Chino-Latino No Go

Here’s a sound machine for Gloria Estefan: the cash register — Ka-ching! Ka-ching!

"Where Cuba meets the Far East" is Oriente at Cardozo's motto, which on paper isn't a bad idea. The crisp, light flavors and exotic spices of Asia offer a potentially tantalizing contrast to heartier, homespun island fare. A little yin and yang, so to speak. Throw in American-style salads and pizzas and you've got yin, yang, and yanqui — what could go wrong? Plus there are precedents: Asia de Cuba, a Jeffrey Chodorow property in four major cities, has been deftly doing Chino-Latino cuisine for years. And Cuba's eastern coast, including the province of Oriente, was long ago inhabited by European and Asian immigrants who fused their native foods with indigenous tropical ingredients. Oriente also happens to be the birthplace of Emilio Estefan, who with his famous missus owns a piece of this South Beach restaurant and lounge. But Oriente the dining establishment doesn't serve the sort of down-home fare you'd find in Oriente, Cuba. Nor does it offer innovative pairings such as black beans and edamame, or wasabi crema with boniato crisps, as Asia de Cuba does. Sadly it proffers instead the fussy and unfocused food found mostly on tourist strips such as Ocean Drive.

Our meal began with a traditional Asian touch: no bread — at least on the first visit. A return brought a basket of warm rolls and a terrific triangle of sesame seed multigrain bread. On both occasions the appetizers were served relatively rapidly. Service here isn't especially smooth or professional, but it is fast — in a let's-turn-the-tables-over-quickly way. Still, we took our time tasting a crab croqueta of luscious white lump meat mildly melded with filler and encased in a delicate golden crust. The cake came perched atop two ripe slices of avocado and a base of cracked wheat tabouleh salad that wasn't old but possessed none of the cleanly delineated tastes of fresh, recently dressed grains. A vinaigrette dappled with diced tomatoes and snippets of chives proved a perky partner for the crab, but if you want to follow with a mahi-mahi main course, you'd better really like tomatoes, vinegar, and chives — the fish comes pooled in the same dressing.

Speaking of which, I just had to try the Asian slaw — not because I wanted to, but it's difficult to avoid, coming as it does alongside a starter of chicken drumettes, a "Latin-spiced" tuna appetizer, and a main course of tamarind-basted pork ribs. We ended up encountering our shredded salad below four sizable slabs of tuna — too much for a starter, though pretty nifty for sharing. The fish was fresh but a little too rosy-red in color (indicating dye). The Latin spices tasted an awful lot like a Cajun blackening blend. I'm not sure what became of a promised ginger-kim chee vinaigrette, but it wasn't on the tuna or the plate. Wasn't on the big mound of slaw either, which consisted of carrots, red cabbage, greens, and crunchy fried rice noodles in sesame-ginger-soy vinaigrette. By the way, the Asian slaw that accompanies Cajun — er, Latin-spiced tuna with ginger-kim chee — I mean with sesame-ginger-soy vinaigrette, is not to be confused with the Oriental slaw that comes with an entrée of "five-spiced" tuna with ginger-kim chee — er, sesame-ginger-soy vinaigrette. Even though, far as I can tell, Oriental slaw is indeed the same as Asian slaw.

JOE ROCCO

Location Info

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Oriente at Cardozo

1300 Ocean Dr
Miami Beach, FL 33139-4210

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: South Beach

Details

Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner Sunday through Thursday 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8:00 a.m. to midnight
Cardozo Hotel, 1300 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 305-695-2822

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Now that I've clarified that for you, we can turn to the Chinese chicken salad in soy-ginger vinaigrette (and whose attendant slaw goes under the "Oriental" moniker). Back in 1984, when Miami Sound Machine scored its first hit with "Dr. Beat," Chinese chicken salad with soy-ginger vinaigrette might have been considered a viable interpretation of Far Eastern food. Diners' expectations of cuisine, however, change the way taste in music does, and this menu is about as playable today as that dated dance-chart song.

If only redundancy and irrelevancy were Oriente's sole problems. Some of the cuisine is tasty enough, but it is to real, passionately cooked food what paint-by-numbers is to real art. Meals here seem to be prepared by rote for one-time tourists who are more likely to recall the "interesting people" streaming by their outdoor table on the Drive (some of whom look ready to take hostages) than the lukewarm and lackluster nature of the duck ropa vieja. Actually, substituting braised duck for beef is a dandy idea, but rather than moist shreds of meat stewed in sauce atop a bed of steaming white rice — the inherent appeal of the traditional rendition — the duck and "sticky coconut" rice (neither sticky nor particularly coconutty) came layered and molded into the sort of namby-pamby prefab entrée one might expect to be handed on an airline tray. Two nubs of sweet green plantains tasted as though plucked from a steam table, and a vertical plume of fried plantain strip rising Iwo Jima style from the rice proved an apt symbol for the inadvertently retro nature of the cuisine. The plate also contained squiggles of glowing red goo that tasted vaguely of cinnamon; I pushed the food away from it in the same gingerly way one would steer a strolling child from a puddle.

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