Just when I thought it was not in the cards for an upscale Mexican restaurant in Miami, I discovered one with food so good I almost leaped from my chair to perform a Mexican hat dance in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
I restrained myself. Mostly because Las Puertas, located on restaurant row in the Gables, is too refined for that sort of display. The fare is haute, and the closest to authentic that I've found in Miami. Open just over a month, Las Puertas is already gathering a loyal clientele, and reservations are strongly suggested on weekends (we had called on two weekend nights previous to this visit, only to be told the restaurant was completely booked).
A feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, the dining room is dramatic and sun-drenched, done in yellow and cobalt-blue and accented with Mexican masks and original Latin American abstracts. You'll find no sombreros, serapes, or waiters in native costumes here. The restaurant is light-years away from a dusty cantina in Juarez or Tijuana. Patrons dine to the soothing, piped-in strains of Nat King Cole, Eydie Gorme, and Steve Lawrence warbling tunes in Spanish.
But the real star here is the food, as I found one recent afternoon at lunch. While nibbling on the tortilla chips and fresh, chunky salsa that was placed on my table, I perused an enticing list of appetizers - poached red snapper sauteed with Mexican spices, chiles rellenos, and gorditas - small corn tortillas stuffed with seasoned ground beef, queso blanco, shredded lettuce, and pico de gallo - to name a few. There's also a guacamole for two that is made with nubby, firm-textured Haas avocados which the restaurant has flown in from Mexico.
Only one soup was on the starters list for lunch, a sopa de tortilla. The basic, seasoned chicken broth was accompanied by custard cups filled with avocados, jack cheese, tortilla strips, strips of dried, red, wonderfully aromatic ancho chiles, and half a lime carved into a daisy shape. The broth could have stood on its own, brimming as it was with woodsy green cilantro and bright, sweet red peppers. I'd love to see what the chef could do with the classic sopa de albondiga de tortilla, the chicken-broth-based soup containing dumplings of masa harina.
Entrees are somewhat more nuevo than those offered at other Mexican restaurants in Miami. In addition to standbys such as flautas stuffed with spiced chicken and served with guacamole, shrimp al ajillo, a quesadilla of filet mignon, and chicken enchiladas, some bold variations are included, such as a breast of chicken poached in tequila, green olives, golden raisins, and a sauce of toasted almonds; calf's liver with caramelized sherry, pearl onions, and pickled jalapeno slices; duck fajitas; and the dish I ordered, an enchilada of scallops ($5.95 at lunch; $11.95 at dinner).
My enchilada was as delicate as a first snowfall up north. It contained about a half-dozen chunks of tender, sweet scallops spiked with a few flecks of smoky chipotle peppers, all enfolded in a mild goat cheese and topped with melted jack cheese and a little casera sauce, which derives its flavor from the granddaddy of Mexican chiles, the ancho. At the side of the enchilada was a portion of saffron-scented rice peppered with whole kernels of corn, and a generous helping of creamy refried beans. It was such a wonderful lunch, it called for a celebratory dessert. I passed up flan, chocolate layer cake, and a pecan cheesecake in favor of warm apple pie. The aroma of cinnamon and apples reached me before the pie got to the table, and its flaky crust was chock-full of al dente apples basking in their own sweetness.
That same evening, I convinced my dining companion to accompany me to Las Puertas for dinner. In addition to the lunch appetizer offerings, the dinner menu listed a sopa de aguacate (avocado soup) for $4.50 and another called medallones de res al chipotle, described as seared medallions of tenderloin on a corn tortilla topped with tomatillo, chipotle, and melted cheese ($5.95). I opted for the flautas filled with spiced chicken, and was not disappointed. They were so light and greaseless, they seemed to have had only a nodding acquaintance with cooking oil, and the filling was mildly spiced and tasty.
My dining companion ordered the duck fajitas ($15.95), and his eyes lit up when the plate - loaded with slices of duck - was placed before him, along with a basket of warm flour tortillas. The duck had been marinated and grilled in the fajita sauce and was as lean as can be. Except for one small bite he sent in my direction, my dining companion devoured all his fajitas, plus a tamale that had been served with his meal - he even ate some of his peas and rice.
I ordered a rack of lamb in a mildly seasoned peanut sauce ($18.95). Cut French-style into four chops, the rack was perfectly cooked and tender. I was disappointed only in the sauce, with which a cautious approach had been taken. The peanut taste was barely discernible, as were the spices, rendering the end result somewhat bland. A big bowl of frijoles charros (pinto beans "Cowboy-style") was brought out for us to share. Cooked in beer, tomatoes, scallions, and jalapenos, the beans had a delicious, smoky flavor.
Though we were too full to eat dessert, we were hesitant to leave a place that met nearly every expectation we had for a great Mexican restaurant. As we lingered over our Tecate and wine-based margarita - Las Puertas has a nice selection of wines and Mexican beers, but no hard liquor - Mr. Lopez summoned the chef to our table to answer some questions we had about which provinces of Mexico the restaurant's cuisine was from. My companion asked the knowledgeable young woman if she is Mexican.
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"No, I'm a nice Jewish girl from New York," replied the chef, whose name is Cindy Rothman. She told us about the woman who taught her to cook: "a Mexican who now runs her own restaurant in New York...I followed her around her house for days and wrote down every move she made, every ingredient she touched."
"Her name wouldn't be Zarela Martinez?" ventured my dining companion, who had once interviewed perhaps the most famous Mexican chef in the United States, a New Yorker commissioned to cook for heads of state gathering in Williamsburg for an economic summit.
"Yes, Zarela," replied Rothman.
It's a small world, we noted. And a lucky break for Miami. Mazeltov and buena suerte to one of Miami's newest, most beautiful Mexican restaurants. On a street replete with fine restaurants, we had only one word to describe this one: "Ole!"
148 Giralda Ave, Coral Gables; 442-0708. Hours: Lunch Monday - Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Dinner Sunday and Monday 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Tuesday - Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.