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By Hannah Sentenac
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After almost six years, thousands of meals, and enough accolades to cause any normal person's head to swell larger than Ohio, there's only one problem with Edgar Leal's Cacao.
You want to eat everything on the menu.
Let's see, classic Peruvian corvina ceviche or wild boar antichucho? Corn soufflé with Guayanés cheese or roasted quail stuffed with chicken and chorizo mousse? Chocolate colada or chocolate crêpes with white chocolate ice cream? It's damn hard to choose, and it's just not fair.
141 Giralda Ave.
Coral Gables, FL 33134
Region: Coral Gables/South Miami
What Leal needs to do is get with the program — take a few meals off, toss in a few ringers. You know, like the dish that sounded really cool to the sous chef who's been up for 72 hours freebasing Courvoisier. Or the entrée composed entirely of excreta from the Sysco truck. Or some "fusion" abomination that defiles multiple culinary cultures on a single plate. At least he could send out something sloppy and tasteless and badly cooked ... you know, just to show he can.
But Edgar Leal wouldn't do that.
This is welcome news to anyone who's grown weary of chefs' propensity to take their eyes off the ball, punt it around the room, smother it in sauce, and serve it up to unsuspecting diners at $40 a pop. At Cacao, Leal's eye doesn't miss the pelota very often. Instead there's a pinpoint focus on raw materials and their preparation that can make the familiar taste brand-new, and the new taste like ingredients that have been hanging around for years, just waiting to get together.
What this means in your mouth is that something as basic as corvina ceviche — here done Peruvian-style with bits of red onion, red pepper, cilantro, and chewy kernels of corn — is a revelation in its perfectly conceived and executed simplicity. The fish is immaculately fresh, cut into a precise dice and carefully bathed in lime juice so that each little "cooked" square is barely firm yet still sings of the sweet-briny goodness of the sea. It means that a tamale-like corn soufflé set atop a round of molten Venezuelan Guayanés cheese channels both the sweet corn intensity of a tamale and the airy insubstantiality of a soufflé, with swirls of verdant parsley oil, red pepper coulis, and balsamic syrup as fortissimo accents.
Leal's take on fried shrimp — succulent, pinkie-size crustaceans tossed with a sneakily incendiary rocoto and piled into a brittle pastry basket — instantly transforms South Florida's favorite junk food into haute junque cuisine. Even the ubiquitous antichucho can take your taste buds by surprise, at least when it consists of skewered chunks of faintly gamey wild boar tenderloin with a lush sauce of goat cheese, cilantro, and basil, sided by a silken quenelle of puréed purple potato. And when a dish falls short, say, wafer-thin arepa chips sandwiching blandly forgettable shredded chicken and mashed avocado, it's not the fault of carelessness but of bowing to the inevitability of imperfection.
All of this gets dished up in a room of simple, understated elegance — cream-colored marble floors with gleaming black stripes, mottled gray walls, ornate chandeliers with dozens of tiny lights, a small bar at one end of the room, and an even smaller semiprivate dining room on the other. And you can drink from a wine list as eclectic as the menu, one that flits all over the world — pricey to be sure but full of interesting selections such as the 2006 Bodegas Valdumia Señor de Loenzo Albarino, an earthier rendition of the more typically floral-citrusy wines from Spain's Rías Baixas region.
The good Señor is a fine complement to seafood such as moqueca bahiana, a Brazilian-style stew of plush-textured shrimp, calamari, and mussels in a coconut milk-based sauce so outrageously, unashamedly caloric it must surely be as bad for every other part of your body as it is pleasing to the palate. A lunchtime offering makes use of the little-seen but exceedingly tender and tasty veal skirt steak, which arrives a proper medium-rare with eggplant "cream" and a crouton topped with goat cheese and caramelized onions.
From Brazil too comes a particularly meaty fillet of snapper, gently cooked en papillote — in this case, a banana leaf substituting for the usual parchment paper — and topped with a mild-tasting tomato creole sauce. It's a nice dish in much the same way as the dweeby guy in high school who was never going to get the girl — no edge. Boneless quail stuffed with chicken and chorizo mousse, on the other hand, is all edge, and a damn sharp one at that. It's something resembling a miniature poultry duffel bag — legs stuffed with a wicked-good mousse of the two salient proteins and set in a puddle of deeply savory red wine sauce. On the side are crusty Colombian potatoes that dissolve in your mouth like mini soufflés and definitely go home with the girl.
For desserts, Cacao uses only Venezuelan El Rey chocolate, billed on the menu as "the finest chocolate in the world," and if it's not, it's certainly on par with any of the great European or artisanal American chocolates. Chocoholics, get your jones on here, perhaps with chocolate crêpes folded over a creamy-dreamy chocolate filling and partnered with white chocolate ice cream as suave as Bond, James Bond. Even better — spectacular, really — is the chocolate colada. Take a cone of achingly rich dark chocolate; pipe it full of ethereal coconut foam tinged with orange-flavored rum; pair it with an opulent, fruity-tasting chocolate sauce and coconut ice cream; and try not to drool in public. And there's still the chocolate marquesa, chocolate soufflé cake, and chocolate sampler.
Now do you see the problem with Edgar Leal's Cacao?