La Dolce Vida!

The plates placed before us each contained two thin, bloody red strips of duck magret draped over an ever-so-slightly sweet risotto, rife with cooked cubes of Granny Smith apple and teeny flecks of pancetta. "Pace yourselves," I said to my dinner companions, for this was the first serve of a seven-course prix-fixe meal at Vida! Bistro & Wine Bar in Coral Gables.

Well, it was the first official course. All diners begin with warm, crisp-crusted kalamata olive bread served with a square ramekin of butter, followed shortly thereafter by a long, rectangular glass plate lined with crackers; a small dish each of baba ghannouj and sun-dried tomato tapénade; and a trio of imported cheeses. On this particular evening, the fromages du jour were Manchego; the soft-ripened triple-cream St. André; and Fourme d'Ambert, a cow's milk cheese with light blue veining. That's plenty to chew on as you mull over Vida's wine list — a fairly priced, globally diverse inventory that includes numerous bottles from boutique vintners, many of which are available by the glass.

The prix-fixe menu works like this: A seven-course dinner is $75, five courses cost $65 (or $100 with a wine flight), and $40 brings appetizer, entrée, and dessert. A five-glass flight, if ordered à la carte, is $50. The menu changes weekly, which permits Chef Joe Castro — who opened the 40-seat charmer with wife Maria in September — to use seasonal foods and indulge in a wide range of culinary whims. Having spent most of his professional career in the world of banking, he can't be blamed.

JOE ROCCO

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305-443-8863. Open Tuesday through Sunday 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
1915 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables

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In many ways Vida mimics Romeo's Café on Coral Way, another little romantic spot where the chef/owner crafts nightly prix-fixe menus. And like Romeo Majano, Castro approaches each table to discuss the evening's offerings with diners before they place their orders. When one of my guests warned he wasn't keen on salmon (the feature fish in course number two), Castro suggested substituting grouper. The pan-seared salmon, translucently moist in the center, was laid in a luscious purple Peruvian potato purée, with two thin spears of roasted asparagus angled upward and a pool of orange-infused beurre blanc brightly pooled below — proof that comfort food needn't be brown and bland. The grouper would have also succeeded had it not been undercooked.

"Pace yourselves," I repeated midway through course number three, at the same time silently lamenting my enthusiastic indulgence of the predinner cheeses. Still, it was difficult to resist tearing into the crisp, panko-crusted, butterflied prawn, and nearly impossible to stop from gobbling the peanut vermicelli twirled below, which was only improved with a swirl of spicy Szechuan sauce on the side.

Speaking of heat, albeit of a slightly different nature, Vida would make a voluptuous Valentine's Day venue. The dining room seduces with muted colors, white flowing drapes, and wistful French ballads that bleat through the speakers; a cellist performs every Friday. The staff pampers, the chef is personally involved in preparing your meal, and the wines work to untangle the brain. It's not quite Paris in springtime, but....

Succeeding the shrimp were two triangles of homemade ravioli with a slice of roast chicken lining the center of each and thick, garlicky Alfredo sauce ladled on top. The ravioli were appetizing, even if pasta and sauce were less than delicate, but at this point in the meal, something lighter would have garnered more appreciation. I wouldn't have even minded a small scoop of lemon sorbet — or, for that matter, any cool comestible. The aforementioned vermicelli was served chilled to contrast the sizzling fried prawn, but that would be the sole cold soldier in this seven-course procession of warm foods (including two of the three desserts). Certainly a salad could be inserted, which would also counter the fare's heartiness. Greens aid in digestion too — no small consideration for such a large meal.

"Have you ever eaten rabbit?" That's what Castro asked of some at our table who'd requested a substitute. It was his buildup to explaining how his tubular tenderloin of rabbit often surprised diners with its mild, almost veallike taste, but the chef didn't get very far in his attempt to convince: People who don't like rabbit really don't like rabbit, and this rarely has to do with how it tastes. I know, because I'm one of those people, but I sampled the pecan-crusted loin just the same. The pink meat was tender, moist, and especially gratifying when swiped across dabs of roasted red pepper-and-almond-based romesco sauce. Had I not been aware of a farm-raised lamb chop waiting in the wings, I probably would have eaten the whole serving. I did, however, manage to polish off an accompanying corn pudding that looked and tasted as if it were freshly cut from a creamed corn terrine. Incidentally a vegetable-and-bean-based cassoulet that served as stand-in for non-bunny-eaters was a bland, watery affair that clearly marked the culinary nadir of the night.

As I was slicing into that lamb chop — a rare robust rib from a roasted Australian rack — the image of a big wheel of Fourme d'Ambert rolled through my head. Luckily the sumptuousness of the chop kept me focused on the plate before me, which was lavishly garnished with maple-glazed carrot sticks; a spongy, frittatalike square of squash casserole; and an exemplary port wine reduction sauce.

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