In terms of cultural crossovers, few cities have got anything over Miami. There is, of course, the music, which often mixes Latin, Afro-Caribbean, and rock roots. And the city's two primary tongues, which for better or worse have produced hybrids such as lunchear (to meet for lunch) and faxear (to send a fax).
Cuisine, however, seems to have remained a separatist affair, with mom-and-pop Cuban joints on one side of the line, meat-and-mashed potato restaurants on the other.
Which is why Molina's Restaurant is unique: It serves not only Cuban cuisine but continental as well. Expansive and tastefully designed, this North Miami concern is one of several upscale restaurants catering to the old guard from the nearby Jockey Club, the Towers at Quayside, and other Biscayne Bay condos. In a decidedly Anglo area along Biscayne Boulevard, Molina's is a Latin enclave in old Miami, one of few Cuban establishments daring enough to abandon the comfortable diaspora of the Gables, Little Havana, and Hialeah. It has cleverly devised a menu to accommodate continental palates too, reflecting what Miami could do at its best: give us a crossover experience. The continental feel is visible immediately upon entering, and the strings of tiny lights give the dining room an elegant yet cozy feel. A wall photo of Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez confirms the Cuban touch.
Molina's menu is strong in seafood offerings, which include hard-to-find paella Valenciana ($19.00) and asopao de camarones (seafood cooked in yellow rice, $21.50). Both require the standard one-hour wait. Other Cuban specialties include boliche asado (pot roast, $9.95), zarzuela de mariscos (seafood stew, $29.95), and masitas de puerco (fried pork chunks, $9.95).
The appetizers we tried were generally well done, especially tostones rellenos con salpicon de marisco ($9.95), a fluffy, deep-fried plantain cup of marinated seafood with a curled spring onion peeking out of a squid circle. Mussels caprese ($8.95) and lobster bisque soup ($6.50) also were good, especially the bisque, which contained chunky lobster pieces. Presentation, as with the rest of the meal, was elegant.
A pianist with a state-of-the-art synthesizer moved equally well between Cuban favorites, such as "Quizas," and Gershwin tunes. Although we frequently are put off by restaurant music (it's often too loud or inappropriately selected), this entertainer provided an engaging cache of hybrid repertoires that complemented the restaurant's theme perfectly. His casual singing style, reminiscent of Mel Torme, lent a Manhattan hotel feel to the evening. We weren't even put off when a zaftig blond woman began to belt out "Start spreading the news...." Anywhere else we would have cringed, fearing talent night was upon us, but the pianist tamed it into a pleasant piece.
The impressive roast duck ($15.95) came with julienne strips of squash and carrots. The duck, which in lesser restaurants can be tough, flavorless, or simply burned, was none of the above. It was juicy, flavorful, and tender, enhanced by a light ginger orange sauce. On another visit the chicken duxelle ($12.95), a pasta dish including mushrooms, spinach, and feta cheese in a thin cheesy crêpe, was notable for its tender meat, but the cheese seemed a bit strong. Surprisingly the Cuban dish we predicted would be the best, shrimp in green sauce ($28.95), was disappointing. The sauce, typically a thick parsley blend considered the Spanish answer to pesto, was sparse and runny, depriving tastefully presented shrimp of their rightful glory. It made us wish Centro Vasco, a pioneer in salsa verde, hadn't closed.
Those who don't speak Spanish will appreciate that the waiters are fluent in two languages, moving comfortably from Spanish with me, to English with my companion. While bilingualism may seem like a given, complaints on this issue are legion from diners who don't know their arroz con pollo from their natilla, and depend on the waiter for a pleasant experience. At one point during our order, the waiter respectfully teased my companion: "You don't speak Spanish? That's okay. Nobody's perfect." I winced and glanced over at my Anglo companion. He blinked and looked up at the waiter, who smiled back politely; then both chuckled. Whew! Just another day in Miami.
Our bar waiter also had a sense of humor. When asked whether the piña coladas were fresh, he answered yes, then added comically, much like an actor with a bad script: "Fresh from the can. I'm doing the best I can here, folks." Which brings us to Molina's stunning flaw, its tropical alcoholic beverages. Bad enough that a bloody Mary was weak and a margarita was made with a dusky-tasting mix. But a bad mojito? Sacre bleu, er, azul sagrado! A mojito (the rum, lime juice, sugar, and mintlike concoction that conjures images of Ernest Hemingway clacking at his typewriter under a paddle fan in pre-Castro Cuba) offers nothing if not the promise of freshly squeezed limes. The tart tang should tingle your nostrils the moment your drink is set before you. Our beverage, which was dark grayish green, not the typically pale color, was apparently made (and this should be listed as a crime somewhere) with canned juice, possibly something other than lime. The drink tasted syrupy and tinny. When we sent the drink back, the staff graciously obliged in a way that suggested they had heard complaints before. For a restaurant priding itself on Cuban cuisine to serve a mojito with canned substitutes -- please.
Having dissed Molina's Cubanismo over the mojito, I'm obligated to confess a gringo-ismo. We ordered a café con leche with decaffeinated espresso. Okay, so "decaf espresso" must seem like an oxymoron to any self-respecting Cuban establishment, but it was 11:00 p.m., way past caffeine time. Perhaps that's why the weak beverage that arrived tasted more like milky tea than coffee. We had defined ourselves as wimps by asking for decaf, only one step away from asking for Sanka. On another visit, however, we sampled a hearty "varadero coffee," a blend of rum, coffee, and condensed milk -- an impressive, strong, creamy treat.
Molina's dessert tray, which had been touted, offered the usual assortment. The cheesecake was excellent but rice pudding tasted bland, and lacked texture.
Overall, with the notable exception of said beverages, Molina's has successfully maneuvered the shoals of Anglo and Cuban cultures to offer interesting cuisine palatable to both.
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