Also good were two cold spring rolls stuffed with baby shrimp, chopped vegetables, and mint leaves: crunchy and hearty. Another starter, hot cha-gio nem, was even better. The four slender rice-paper cylinders, filled with a finely chopped mixture of shrimp, pork, black mushrooms, carrots, scallions, and vermicelli noodles, were fried to a delicate golden brown; we dipped them in a lime-based fish sauce spiked with a healthy dose of chilis.

Perhaps the best entree on the menu is the Asian bouillabaisse. Stocked generously with shellfish, including mussels and shrimp, its rich coconut broth brimmed with flavor; plump sea scallops and large chunks of sea bass floated beneath a sheath of sauce suffused with mushrooms, Thai basil, lime leaves, tomato, and ginger.

Garlic noodles, one of the only vegetarian main courses, were loaded with more chili than garlic, which rendered it inedible for most of our group. To add insult to injury, the filament-fine egg noodles were stuck together in a crusty-sugary nest so that it was impossible to snare a mouthful without picking up the whole gunky mass. The task was made even more difficult because of the super slippery chopsticks. These gorgeous pink laminated sticks would make better hair ornaments than eating utensils. On our second visit my husband brought along enough disposable wooden sticks for everyone, and was greeted with grateful applause.

We were thankful that they weren't needed for the filet mignon, which came pinkish in the middle and charred on the edges, as requested, and was served over a bed of diced potatoes browned in a sweet, buttery glaze. The meat was tender and flavorful, but the potatoes were the real star here.

The sizzling whole fish, a red snapper, arrived with as little fanfare as the rest of the dishes. When we ordered, we asked the waiter if the fish actually sizzled. He replied curtly, "Sometimes. It depends how soon I bring it out." Well, our fish had long stopped making any noise by the time it arrived at our table. Nonetheless, beneath the lukewarm, crisp brown flesh the white, moist fish was sweet and tasty.

We all agreed that our waiter, a scruffy, handsome hipster, was more attractive than professional: a real "pill" we thought, and probably a South Beach import. At least we felt at home.

From profiteroles to fruit tarts, the luscious desserts were utterly French. All looked tempting. Most impressive was a chocolate hazelnut torte, its light and moist chocolate filling almost like a pudding. Sandwiched between flaky layers of pastry and served with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, the dish rose beyond our expectations.

So too did our evening foray into foreign territory. On the whole we each pronounced the meal exceptional. "Why," asked one sated diner, "don't you make us come to the Gables more often?"

In general the food is excellent, with fresh ingredients and authentic dishes, but execution can be somewhat inconsistent.

Thoa's on Ponce.
2611 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 305-442-9671. Lunch Tuesday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. till 3:00 p.m. Dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 5:30 till 11:30 p.m.

Braised baby back ribs $8.95
Garlic noodles $10.95
Asian bouillabaisse $21.00
Sizzling whole fish $21.00
Chocolate hazelnut torte $5.


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