By Emily Codik
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By Laine Doss
A deluge of rain cascaded over our car as we drove toward the Spanish restaurant Costa Mar. We were approaching Rascal House, which tempted me to pull over, grab some shelter and corned-beef sandwiches, and try Costa Mar another night. But we were just blocks away, and so continued past the gigantic, glitzy condos that have effectively severed the beach from Sunny Isles Beach along this strip of Collins Avenue (suggested neighborhood motto: "Las Vegas living without the fun") until we came upon our shopping-center destination. One nice thing about strip-mall dining is the accessibility of free, easy parking, for which we were grateful on this inclement evening.
Costa Mar's medium-size dining room is chic and contemporary, the Euro-design influences not dissimilar to those found in Barcelona restaurants these days. The walls are lemon-yellow, with small, square, navy-blue abstract paintings upon them, the whole illuminated by light passing through white reflective sheets suspended from wires -- like those used at photo shoots but prettier. Floors are of smoothly polished wood; the ceiling, chairs, and table linens are black; and a sleek bar with cobalt-blue lights brightens up the right side of the space. A slightly elevated stage in the far left corner of the room becomes a venue for flamenco, karaoke, and live music Thursday through Saturday evenings, but thankfully these festivities don't begin until after dinner hours. During dinner, dentist-office music drones on softly.
Chef Juan Adames was formerly personal chef to Venezuelan Presidents Rafael Caldera and Carlos Andrés Pérez. Adames hails from Spain, his roots reflected in a mostly coastal Mediterranean menu anchored in seafood. On our first, wet, visit, my wife and I shared a pair of specialty dishes for two: caesar salad and the touted signature dish of "paella Costa Mar." The caesar was prepared tableside from a trolley with an inset wooden bowl and small ramekins of the dressing ingredients lined up and ready to go. That's the classic means of making this salad, although the waiter whisking things up deviated from tradition in a couple of ways: first by adding garlic to the mix instead of just rubbing the wooden bowl with a clove, and then by using lime rather than lemon juice. The result -- two deep, white bowls of salad studded with crisp white croutons -- was superior to the mayonnaise-laden versions commonly encountered, but for $15 one might have expected shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano rather than a particularly cheap and malodorous powdered parmesan.
18250 Collins Ave.
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160-2727
Region: North Dade
17190 Collins Ave.
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160
Region: North Dade
I didn't take literally the menu boast about the paella containing "all the delicacies the sea has to offer." There are, after all, more than 25,000 species of fish (not including mollusks and shellfish). I did, though, envision more than the three seafaring representatives of shrimp, mussels, and squid. Considering the $48 price (for two), I was likewise looking for langostinos instead of petite, pedestrian shrimp, and perhaps a few littleneck clams. I'd have definitely preferred hefty hunks of chicken on the bone to the dry nuggets of overcooked breast, and there would have been no complaints had spicy slices of chorizo been included. Squishy, army-green peas, canned red peppers, and enough slightly mushy saffron-yellow rice to feed four rounded out the routine rendition, which was presented in the too-small paella pan in which it was cooked (a wider vessel would have allowed the rice to simmer in a shallow layer, which makes it less susceptible to over-cooking).
Our two-dish, two-course dinner-for-two cost $63. With eighteen-percent gratuity and tax, that's about $80. Most diners will want to supplement their meal with a bottle from the short but sharply chosen wine list -- or at least with bottled water, coffee, or dessert, which makes Costa Mar a pricey proposition. This particular duet of a dinner was decent, but not worth the dough.
On a succeeding visit we devised a different dining strategy, but came to pretty much the same conclusion. This time my partner intended to start with baby eels sautéed with garlic and olive oil, but these are imported from Spain and evidently are not in season now. So we split a main course of linguini with radicchio cream as an appetizer. The idea of sweet cream contrasting with bitter radicchio seemed fetching, just the sort of distinctive dish this menu otherwise lacks. Unfortunately the radicchio was minced into flavorless bits with no texture and tossed with an equal amount of red onion; the sauce was reduced cream with parsley and little else. Nobody came by with a pepper mill, either, although they did try to pass off more of that musty parmesan dust. We demurred. The only bitter taste in my mouth was that of disappointment.
We also took a rain check on a roundup of meat dishes, including "Chef Adames's award-winning tenderloin in his secret sweet and soy sauce." Another secret withheld from us was the availability of tapas, which are not listed on the menu and went unmentioned, on both visits, by the wait staff. It was midway through our entrées during a final excursion that I noticed, on a neighboring table, a small menu listing more than a dozen of the little snacks.