Broken English

Here's a deeply flawed syllogism. Major premise: Miami is known for its Spanish-speaking population. Minor premise: I live in Miami. Erroneous conclusion: I speak Spanish.

Here's the unvarnished truth: Miami has many Spanish-speaking residents. I live in Miami. I am not one of those Spanish-speaking residents. And at the risk of being politically -- or culturally -- incorrect, I am plain fed up with people assuming that everyone here understands Spanish.

I'm tired of Publix checkout clerks asking me in Spanish whether I want paper or plastic. I'm weary of being addressed by Burdines salespeople en espanol. I am especially sick of restaurants whose staffs don't even bother to answer the phone in English, let alone comprehend an order given in it. Hello, La Dorada!

Granted, the sixteen-month-old La Dorada, which took over the old Yuca space in Coral Gables, is an offshoot of a well-regarded Spanish restaurant chain. And listen, I'm all for authenticity. La Dorada, known for its seafood, offers beautifully prepared fish and shellfish, flying in its fare -- everything from baby eels to sea bream -- daily after it has been plucked from the Mediterranean Sea and the Bay of Biscay. But the place should consider hiring a bilingual staff. Our dining experience there was marred only by the fact that the servers speak and understand so little English that they just ignore requests they don't comprehend. More often than not we had to depend on the manager, who hovered over our table to translate for us as best he could, given his limited grasp of English.

Though the menu is for the most part written in English, some of the items will be unfamiliar to many diners. Servers need to explain the Andalusian "fritos," a selection of fried appetizers that includes boquerones (fresh anchovies) and chanquetes (a tiny member of the goby family of fish). They need to describe the difference between calamares (a squid's body meat, cut into rings) and calamaritos (whole baby squid). Once informed, a customer can then order these starters with some assurance. We cozied up to a platter of the calamares -- succulent squid batter-dipped and fried in high-quality olive oil at flash-point temperature. These greaseless treats were delicious paired with a potent homemade alioli. A sampler platter, comprising every frito, is available for $25.00.

The chanquetes appeared as a garnish on the house gazpacho, a cool, full-bodied, vinegary puree; the tiny fish provided a croutonlike crunch and imparted a delicate sea flavor to the tomato-based soup. The fresh tingle of the gazpacho was complemented by a chopped salad of oven-roasted peppers, vine-ripe tomatoes, and sweet white onions. This tangy mixture was ideal spooned onto garlic bread, brought at the beginning of the meal. We couldn't figure out why we were served the salad twice, however, and the language barrier precluded our waiter from solving the mystery.

Aside from a couple of salads and a quartet of steak and lamb dishes listed almost as afterthoughts at the bottom of the menu, Neptune rules here, and a shipboard decor -- wheels, portholes, and the like on gold-hue walls -- reinforces the impression. La Dorada offers hard-to-find delicacies such as brittle-shell razor clams (difficult to harvest because of their ability to burrow at top speeds into the sand). We were delighted by sea scallops sauteed with Malaga wine and green grapes from southern Spain; the tender little nuggets were napped by a rich cream sauce, then served in their shells. A pretty presentation.

Shellfish shows up in many main courses here, including simple preparations like paella and fideo (vermicelli), and in an elaborate dish of monkfish fillet stuffed with shrimp. Monkfish eat crustaceans -- New England fishermen curse them for robbing their lobster traps -- and as a result its flesh has a firm, sweet texture reminiscent of their food. The fillet we were served was ideally cooked, with small shrimp and sauteed onions embedded in the its center. A red pepper coulis brightened the fish.

The language problem surfaced again when we ordered the menu's only chicken dish, an act that prompted our server to try to lay our table with utensils for cracking open shells. "Lobster?" he would ask, looking at each of us quizzically. We would shake our heads -- none of us had ordered lobster -- and he would walk away, only to return minutes later with the same question. We finally figured out what was going on when the sauteed chicken breast arrived unexpectedly partnered with a Maine lobster tail. Hard to complain about that, especially when the lobster flesh, bathed in a sherried cream, was so supple and rich. No need for a cracking device here -- the meat pulled right out. We feared the chicken might receive cursory treatment. Wrong. The boned, skinless breast was juicy, served in a golden sauce and garnished with toasted almonds.

Better still was the fish a la sal, a whole Dover sole covered in rock salt and then baked, sealing in the natural juices while keeping the flesh firm but moist. The manager was so proud of this dish that he asked our permission to parade it around the dining room before delivering it to our table. He then chipped away the salt and skinned and boned the fillets himself, separating them expertly from the spine. Garlic-infused olive oil and alioli were brought in case we wanted to add other flavors, but the fish was fine without them. Side dishes of meaty dark mushrooms, encased in a pastry shell, and garlicky roasted potatoes added some heft here, as they did to all of the entrees. Lubina (striped sea bass) and dorada (the royal sea bream, or gilthead, for which the restaurant is named) are other a la sal options.

Dessert was our only real disappointment. Baked Alaska, at ten bucks per person, can be ordered only for two or more. At a minimum that's a $20 dessert. Could it possibly be worth it? Our answer, after a half-hour wait, was a resounding no. First of all, our server forgot about it, letting it wilt in the kitchen. Finally the manager, sputtering at the waiter in Spanish, brought it out, doused it in brandy, and torched it. The result was a charred, melting, overly alcoholic mess, its crunchy grains of sugar turning the meringue into what tasted like Bubble Yum. Next time I'll stick with something simple, perhaps the seasonal fresh fruit in a chilled almond terrine.

Every restaurant manager or owner in Miami has complained at one time or another about the difficulty of finding good help. I don't think that's the problem at La Dorada. These servers seemed more than competent with their Spanish-speaking customers. Perhaps their training could include some English lessons. At least teach the staff to answer the phone in both languages. Because if they -- and others here -- continue to assume that all their customers speak Spanish, then some customers might make the equally faulty assumption that they've dialed the wrong number and hang up.

La Dorada
177 Giralda Ave., Coral Gables; 446-2002. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 6:30 to 11:00 p.m.; Sunday from 4:00 to 11:00 p.m.

Calamares fritos
Scallops in wine sauce
Monkfish stuffed with shrimp
Chicken breast in almond sauce
Dover sole baked in salt


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