By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
On our first visit, a recent Friday evening that happened to coincide with gallery night in the Gables, we were welcomed in a cozy foyer by a friendly maitre d' who seated us next to an antique sideboard laden with fresh flowers. The table was set with a simple white cloth, a flickering candle, and a slender brass vase holding a single, deep pink rose. Each of the twenty or so well-spaced tables seemed to glow against the backdrop of tobacco-color walls, wrought-iron lighting fixtures, tasteful painted landscapes set off by rich gold frames, and creamy curtains that fell to the lushly carpeted floor. Like the great room of an ancient country manor, the setting was rustically elegant.
Concise and well translated, the menu was manageable in size, with about a dozen entrée choices and as many starters. The wine list, on the other hand, was so anemic that we skipped it altogether and had some generic glasses of California pinot noir and merlot. I learned later that the restaurant encourages oenophiles to bring their own bottles, which for a reasonable corkage fee ($12.50) would be a better option than selecting any of the dreadful choices of mostly domestic vintages. To make up for the lack of decent liquids, there were a number of inexpensive "tasters" to sample as we figured out the rest of the intriguing menu. We started with empanadas, perfectly golden-fried pastries wrapped around melted chunks of mozzarella cheese, tomato, and oregano, and a basket of pão de quijo, or cheese bread ($2.50), silver dollar-size puffy yeast breads that were chewy and light -- perfect to soak up the juices of things to come, such as the crisp smelts with papaya red-onion slaw, and bacalao and potato fritters with rustic vegetable sauce ($4). Although we expected slightly brinier fish, the smelts were tasty in their light and flaky coating, especially when dunked into the lime and mild scotch-bonnet pepper mayonnaise. The bacalao was even better, with its chunky and tangy sauce made from green and red tomatoes, onion, and cilantro.
A huge salad, big enough for two, arrived while we were still enjoying a tableful of small plates. It was a gorgeous arrangement of fresh hearts of palm (a rarity), avocado, tomato, and garbanzos served over a bed of crunchy and peppery arugula with a spicy shallot-laced vinaigrette. That alone with the savory cheese bread could have been a satisfying meal.
But the best part was yet to come. For a main course I ordered the seared red snapper fillet ($16.50), which was cooked in a subtle, delicious coconut milk sauce. I was expecting a Thai or Indian taste but found the sauce instead to be almost stewlike, with only the slightest undertones of the nutty, sweet coconut meat mingled with the tangy, refreshing accents of cilantro, tomato, and scallion. My neighbor devoured the churrasco mixto, a large serving of steak, skewers of chicken, and peasant-style sausages all cut into bite-size pieces and topped with a sublime demi-glace and addictive Vidalia onion spears.
Another visit on a weekday afternoon was even more surprising. The service was as warm and attentive as before and the food even better. The atmosphere at lunchtime was quiet and reserved but not desolate. A few business types in suits lingered over what looked to have been a leisurely meal, which is what ours turned into as well -- and at an incredibly reasonable price (lunch specials range from $10 to $16 and include salad and a glass of house wine).
Along with our salads, a mix of baby greens with a basil vinaigrette, we tried the watercress salad with shrimps roasted on sugar-cane skewers ($10.50). Tasty, even though the kitchen forgot to add the shallot dressing to our watercress.
My companion ordered the filet mignon rare and was pleased with the perfectly seared exterior and red center. The flavor, too, was exemplary. The large cut of Argentine tenderloin was served simply, accompanied by a rich wine sauce infused with fresh herbs, spaghetti squash, and crisp matchstick potatoes.
My own dish, a grilled chicken breast, one of the daily specials, was even better. The tender breast was butterflied and stuffed with a blend of moist bread, mushrooms, pancetta, herbs, and spinach, then roasted and sliced into disks and drizzled with a delectable brown sauce.