When an established restaurant opens a branch, habitues of the original location quite naturally anticipate an equivalent culinary experience at the new address. I never actually reviewed Las Rias Gallegas, a budget Spanish seafood restaurant in Coral Gables. But I ate there often when it opened across from my former office in the fall of 1992, and I've been back periodically since then. Nowhere in town can you get a more consistently shellfish-laden paella, a bigger grilled swordfish sandwich, a heftier portion of arroz con pescado for the price. The restaurant, named after the estuaries that indent the coastline of Galicia in northwestern Spain (a region much lauded for its Portuguese-influenced shellfish preparations), earned Best of Miami honors this year. Dining recently at Las Rias Gallegas's five-month-old sister site in Coconut Grove (the two-story former home of both the Marlins Steak House & Sports Bar and Carlos in the Grove), I anticipated a meal of equal stature. I got both more and less than I expected.
Valet parking was more. The original Las Rias, perched at the somewhat dark corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and SW Eighth Street in Coral Gables, is a casual little joint with no vehicular pretensions but plenty of do-it-yourself metered spaces. This new baby, on the other hand, has nannies who drive stick shift. Live music was more, with big-name flamenco guitarists playing the upstairs room, which overlooks the first floor like a balcony. Sound carries down.
Atmosphere was more, too. Not that Las Rias Gallegas I is cosmetically challenged. But this second, decidedly upscale dining room features Mexican tile floors, gleaming blond woods, paneled walls, and a polished square bar in the middle of the room. Very pretty. And service was more formal: The entire restaurant had a dressed-up feel A Las Rias Gallegas on its best behavior. The food, however, particularly the entrees, was too often disappointing, especially given the (significantly) higher prices.
Dinner did get off to a good start, with a crusty loaf of bread served with pimiento butter. Starters were promising, too, such as a vibrant bowl of gazpacho andaluz, a tangy, chilled puree of tomato, cucumber, garlic, and bread crumbs that made a perfect dip for the bread. The loaf also came in handy for making entremeses a casina -- a platter of cold sliced meats -- into hearty sandwiches. Serrano ham was an intensely flavored, lean and smoky treat, as were similarly cut strips of smoked pork loin. Mortadella, salami, and crumbly manchego cheese rounded out the selection.
We also liked tortilla espa*ola. Generally one of my favorite tapas, this steaming, inch-high omelet was exceptional, the egg concoction loosely cradling chunks of boiled white potatoes and featuring a crisp, brown exterior. Cazuela Rias was wonderfully prepared as well, a small clay pot filled with a garlicky assortment of fresh grilled seafood -- shrimp, scallops, and calamari -- along with chunks of homemade, finely ground chorizo. Mushrooms added meaty depths, diced red peppers a dash of color. The single drawback here was the presence of too-tough squid rings.
The house salad -- or rather the lack thereof -- marked a downturn; the assortment of greens with tomatoes, asparagus, and Spanish olives we'd ordered never appeared. And while they were generous enough to ensure we wouldn't go hungry, too many of the main courses fell prey to a more troubling syndrome: mediocrity, or worse.
Known for its seafood, Las Rias Gallegas offers an assortment of ten such dishes, plus a catch of the day and various specials. We tried one of the specials, a generous and flaky but unevenly cooked swordfish steak in a herb-flecked white sauce. The fish was nicely presented in the clay pot in which it had been prepared; the waiter then dished it onto a plate along with two large mussels and a scoop of buttered white rice. But the shellfish tasted foul, upsetting the clean balance of the entire entree and giving the sauce, which was unappetizingly gloppy to start with, an unpleasant fish-stink.
Camarones enchilados were a vast improvement, a dozen medium-size shrimp curled in a peppery creole tomato sauce with a pile of white rice. The fresh shrimp exhibited the snappy texture associated with good shellfish cookery.
The menu at Las Rias Gallegas I lists no meat dishes, and the lack of experience showed at the new location, which features six entrees aimed toward carnivores. A pile of baby lamb chops, for example, bore the flavor of an unscrubbed grill. Though the seven bite-size chops were presented pink and juicy, a charbroiled staleness was overpowering. A tangle of roasted vegetables suffered from the opposite problem -- too little flavor -- that hardly was abetted by the large boiled white potato rounding out the meal.
The same side dishes accompanied a grilled chicken dinner. Three boneless breasts had been clearly branded by the grill, so much so that the cooking method would have been obvious to a blindfolded diner. Worse, they were overcharred to the point of being dried out.
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The wine list was fine, if you like Riojas. Plenty of bottles are offered, both red and white, all hovering around the twenty-dollar mark. A surfeit of Riojas at a Spanish restaurant is difficult to fault.
So was dessert, we were happy to note, particularly a casserole dish of crema quemada a la catalana -- Catalan creme brnlee -- a smooth room-temperature custard capped by a protective crust of caramelized sugar. Absolutely delicious.
The Coconut Grove Las Rias Gallegas bears a certain charm. But for a terrific meal at better prices, I'll be heading back to the Gables.
'Tis the season for second locations. Coconut Grove's Trattoria Pampered Chef has opened an outpost in Miami Lakes, while Botticelli Trattoria, Kendall's homemade pasta palace, will do business in Coral Gables this fall, at the site of the former Vakhos on Ponce de Leon Boulevard. Pacific Time, Lincoln Road's pan-Asian pioneer, is also looking to reproduce imminently in the Gables, as Pacific Grill. La Casona, meanwhile, is in the process of cloning its Cuban self in North Miami Beach, on Biscayne Boulevard just north of 135th Street, where the Sea Shanty used to reign. Crystal Cafe, arbiter of new Continental cuisine on 41st Street, is on the verge of opening a second Miami Beach location on Ocean Drive. All seem to be counting on local appetites catching a second wind.