If you're going to dine at Diego's Tapas at Bayside Marketplace, first check the local sports pages; you won't want to head there when the Heat is playing a home game. Unless of course you're the undaunted sort who relishes the prospect of a bumper-to-bumper crawl home through arena traffic and a detour so far west that cowboys on horseback will swoop by your car. I, for one, am not that sort.
Now the bad news: Diego's isn't worth the aggravation. Or should I say continued aggravation, as dining here itself is annoying. Especially when flamenco dancers perform to live guitar music on a stage that serves as barrier between the indoor dining room and a considerable number of outdoor tables. It wasn't the dance or the music that was irritating but rather a smoke machine meant to amplify the dramatics of the show: It blew indoors, and we found ourselves cloaked in a vaporous cloud, as though the Road Runner had just left. Then again, in some ways the smoke was the most interesting thing to look at in the room, which resembles a college-town Mexican joint (albeit with white-linen tablecloths). Slapdash travel posters, planks of wooden wine crates, and Spanish knickknacks adorn the brick walls; from the ceiling hang multicolor spotlights (turned off) interspersed with serrano hams. A small separate dining area to one side had been converted into a sloppy storage space that added to the dive quality, though by our second sojourn it had been cleaned up. Yes, the "tapas" appellation and Bayside address suggest a more informal venue than that of the parent restaurant, swank and upscale Diego's in Coral Gables, but I didn't think their target would be set quite this low.
The menu aims a bit higher, the prices higher still (tapas $4.25-$7.25; entrées $15-$23; specials up to $33). Add to that the small cost of having to give bread to get bread -- $1.95 for toasted undressed baguette; a bit more for garlic and olive oil, or, what we ordered, the tomato version. We waited. And waited some more before calling the waiter over and requesting the bread be brought before the appetizers. Unfortunately, while the staff here are well intentioned, they are not well trained or well versed in English, so we ended up with tomato bread and toast along with our starters. The former was cooler than lukewarm and soppy with a wet spread of tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic; it should have been crisper and might have been hotter had the waitress not been hanging out near the stage, her back to the dining room, while we sat foodless.
401 Biscayne Blvd (in Bayside Marketplace)
305-372-0072. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday noon to midnight, Friday and Saturday noon till 1:00 a.m.
Garlic soup was deep red from a potent dose of pimentón (Spanish paprika). Petite pieces of serrano ham, crunchy croutons, and a raw egg placed in the bowl just before serving all contributed their own small voices to what would have been a harmonious soup, if only the subtleties hadn't been drowned out by loudly burned slices of the namesake ingredient. Lobster bisque was more inherently flawed, the consistency watery, the color murky, bits of egg drop drifting about like broken cream; there was little, if any, real cream, no garnishing nuggets of lobster.
Cold tapas selections include serrano ham, Manchego cheese, mussels vinaigrette, and various small salads, four of which come together in a "chef's special house salad" platter: greasy caesar; Russian potato with peas, carrots, and mayo; unseasoned beet with onions and mayo; and undressed spinach. Sweet cubes of grouper, marinated in lemon and spices, then lightly battered and flash-fried, comprised the pinnacle of a hot tapas combo plate for two, but were, in fact, not hot at all. Neither were the chewy calamari rings and four small shrimp, both fried in the same batter and described as Andalusian, which often implies a spicy tomato sauce, or at least some accompaniment other than a lemon wedge. Rounding out the dish were two nubby chorizos; squishy mushroom quarters sautéed with ham; a small, thin, flat, ultradry chicken breast; and, in place of promised pork loin and stuffed Spanish peppers, cold, limp French fries that looked as though someone had sat on them until all the oil oozed out. It's hard to imagine getting less for $28.
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The stuffed Spanish peppers were in the house on a subsequent visit, so we ordered them as a main course, one of a trio of Diego's "suggestions"; other entrées are divvied up into five meats, four fish, and three paellas. The half-dozen small, slightly piquant red peppers, filled with a smooth purée of bacalao and seafood, were pleasingly robust, as was the red pepper sauce surrounding them, misleadingly billed as "Riojana wine sauce." I also would have gone with pork loin in cider sauce as a main course, but they were still out.
Other meats, such as rack of lamb, grilled New York strip, filet mignon, and grilled chicken breast, were too dryly described to whet an appetite, so I went with rock-salt-encrusted sea bass, one of three rarely updated nightly specials. This isn't the popular black sea bass, which is quite white and fleshy, but rather the Spanish version of striped bass, called lubina (or salmon bass, because, like the salmon, it's pink-fleshed and anadromous -- meaning it's a salt-water inhabitant that must reproduce in fresh water). Thick crystals of rock salt were brushed away by the waiter tableside, and then the black and silver skin was deftly removed, exposing delicate fillets of moist, tender fish. While a gooseneck of garlic oil perked up the naturally mild-tasting bass, warm (not steamy hot) white rice and unseasoned patty pan squash, baby zucchini, and boiled new potato cut to look like a mushroom did not.
Desserts were equally perk-less: flan, créma catalana, ice cream, "slice of cake," and a clumpy rice pudding with so much cinnamon dusted on top it resembled a photo negative of snow-covered terrain.
I can't recommend eating at Diego's Tapas, game night or not. If you do, however, I suggest squeezing your visit in sometime during the next few years; should that downtown baseball stadium ever get built, your detour home might be via Hialeah.