Fat Geese for Fat Cats
La Cofradia is a gorgeous new 78-seat restaurant in Coral Gables. The contemporary cuisine, with Mediterranean and Peruvian accents, is fresh and cooked with aplomb. The wine list features more than 180 bottles (beginning at $40) and 37 wines served by the glass, ranging from $9 to $25. A full bar pours fashionable cocktails and a sizable sampling of sakes. Service is smoothly professional. Friendliness abounds. There is just one problem: La Cofradia charges too much.
Take the foie gras starter. I certainly couldn't, because my budget doesn't allow for $29 appetizers. Granted, this is the only absurdly priced item on the menu, but pastas run $30 to $34, fish dishes $31 to $35, and meat entrées $36 to $40. Simply stated, the ingredients are not especially distinctive, and the preparation isn't labor-intensive enough to justify the cost. I once paid the equivalent of $30 for a foie gras appetizer at Foliage in London's Mandarin Oriental hotel. It was prepared three ways, on three plates, and served with three glasses of vintage port, one to accompany each take. La Cofradia's goose liver is garnished with "raspberry port sauce, fresh raspberries, and crispy French baguette rounds." Admittedly berries are costlier when out of season, but still....
At least the loftlike room looks like a million bucks. Towering arched windows trimmed in dark walnut veneer open up to Ponce de Leon Boulevard and reach almost all the way to the soaring ceiling (which contains the only artwork, an oversize graphic of a reclining odalisque that is based on a painting from the Prado Museum). The lighting is soft, damask banquettes are plush (though the backs are situated too far from the tables), and earth-tone slate tiles cover the floor and select walls throughout the restaurant. La Cofradia is a cool, cozy, classy, classic space.
We began with Peruvian ceviche of the day, on that particular evening a combo of Dover sole and bay scallops. Dover sole is a strange fish for a restaurant to use only in ceviche, but the thinly sliced fillets were inarguably tender and tasty in a straight lime juice marinade. A few strands of red onion and two teeny scallops completed the clean rendition, which was bookended on the rectangular white plate by a disc of sweet potato with clovelike spicing and a petite pile of fat Peruvian corn kernels (choclo). Carpaccios, sole tiradito, tuna tartare, and a Mediterranean octopus salad compose the other cold starters.
Hot apps, such as baby octopus in Tuscan ragout and stuffed mozzarella with saffron sauce, also rely on Mediterranean sensibilities. The same is true of pastas (rabbit ravioli in marsala sauce, fettuccine with mushrooms and prosciutto); risottos (with porcini mushrooms, and with shrimp and saffron); and meat-based courses. This is surprising considering the owners, brothers Jean Pierre and Jean Paul Desmaison (also the chef), hail from Lima, Peru. It is also a little disappointing. With its swank ambiance and experienced native chef, La Cofradia has the potential to do for Peruvian cuisine what Efrain Vega's Yuca did for Cuban fare namely adapt and translate it in such a way as to widen its appeal with contemporary American diners. Judging by the restaurant's preopening publicity, you'd think this was exactly their plan; it boasts of highlighting ingredients such as "a variety of chilies, corns, cherimoya, lucuma, and pisco (Peruvian brandy made from Muscat grapes)." Some of these do appear on the menu, but they are few and far between.
One pisco-infused dish is an appetizer of "braised and flash-fried pork." Served atop two rounds of fried sweet potato, the plump morsels of meat didn't bear any evidence of having been finished in hot oil, but were delectably braised in a seductively sweet sauce made with port wine, green grapes, and a splash of pisco. Back to Italy, the aforementioned stuffed mozzarella starter was presented as a large, breaded, crabcakelike patty full of melted cheese and strips of prosciutto ham. Basil and sun-dried tomatoes were supposed to be stuffed inside too, but instead were presented as a meager plate garnish one basil leaf, two snippets of tomato. It was, overall, rather ho-hum, although a creamy, velvety saffron sauce pooled beneath was terrific.
Pisco is also infused into a main course of shrimp with "lentils tacu-tacu." As with the stuffed mozzarella, the bright yellow chile sauce accompanying the shellfish proved to be the highlight of the plate. The half-dozen medium-size crustaceans were minimally satisfying under a pedestrian sauté of onions, red peppers, and tomatoes, though the lentil-based tacu-tacu was problematically mushy. Traditionally tacu-tacu is a crisp pancake of rice, red beans, bacon, and savory seasonings. The version here was imbued with a welcome smoky flavor, but the rice was absent, as was any sign that the pancake had been, as the menu claims, "pan fried."
A big bludgeon of braised lamb shank was soft and rich with beefy, gamy, semisticky flavor in other words, dee-lish. The dark sauce was as densely satisfying as the meat, and snippets of fresh artichoke hearts and pencil-thin asparagus spears were sautéed with a light, fresh, lemony touch. A dome of rice, colored purple from maiz morado (purple corn), and flecked with red peppers and leeks, was scrumptious.
"Crispy skin duck magret" was also gratifying, even if the skin wasn't particularly crisp. However, the duck breasts' juicy red meat was just fine, as was a sweet/sour "sauco sauce," which is akin to a blackberry gastrique, a fruity sauce with a vinegary kick. A cylinder of potato gratin on the side was lusciously layered with melted Gruyre and Parmesan cheeses, and haricots verts were bright green and crunchy, if devoid of seasoning.
Desserts are ambitious: fried banana ravioli drizzled with a syrup of orange, cinnamon, and cloves; tiramisu of Mandarin oranges, Brazil nuts, and sauce anglaise; and chilled pumpkin mousse piped into a walnut crust with Amaretto caramel sauce. Another mousse is based on lucuma, a round, green, tropical fruit with bright yellow pulp. The smooth, creamy purée exuded flavors of banana and maple, and was served atop a pralinelike base with a smidgen of chocolate ice cream and two soft, chewy chocolate wafers. A safer, less exotic option might be to order an individual round of soothing goat cheese cheesecake. The grainy texture is similar to that of ricotta cheesecake, with a moderately tart taste offset by a dulcet drizzle of honey.
Paying top dollar yields expectations of not only top cuisine, but also of topnotch service. You might just get the latter if you dine here during nonpeak hours, because the waitstaff is extremely well trained, works in crisply efficient fashion, and maintains the proper balance between personable and professional. As the room filled, however, the undermanned team became overstretched, and like broken elastic, our waiter and busperson didn't bounce back to the table for water or coffee refills or to pick up the check. This is a problem easily solved with a few more hands on deck.
Regarding that hefty check: One way to avoid it is to come here for lunch, when smaller portions of many dinner entrées are available at half the price. Another solution would be to wait until a generous friend offers to take you out to eat. That $29 foie gras would sure taste good on someone else's dime.
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