Gloria Estefan is a woman who needs no introduction in Miami. We know well her sultry voice -- the embodiment of this seductive, subtropical city. We admire her showwomanship, her business acumen, her homegirl-made-good-ness. Her personal bravery (returning to performance after suffering a broken back in a 1990 bus accident) and her perseverance (her concert efforts for Hurricane Andrew's victims) endear her to us. But some of us love her mostly because she feeds us so well.
Estefan and her husband, Emilio, opened Lario's on the Beach, an upscale Cuban establishment, in early summer of 1992. It was an instant success. It was also the first Ocean Drive eatery in which my husband and I tried to celebrate our move to South Beach. We had thought we'd eat late, ten o'clock or so, avoid the crowds. (Yes, we were a little naive.) The wait for dinner was almost three hours. But though we had an unexpected glimpse of Estefan -- fulfilling an element of the Beach's see and be seen credo -- we failed to be seen by the restaurant's hostess, a near-impossibility in the crush. That evening we eventually dined elsewhere.
It seemed only fitting that we acknowledge our first anniversary of South Beach dining at Allioli, the Estefans' second restaurant on Ocean Drive. This time, we chose an earlier hour and a rather unpopular night of the week -- Tuesday -- in order to ensure a meal. The strategy worked. Our group of four joined a smattering of other parties at the lovely red marble tables, which were hewn from the same material as the columns. This is the prettiest porch on the beach, featuring a wonderful tile motif around the door. In fact, the whole restaurant, in the lobby of the Cardozo Hotel, drew attention not only for its worthy renovation, but for the amount of time it remained in its original state of dishabille. Soon after the Estefans had purchased it, Hurricane Andrew struck, and Gloria used the Cardozo as a headquarters for her hurricane relief projects rather than the purpose it now serves. The restaurant opened in late August.
Inside, the high quality extends even to the restrooms. Mirrors, inlaid in stone, are shaped like stalactites and adorn the walls, the ceiling, the doors. The mirrors have been broken and re-pieced together, and, surrounded by so much rock-like material, they lend a refractory, almost Flintstone effect to the rooms. After a few shots at Allioli's innovative vodka bar -- serving more brands and flavors than an Ivy League dorm on a Saturday night -- a simple trip to the bathroom resembles a journey into a Stone Age funhouse.
In fact, a fun atmosphere prevails, in part because Allioli doesn't yet appear to take itself as seriously as it might. Come high season, though, and the light-hearted, overly relaxed mood could be sorely tested; the staff, not finely honed (we had to request more iced tea, bread, and water each time we ran dry) may become a drawback when the restaurant is packed every night of the week. Like other celebrity-owned restaurants, Allioli's Estefan name will draw tourists, while the well-prepared cuisine, a blend of traditional Spanish, Mediterranean, French, and Italian (what the restaurant calls "Euro-Mediterranean), will continue to attract locals.
The Estefans make their wide-ranging eclecticism work. Allioli, the whipped mayonnaise of garlic, eggs, and olive oil from which this restaurant takes its name, is an appropriate inspiration. Its mix of ingredients suggests the eatery's theme of incorporating influences from a variety of cuisines.
For instance, executive chef and general manager Tony Piedra looked mostly to Spain for a wonderful appetizer of empanadilla pies, small turnovers stuffed with dried cured bacalao, or salted cod. He then accented the minced filling with spinach and pine nuts, adding an Italian flair. This delicious tapa poses onlyone risk -- clogged arteries -- but it is well worth it.
Most of the other tapas, those savory snacks often served with cocktails, reflect Piedra's experience in Spanish cuisine. (Having worked most recently at Las Tapas, he also served as Spain's chef de cuisine at the 1971 World's Fair in Budapest.) Tapas were the right size at Allioli -- large enough to satisfy everyone at the table with a taste, small enough to justify ordering many of them. We tried a traditional appetizer of fresh Spanish boquerones, three anchovy-like fillets cured in vinegar and stretched over a tasty white bean salad. This dish, though excellent, may be too odd for everyone's tastes.
In contrast, the gazpacho Andaluz was the perfect starter for the delicate (well, fussy) eater. Allioli's version was not the deep tomato-red and vegetable-choked version frequently dished up in the States, but very similar to what you might find abroad. This cool broth, derived from tomato juice, Spanish olive oil, and red wine vinegar, was presented with a variety of minced vegetables -- green peppers, cucumber, and onion -- on the side. The gazpacho also comes with a topping, if you like, of crabmeat and avocado. The silky, buttery avocado and sweet crabmeat added a welcome contrast in both taste and texture.
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Two of us stayed with Spanish cuisine for the entree, sharing paella Allioli, also known as paella Valenciana. This usually enormous pan of rice, shellfish, chicken, sausage or bacon, and spices, such as saffron and garlic, is my favorite dish; I order it every chance I get, despite the time it takes to prepare (usually 35 to 40 minutes). Allioli's version was one of the best I've had in Miami (the only one to top it was an innovative lobster paella at the original a Mano), and certainly better than most attempts I tried when I visited Spain. The rice, traditionally dotted with artichokes and beans, was finely flavored and not sticky with its own starch; the seafood, particularly the calamari, was tender and rich. Chorizo, a spicy sausage, added the necessary salty, smoky depths. A problem I find inherent in paella, overdone shrimp and chicken, was also a difficulty here, but not enough to detract from the dish as a whole.
The rest of my party, like the menu, ranged the continent for their main courses. A very conservative roast duck a l'orange was given a contemporary flair with a lovely fresh fig and walnut sauce. Boneless, the poultry fell apart so moistly it tasted almost stewed. On the side, a nut-flavored wild rice was molded into a diamond; pretty red cabbage braised with raspberry vinegar complemented the burgundy shades of the duck.
The chargrilled veal chop was another royally colored dish, due to the port wine, pearl onion, and mushroom sauce that topped the medium-rare wonder. The tender meat was a hearty counterpoint to the rich and sweet wine sauce. The red cabbage made another appearance here, and a large mushroom, stuffed with garlic and bread crumbs, completed the plate.
The Estefans think big. Servings were so large -- particularly the paella -- they seemed to grow as we ate them. And the couple is planning to expand beyond Ocean Drive, too. They just purchased property on the ever-improving Lincoln Road, which already features Pacific Time, one of the top restaurants in Miami. If the Estefans run true to form, that restaurant should be open in time for my next anniversary celebration.