Manuel Martinez came up with a novel idea: to re-create the town square of La Mancha, circa 1605, as the setting for his Spanish Don Quixote Restaurant. Martinez, a fan and scholar of the Cervantes masterpiece (his production of the play runs at South Beach's Colony Theater this month), forwarded his vision to the interior-design firm Scene Stealers, which then transformed the two-story, 13,000-square-foot space into a posada, replete with windmill, oxen yoke, pharmacy, barbershop, and balcony apartments with household wares hanging from the balustrade. Hand-painted ceramic-tiled tables, imported from Spain, take up the town's center space. The décor is definitely Disneyized, but it's also comfortable, visually stimulating, and thoroughly unique. There are so many eye-appealing details -- from the wooden conveyor belt of wine-making implements rising vertically at the entranceway, to the rough-hewn stone sinks in the bathrooms -- that I shudder to think what the restaurant would look like if Martinez's favorite book was The Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe.
The quixotic nature of Martinez's quest lay not in mimicking physical aspects of La Mancha, but rather in attempting a theme restaurant in Coconut Grove that actually serves worthwhile food. Executive chef Luis Fernandez, born in Spain and trained in France, has made this seemingly impossible dream come true. He wisely shies away from competing with the ambitious surroundings, focusing instead on barely adorned dishes that follow the basic precepts of Spanish cooking: simple and eminently satisfying. Deciding what to eat is not so simple. Cervantes's book is voluminous, and so is this twelve-page menu; you may come here in a Don Quixote frame of mind, but chances are you'll be tempted to eat so much that you'll leave feeling more like Sancho Panza. There's no way I can describe even a fraction of these foods in this space. Here, then, are the Cliffs Notes.
Prologue: Smartly costumed waiters are professional and efficient. The wine list contains just about any Spanish wine you could think of.
3148 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove; 305-443-2774. Open daily for lunch noon till 4:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday, 4:00 till 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4:00 p.m. till midnight.
Chapter 1, "Cold Appetizers": A standard, somewhat clichéd beginning -- marinated olives, serrano ham, Manchego cheese, smoked salmon, anchovies in olive oil and vinegar, and tenderloin of tuna with piquillo pepper salad.
Chapter 2, "Hot Appetizers": The story heats up with an earthenware casserole of tripe, pig's feet, blood sausage, and chorizo in a slightly piquant pepper and paprika sauce. Sensational croquetas de bacalao come cleanly fried, the interior soft, creamy, and imbued with just the right proportion of fish to potato. Five for $9 makes them one of the menu's few bargains, too, which brings us to a secondary theme that is subtly woven through the text: high prices. In many cases the lofty numbers can be attributed to expensive ingredients (see chapter 3), but the cost of some starters just seems out of whack -- like scrambled eggs with bacon, ham, and chorizo for $16 or roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with seafood mousse for $22. More reasonably priced pulpo da feira (fiesta-style) is so named because the octopus is traditionally boiled outdoors in water-filled drums during Galician festivals. Thin white slices of tender tentacles, properly served on a wooden plate, come drizzled with olive oil, coarse granules of salt, and brick-red pimentón, a smoky Spanish paprika. The pimentón makes a pleasing impression, but the octopus lacks a character-defining ingredient such as garlic or crushed red pepper, both of which are usually found in this dish. There also are specialty seafood appetizers imported from Spain: baby eels, kokotxas (a fish-gill delicacy), and grilled carabineros (giant red prawns), which, at $35, is the priciest starter.
Chapter 3, "Salads": The cold ones are noteworthy for their complexity of ingredients and are best exemplified by the ensalada de baratavia, which combines diced chicken, sliced codfish, tomato, olives, asparagus, endive, and vinaigrette. Of the “tepid salads,” the more prominent of two offered is composed of Belgian endive, white asparagus, toasted almond slices, and an ingenious cream-cheese sauce. The textures (soft/crunchy) and flavors (bitter/sweet) are nicely contrasted, and the salad itself gratifying to an unexpected extent, but there is nothing tepid about it; all ingredients are thoroughly chilled.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6, "Cold Creamed Soups," "Hot Creamed Soups," and "Soups": From gazpacho to cream of wild chicken bisque to garlic soup.
Chapter 7, "Vegetables": Subtheme of strange pricing reappears. Stir-fried spinach with raisins costs $14, assorted grilled vegetables cost $16, though portions are large enough to share.
Chapter 8, "Grandma's Kitchen": The plot thickens with hearty regional dishes that change daily. For instance on Monday, lentil soup with pig's ears and feet, and on Friday, chickpea and bacalao soup.
Chapter 9, "Our Rices": Seafood-based paellas, available in individual portions.
Chapter 10, "Poultry": A trio of treatments highlighted by a country classic, Cornish hen with homemade pâté and red wine sauce.
Chapter 11, "Fish and Seafood": Salmon pan-seared with mulberry sauce, red snapper fillets stuffed with seafood mousse, dorada crusted in sea salt, and lobster baked in clay pot. Hake, a succulent cousin of thick, flaky cod and Spain's most plentiful fish, arrives succulently cooked and accompanied by hard-boiled egg, four baby clams, and a savory saline green sauce made with parsley, onions, garlic, white wine, and clam juice. Minor character flaw: For $22 they could've thrown in a little rice or vegetable.
Chapter 12, "The Pastas": A superfluous chapter.
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Chapter 13, "Beef": Churrasco filet, filet mignon, veal-rib chop, lamb chops, and roasted suckling pig. Scholars can debate what was going through the writer's head when he titled this section “Beef,” but the leg and thigh of pig were moist (though the meat would've benefited from some of the cooking juices just the same), crunchy of skin, and nicely paired with potato gratin and snow peas.
Chapter 14, "Wild Game Kitchen": An impressive array, including hare, boar, venison, pheasant, and partridge.
Chapter 15, "Postres": The conclusion includes a few surprises, like French toast in wine syrup, and baked Alaska, along with a more predictable caramel flan that may not have you singing its praises but is good enough that you'll probably clean the plate. Chocolate hazelnut mousse, a rectangle of chocolate-coated layers of cake and mousse, makes for a less-than-inspiring finale, as do mango and raspberry purées swirled on many of the dessert plates. These two flavors rarely, if ever, complement the desserts with which they're paired, and their neon red and yellow colors never look as impressive as pastry chefs think.
Epilogue: As your teachers used to tell you, Cliffs Notes are no substitute for the real thing. To fully comprehend Don Quixote's appeal, you're just going to have to eat there.