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
Por Fin: "At Last." As in: At last, five years after owner Carlos Centurion purchased the property, and two and a half years after breaking ground for construction, the beautiful two-level Spanish restaurant is finally open for business on the corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Anastasia Avenue in Coral Gables. "We didn't decide upon the name until a year and a half ago," explains Carlos, who at that point could think of no more apt a moniker. Yet even without the delay, Por Fin would make sense. As in: At last, a dining establishment that offers patron-friendly half portions, for those Americans who don't get aroused by a plate of food whose weight exceeds that of a dumpster. Which is not to say these reduced servings aren't hefty. A half order of seared American lamb ($17) brings a chop that is easily two inches thick, swathed in sumptuous demi-glace, and chaperoned by nutty chanterelle mushrooms sautéed with crunchy pistachios. Add a generous side of caesar salad shingled with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano ($4 — yes, that's right, $4) for as rewarding a $21 dinner as you're going to find.
Of course you'll probably want to order at least a few items, for the menu is crammed with captivating Catalan cuisine. Take the paella. Seriously. It isn't actually called paella, probably because doing so would raise expectations of chicken and chorizo and such (the Valencian way). This "Catalan-style seafood rice," served in a single-portion paellera, is embedded only with clams, mussels, calamari, and shrimp. The impeccably al dente Calasparra grains (a highly reputed Spanish rice grown in limited quantities) are imbued with a saffron picada and sofrito of onions and peppers caramelized for 12 hours. You needn't know the recipe for picada and sofrito to appreciate the way the complex flavors seep into the rice.
Por Fin's front vestibule affords diners a view of a large, shiny open kitchen staffed with a sizable team of cooks. To the left is the main dining room, a 75-seater with extra private space that allows another 20. Dark woods, framed mirrors, arched windows, and wrought-iron accents conjure the coziness of a country inn. The look is similar upstairs, but a boisterous crowd clustered around the bar and lounge lends the ambiance a certain joie de vivre — or however you say that in Spanish. The quietest tables are on each level's outdoor terrace, the top veranda being the more romantic.
2500 Ponce de Leon Blvd.
Coral Gables, FL 33134
Region: Coral Gables/South Miami
Thick slabs of darkly crusted rustic bread preceded dinner. They were served with a triptych of green-hued Spanish olive oil; coarsely crushed fresh tomatoes barely touched with olive oil and salt (also used for the Catalan-style bruschetta pa am tomáquet, which is offered with Serrano ham and/or Manchego cheese); and rust-hued romesco: a gutsy spread of hazelnuts, garlic, onion, and peppers all roasted, puréed, and emulsified with olive oil. The same romesco as well as saffron-zapped aioli accompany buñuelos de bacalao, whose dazzling dips lend most of the flavor to these moistly bready, mellowly seasoned spheres.
Half portions of risotti and pastas are ideally sized for sharing as a first or second course. You can't go wrong with truffle-perfumed porcini risotto ($11) or eggy pasta purses (fiocchi) filled with minced pears and pooled in thin Cabrales sauce soothed with honey, cream, and truffles ($9). It shouldn't be difficult to find a fruit-and-blue-cheese-friendly wine from the modest global selection (one that lingers longest on California and Spain). Excepting a short list of reserves, at least half the bottles are less than $40 (on average a double markup), and most by-the-glass selections are $10 or under.
Executive chef Marc Vidal worked in top Parisian restaurants and at the groundbreaking El Bulli, but while his experience at the latter informs Por Fin's cuisine with a modern sensibility, food here comes in conventional molecular form. In other words, no nitrous oxide was involved in producing the smooth green pea purée that pools a plush plank of seared grouper, nor with the slice of Serrano ham that contributes a salty perk. Vidal seems comfortable with comfort food, too, such as a huge, juicily roasted half chicken that gets draped with thick spears of asparagus and a homespun morel-laden mushroom sauce.
No restaurant is immune to mistakes, especially a new and hectic one such as this. The soup du jour — cherry gazpacho with caviar and chives — arrived without the caviar and chives; our waiter quickly rectified the omission. The cherry base, beaded with olive oil and not overtly sweet, combined in unusual but not unpleasant fashion with the added ingredients. If we had been sitting outdoors on a hot afternoon, rather than shivering in a frigid dining room, we probably would have appreciated this one more.
A fried egg appetizer, with potato "crème" (more like mousse), potato "crisps" (chips), Serrano ham, and truffle oil, relies on a runny yolk's rich flow to meld the components together. Our overcooked ovum was regrettably oozeless, yet a forkful of all the flavors was what I imagine breakfast in Heaven must be like. Waiters know the menu inside and out, so when we ordered a side of potato foam, we were informed the egg starter's "crème" was the same thing — and therefore might be repetitive.
The staff is superbly attuned to such details. Upon our requesting ice for lukewarm water, the waiter removed and emptied the glasses and refilled them with ice water from a carafe, which is considerately left on diners' tables. And as we waited for an only slightly tardy dessert, a manager came by to explain they'd erred with the order, apologized, and brought it to us minutes later.
The torrija was worth the wait. Two rectangles of brioche wowed with wispily brittle brûlée-esque crusts and creamy, almost flan-like interiors. Plum and apple sauces were streaked on the plate, which was centered by a generous quenelle of cappuccino ice cream — a subtle deconstruction of French toast with fruit and a cup of coffee. Combo #2 on Heaven's breakfast menu?
Other desserts delve into French (white chocolate mousse), American (apple tart with vanilla ice cream), and Caribbean territory (passion fruit cream, mint, and coconut foam). Also exhibiting an island twist is crema catalana, whose caramelized sugar cap comes crowned with banana ice cream, rum-caramelized pineapple, and chocolate sauce — overkill, but tasty in a messy way.
Good news travels fast. The restaurant is packed on weekends and busy enough in general that advance reservations are highly recommended. The reaction of Gables residents has thus far been: "At last, Por Fin."