Alejandro Garcia, co-owner of the six-week-old Mexican restaurant Divina, understands that a menu should be more than a utilitarian way to convey information. He realizes that a menu's look, its presentation, its feel contribute significantly to a patron's first impression. As a result, each item on Garcia's oversize, raffia-tied menu carries a passionately written description not only of a dish's preparation -- explaining the complex cuisine of his wife/executive chef Lorena Vega-Beauggle -- but also of its history.
The Miami Beach restaurant bills its food "nouvelle Mexican" -- family recipes updated with influences from France and Spain. I find the label slightly misleading. For one thing, portions here are large enough to nullify the nouvelle part. Second, mini croissants, served from hand-held baskets at the start of the meal, were the only detectable French foodstuff. But why quibble over semantics?
Garcia's poetic descriptions alone encouraged us to order several items. Pastel eloxoxitl ($6.00), for instance, an appetizer of corn torte served with cream and fleshy poblano peppers, is "traditionally served at the baptismal party ... to welcome a new soul." A high, moist wedge of the sweet corn cake was laced with an outrageous cream, onion, and chile pepper sauce -- savory, but neither sugary nor spicy, which also describes Vega-Beauggle's cooking philosophy; she uses fourteen varieties of chile peppers to season, not to sear.
We had a difficult time choosing among the six soups. There was cilantro 1517, named for Spanish conquistadors -- a dish, according to the menu, that "has impressed royalty." Or should we go with the caldo verde marinero, an avocado, cilantro, and seafood mixture "as full of intrigue as a mariner's tale"? And what about the sopa de Frida Kahlo, created by the celebrated Mexican painter to commemorate her muralist husband Diego Rivera's birthday? We finally decided on the sopa de flor de calabaza ($7.00), the squash blossom soup that the menu promises "will take you on an imaginary journey ... reminiscent of evenings spent on the old hacienda veranda." This insistently subtle soup exuded earthy flavors: Its delicate cream stock was rife with mushrooms; drifting in it like ghosts were the mild squash blossoms (the long, frilled flowers that bloom on the tops of pumpkins and are rarely found in the United States).
We continued to choose dishes that appealed to our ears and our appetites -- "incunable," for one, a filet mignon with chile/green tomato sauce. "As the single word describes a unique first edition of a book, cherished by us collectors and treasured from one generation to the next," the menu states, "so has this unique recipe been preserved through generations of Mexican culinary history." Yikes. Garcia sure can build expectations. And in this case Vega-Beauggle lived up to them, searing the filet to a succulent medium-rare and blanketing it with the tangy tomatillo sauce.
Pollo que no tiene nombre ($16.00), "chicken with no name," intrigued us as might an untitled poem. The chicken breast, boneless and skinless, had been sauteed with apples, ancho chiles, and onions, then stuffed into a whole ancho chile. Garcia's description of huachinango en salsa de tamarindo, red snapper with tamarind sauce ($19.00), sounded mundane compared to some of his more flowery prose. But its preparation was no letdown. Eaten in its unadulterated fruit form, tamarind can be overwhelmingly tangy. But the sauce on the sweet, sauteed snapper fillet was tempered appropriately. The fish was served wrapped in banana leaves, the extra steaming provided by this procedure tenderizing the fish.
The most familiar-sounding dish -- at least to people accustomed to eating Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex fare -- is quesadillas azules. The tortilla in this dish is actually made from blue corn and epazote, an herb that gardeners call pigweed and herbalists know as wormseed; the tortilla is stuffed with cheese and squash blossoms.
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We finally detected some European influences in the fettuccine de chile guajillo ($10.00), homemade pasta cooked with dried, medium-hot guajillo chiles, and presented sealed and steaming in parchment paper. This creamy and smoky dish is listed with the salads but its hefty size could catapult it to main-course status. We shared it as an appetizer. Pollo en salsa de cilantro y chile serrano, a whole deboned chicken breast, was served over the fettuccine, which was laced with garlic and oil. The juicy poultry had been sauteed in a cilantro, white wine, and green chile sauce. The fresh chiles were peppery and piquant, and the combination of the herb, garlic, and oil called to mind pesto.
As for desserts, we loved the sound of rose-petal tart -- it reminded us of the quail with rose petals that brought guests to tears in Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate. And we admired the up-front flavor of the rose-petal gel and cream cheese base, as well as the nutty consistency of a hazelnut torte recommended by our server. But we were just a little shocked at the price tags: $7.00 for the former, a whopping $12.50 for the latter. Add them together and that's almost the price of the filet mignon, at $21 one of the most expensive items on the menu. Could it be that the owners are trying to make up for their reasonable entree prices?
Or maybe to help finance the extensive renovations done to this former Israeli deli? Divina's decor is stunning: stained-glass murals, paintings by Mexican artists, and earthenware pots are all mounted on the terra cotta-color walls and illuminated from underneath. Lush, potted foliage abounds. Still, some kinks need to be worked out. A courtyard in back has yet to be completed. A full liquor license has yet to be obtained, and a wine cellar needs to be better stocked (the current wine list is limited to a few California, French, and Italian vintages). And Divina, which lacks a sign, is easily overlooked from the street -- for now. Sign or no, consider this restaurant a destination.
210 23rd St, Miami Beach; 672-3706. Open for dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 6:30 p.m. to midnight.