An Embarrassment of Riches

Miami didn't need a second Yuca.
The original fine-dining nuevo cubano restaurant in Coral Gables is a Latin-theme culinary mecca, having drawn Dade diners for six successful years. It's consistent enough to bring 'em down from Broward and Palm Beach and pull 'em up from the Keys. Distinctive enough to attract the attention of journalists at the New York Times, USA Today, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time, Elle, and Conde Nast Traveler. Not to mention food magazines such as Bon Appetit and Food & Wine.

You'd think owner Efrain Veiga and head chef Guillermo Veloso would cash in on that international cachet and give another city the benefit of plantain-coated dolphin, tamales stuffed with corn and bacalao, braised oxtail in a fiery "La Mancha" red wine sauce. Los Angeles, Paris, Milan. Someplace at least as far from Coral Gables as, say, Fort Lauderdale.

But Veiga and co-owner Amancio Suarez had to go and locate Yuca numero dos at the corner of Lincoln Road and Drexel Avenue on South Beach, in a former Arthur Murray Dance Studio. He had to pour a million dollars into a stunning renovation of the 1939 structure (double the capacity of the 220-seat Coral Gables establishment), laying down a mosaic tile floor in the foyer, constructing columns in the dining room, building the front wall out of floor-to-ceiling windows. And Veloso had to lard the South Beach menu with new recipes influenced by his Spanish-Puerto Rican background.

And now when I want to dine at Yuca, I have to choose between the two.
It's a tough call. The fare at the two restaurants can be stiflingly rich and uncomfortably pricy, conditions that demand a diet of toast and coffee until the next payday and that prevent frequent visits. But Cuban sensation and frequent main attraction Albita Rodriguez sings at the Lincoln Road location, which, along with the new culinary stylings on exhibit there, seems to give South Beach the edge.

Veloso trained as sous chef in Restaurant St. Michel and Yuca; at both establishments he worked for Douglas Rodriguez, the originator of nuevo cubano cuisine who left Yuca in 1993 to open Patria in New York. When I last reviewed Yuca in 1994, after Veloso was promoted to executive chef, I found him still under the shadow of Rodriguez's spatula. No longer. While classic appetizers such as black bean soup with rice cakes and sweet plantains stuffed with dried cured beef still dot the menu (a consequence of customer demand), pionono de camar centsn, a dish of Puerto Rican origin, caught my attention ($13.00). Sauteed shrimp and roasted eggplant were diced, mixed together, and shaped into a timbale mold with strips of fried plantains. The round was stippled with basil and moistened with a wonderful vanilla-scented Spanish sherry sauce, a delicate match for the seafood and vegetable.

Spanish piquillo peppers were a heartier starter. Two sweet roasted and skinned red peppers were stuffed with finely chopped, paprika-enriched chorizo. Sauteed mushrooms and a sprinkle of minced dried beef highlighted the dish. The smoky flavors were outstanding, but a too-cold temperature (corrected upon request by the kitchen), a sauce composed mainly of oil (billed as a truffle-laced mushroom broth), and a missing manchego cheese garnish detracted from the overall preparation.

"On the lighter side," an intermediate menu category, features Peruvian lobster-and-peanut and traditional corn-and-conch tamales, old favorites such as seafood puteria (an orgy of fricasseed squid and shrimp served in a crisp plantain shell), and a good number of interesting pasta dishes spiked with various meats. If your wallet matches a leaner appetite, this is the place to shop. We made a nicely rounded meal out of three gnocchis ($9.00). Three kinds of tender, plump dumplings -- sun-dried tomato, fresh basil, and boniato-malanga -- didn't have much in the way of separate flavors, but were beautifully Italian-flag-colored and light in texture. The gnocchi were rolled around a fried malanga basket filled with a vibrant veal picadillo. Fruity from raisins, the ground meat was a tasty (if somewhat unattractive) complement to a sauce of chopped tomatoes, peppers, and onions.

Penne mixed with chunks of grilled plantains and slices of duck sausage was an equally soul-satisfying bargain. The tubular noodles, sweet starchy fruit, and mildly intense sausage, offsetting each other's textures, were unified with a jigger of aged rum. A dollop of sun-dried tomato ricotta, smooth and brightly colored, blended into the sugary moisture, creating a delicious impromptu cream sauce.

A rum glaze didn't enhance a special of the evening, a swordfish steak expertly cooked but oddly flavored. The juicy and flaky fish was undoubtedly fresh, but it was bitter from the alcohol. A roasted root vegetable side dish helped, wedding earthy flavors to the fish. Considering the $25 price tag, given the choice again I'd stick with the slightly less expensive, tried-and-true plantain-coated dolphin, the fillet of grilled Chilean salmon over black rice with a bacalao al pil-pil and tomato-garlic concasse, or even the $27 dish of seafood asopado and duck confit.

We couldn't resist the most expensive dish on the menu, a $29 oven-roasted veal T-bone steak served over purple-potato-and-lobster mash. It was worth it, and not just for the unusual cut of veal, an immensely juicy and succulent piece of medium-rare beef. Though the combination sounded weird, the mashed potatoes were a real treat, Peruvian purple spuds lumpy with shelled lobster meat. The rest of the components for a gourmet clambake appeared in the sauce, a composition of roasted corn, shallots, and Rioja, a wine that figures in both its red and white varieties on Yuca's largely Spanish wine list. Two crisp tostones accounted for Cuba in this multi-Latin preparation.

I was thrilled to see a very Spanish-influenced dish, chicharr centsn de conejo, on the entree list ($23.00). Half a rabbit -- tender inside, crisp as fried chicken outside -- was served over a spicy chocolate reduction. Thinner than a Mexican mole, a Spanish chocolate sauce uses dried, partially fermented and roasted cocoa beans rather than grated chocolate, a process that renders the sauce free of cocoa fat. Though we thought the reduction was perfect, we found the rabbit a bit too gamy. Not a dish for everybody, though no doubt most would love the accompanying salad -- a wilted mache tossed with ultraripe avocado, pitted kalamata olives, and a mild, creamy dressing.

The dessert course accounted for the only flaw in service during the evening -- we waited twenty minutes for our waiter to discover the peanut-chocolate pƒ#te we'd ordered wasn't firm enough to serve, and another twenty-five waiting for a substitute -- torrejas y miel ($8.00) A to arrive. The slices of French-toasted brioche topped with peanut ice cream were marvelous, but I won't wait three-quarters of an hour again, even for chocolate. Still, the waitstaff exhibits charm, patience, and knowledge, crucial traits in a restaurant whose menu, written in English and Spanish, could stand some culinary translation.

Interpretation is the key to Yuca II A make of it what you will. We might not have needed another one, but I can't recall the last time need had anything to do with want.

501 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 532-9822. Open Sunday -- Thursday from noon to 11:00; until midnight on Friday and Saturday.


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