory enough to make us forget about the bean broth. A golden pastry crust encased the spiced ground beef, which spilled out of its buttery confinement when cut. A tropical fruit chutney -- papaya and kiwi -- sparkled next to the turnover.

Latin America checks in on the menu via two items: grilled breast of chicken marinated in chimichurri and garnished with tomatillo relish, and a grilled tenderloin of beef with roasted corn and ancho chili salsa. The latter was generous for a tapa -- three medallions of juicy, medium-rare beef served on skewers. Unfortunately the meat was oddly bland, and the charred kernels of corn and weak salsa didn't improve the flavor.

Finally, there was a Mediterranean touch. A succulent, seared fillet of grilled yellowfin tuna ($7.00) was presented on focaccia. Black olive tapenade, whole black and green olives, a sun-dried tomato spread, and pickled sliced white onions accented the fish, which was quite good on its own. Smoked salmon dip, on the other hand, needed a boost. The goat-cheese-based spread was too thick for the brittle lavash (Middle Eastern crackers) served with it, and the shiitake mushrooms mixed throughout were simply weird. We thought this stuff needed a bagel.

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