The Spanish word chispa means spark, which conveys a sense of excitement even in its most basic translation. But at Robbin Haas's four-month-old Chispa, the connotation is meant to go beyond that. If you're a person with chispa, the restaurant's Website (www.chisparestaurant.com) proclaims, you're "a hot-blooded firecracker who's just dangerous enough to be a whole lot of fun."
This is a fantasy image few people could resist. And judging from the crowds milling outside on a recent Friday night, few Coral Gables residents have even tried to resist. Therein lies Chispa's main problem: It is very popular but its policy is to accept reservations only for parties of six or more.
My attempt to visit the restaurant a second time was thwarted by the crush of people waiting for tables. Had I been a club kid, perhaps I would have been willing to tolerate the sidewalk scene, which could have been mistaken for South Beach on a Saturday night, complete with velvet ropes guarded by doormen with attitude: "And who might you be?"
225 Altara Ave, Coral Gables
Open daily. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday through Sunday 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Call 305-648-2600.
But I'm not a club kid. To the average adult seeking a high-quality dining experience at a high-profile restaurant, the prospect of standing around for 45 minutes as part of a cattle call is not particularly appetizing. Had I brought along a business associate, as I'd planned, the situation would have been downright embarrassing.
Instead, thankfully, I'd brought friends with a good sense of humor, so we went home, heated up some leftovers, and returned to Chispa on a Sunday evening at 6:30. The expansive space was blessedly near empty, so early-bird timing seems worthwhile. Choose your seating: A comfortable booth in the stylish Cuban-tiled main room is recommended; a front room, though festively furnished with spark-shaped chandeliers, felt claustrophobic to one of my dining companions, and indeed when crowds began to arrive at 7:30, it filled up last. Order your preferred wine from a large and unusually well-priced list: A $23 bottle of medium-bodied Castle Rock pinot noir from the Russian River, and a light, fruity $17 Salmon Harbor chardonnay from Washington State were perfectly respectable. Then settle in for some excellent dining.
Most of the menu features small plates, which seemed fitting at an eatery whose ambiance promotes the same welcoming, casual conviviality as a Spanish tapas bar. The selection is big enough and tempting enough to make it difficult to choose just a few plates per person, but don't miss shrimp and black-eyed pea croquetas. I'd feared heavy mashed legume croquettes, but they came with the peas whole, embedded along with large, tender shrimp in remarkably fluffy batter with a crisp-fried exterior. The accompanying salsa verde, really more an herbed aioli, had a strong citrus tang that made it much less cloying than tartar sauce.
The same fine salsa came with crispy fried calamari, okra, and lemons, a sizable and satisfying serving of lightly battered tender squid and crunchy okra. The dish was slightly disappointing only because the lemons were just wedges to squeeze rather than the battered citrus strips one would expect from the menu.
Deep-fried salt cod bacalaitos, a downsized version of standard fritters, came in a cute paper cone, the one-bite balls of cod mousse hiding a little pile of shoestring fries. Wise readers will sneakily scarf down these mini-potato sticks before their friends catch on -- they are that good. Almost equally appetizing were masitas de mahi mahi, cornmeal-crusted strips of fresh fish that also came in a cone but, sadly, with no secret shoestrings -- unless my friends sneakily scarfed them down.
Ceviches came both diced and sliced, so we tried one of each. Diced mahi mahi, in a sort of AsiAmerican marinade of ginger, soy, and lemon, was a tasty treatment enhanced by a tangle of fried yuca strips. But an imaginative, perfectly balanced sweet-sour sauce of sour orange, cumin, and honey made sliced salmon ceviche with avocado the taste-test winner.
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Chispa's so-called flatbreads are wood-oven pizzas, but only roughly. Since the crusts are corn flour, grainier than white or wheat flour, and toppings are distinctly Latino rather than Italiano, they scratch a totally different itch than a Spris or Piola pie. But that's not to say our thin-crusted flatbread topped with lechon asado, sofrito, figs, blue cheese, spinach, and caramelized onion wasn't wonderful.
In addition to small plates, Chispa's menu features several large platters meant for sharing (like a whole snapper with charred tomatoes, garlic, and shallots), plus about ten normal-size entrées. One of the latter, fresh pork belly with barely wilted greens and white beans, proved irresistible. This was not the familiar long-stewed Chinese preparation, but a glazed and roasted Latin-style treatment that rendered the sinfully fatty belly slices (like slab bacon but neither smoked nor cured, and close to half an inch thick) sweet and crisp outside, meltingly unctuous inside. It's not a dish you'd want to order the day before a cholesterol test, but well worth an occasional indulgence.
As was the guava cheesecake. For less than $15 each on two visits, Chispa's not-so-small plates so sated my dining companions and I that sweets seemed impossible. But force yourself. In this elegant updating of Latin America's traditional guava and cream cheese pastry, a central layer of caramelized guava pieces was faultlessly matched by the light whipped cheese filling surrounding it. Dulce de leche alongside sounds like overdoing it, but fingers were nearly lost fighting for the last drop of the luscious caramel. A crackling top crust -- typical on a crème brûlée, shocking on a cheesecake -- worked astonishingly well.
If Chispa took weekend dinner reservations, there'd be precious little to not like.