To the Victor's Go the Spoils

Something terrible has happened to Victor's Cafe.
I feel sick to be so blunt about it, but not any more nauseated than I was during a recent dinner at the restaurant. Since it opened on SW 32nd Avenue eight years ago, I had always considered Victor's, the Miami outpost of the renowned New York City restaurant of the same name, to be the epitome of upscale Cuban dining. Then owner Sonia del Corral sold it this past June to Jose R. More. The new proprietor has owned a bunch of Cuban places around Miami, including El Segundo Viajante and La Casona (another of my favorite eateries), so I figured Victor's reputation was in safe hands. Well, I was wrong. As a result of my recent dining fiasco at Victor's, I'm making a request: Sell it back.

The sophisticated decor remains unchanged: lofty ceilings, shiny terra cotta-hue tile floor, white linen-covered tables, bright oil paintings, and an abundance of palm fronds and tropical greenery. But the pleasant setting is undermined by a wilting display of a seemingly boneless whole roast suckling pig that has been laid out on a platter and surrounded by precooked rock lobsters. And yet the pig and lobsters' mute greeting was better than the host's, who had the nerve to look put out because we didn't have a reservation on a weeknight. I couldn't imagine why he reacted that way. Two large parties of about 25 people each were present (the restaurant's computer-printed check informs that "corporate, social, [and] off-premises parties [are] perfectly planned"), but Victor's seats 600. And several roomy tables were free, on a raised dais in the first-floor dining area. Nevertheless, the four of us were shown to an out-of-the-way table close to the kitchen and behind one of the large (and rowdy) groups, which resulted in inattentive service. Just try to get a clean fork when the bigger bill at the next table wants more bread.

Changes other than ownership and hospitality have occurred. Before, the atmosphere was genteel, with guests indulging in murmured conversation as light Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa provided an unobtrusive soundtrack. But on the night we dined, customers were as raucous as if they were at a soccer match, belting out the chorus to Frank Sinatra's "My Way" accompanied by an accordion player with all the finesse of a referee tooting on his whistle. And where the earlier menu was often inventive, with dishes such as creamy Cuban-style polenta topped with spicy crabmeat fricassee and oak-grilled quail with malanga griddle cakes executed exquisitely, it now features ordinary Cuban-Spanish fare, like plain grilled fish.

Plain and stinky. The grilled fish and shellfish entree we ordered -- mahi-mahi, grouper, red snapper, shrimp, and a Florida lobster tail, which More says he brings in fresh daily -- was so rotten that its fumes wafted toward those of us sitting on the opposite side of the large, round table from where the dish was placed. We briefly argued with our waiter, who didn't want to take it back. But after we insisted, he sniffed the dish for himself, picked it up, and left without another word. Frankly, I'm surprised the cooks let it out of the kitchen. Maybe they figured that because we'd waited almost two hours for our main courses to be served, we would be so hungry we wouldn't notice the putrefaction.

No doubt our waiter believed that his reluctance to take the fish back was sort of warranted; we had already proved ourselves "difficult" customers. The bottle of wine we requested at the outset of our meal, a white rioja, was the color of urine in a specimen cup; I knew it was bad just by looking at it. But I tasted it to be sure and got a mouthful of vinegar for my trouble. A problem arose when the server didn't understand why we were sending it back. He didn't speak English, and one of my guest's Peruvian Spanish was apparently difficult for him to comprehend. We finally resorted to sign language: holding our noses and pointing at our glasses.

Another entree, asopao de camarones, was as odorous as the grilled seafood. The jumbo shrimp, cooked with soupy, creamy rice, smelled and tasted like iodine, a sure sign that, while they hadn't spoiled yet, they were on their way. The same batch of shrimp had apparently been used to prepare a tostones appetizer. Chopped shrimp had been sauteed in a tomato-pepper Creole sauce, and would have been quite tasty with fresher seafood. The fricassee was then stuffed into the fried green bananas, which were shaped like little baskets.

Not everything was putrid. Some items were merely improperly prepared. A starter, ceviche de mero, was undercured, the grouper fillet having spent too little time in its acidic bath of lime juice and onions. As a result the fish was tough, a trifle raw, and riddled with spots of blood. The lomo de cerdo main course, two thick pork tenderloins in a malt and prune sauce, was as brittle as overprocessed hair, although the fruity sauce was pleasantly rendered. And sections of vaca frita, one of the dishes that remain from the original menu, were alternately fatty and dry. The shredded flank steak, spiced with onions, garlic, and lime, had been pan-fried to a second death.

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