"Never trust a recommendation when it comes from someone who lives or works within five blocks of the restaurant," former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl wrote. Until now I had usually followed her advice. Until The Globe's gravity finally pulled me in. The combination jazz club and cafe housed in the lobby of a travel agency, in staid and expensive Coral Gables, was too irresistible to pass up.
For two years my friend, a music buff who lives within walking distance of the place, has been trying to get me to check it out. "It jams," she says. "From the moment they opened their doors it filled a niche here. It's a totally pleasant atmosphere."
True. The cozy little storefront just off Le Jeune Road is situated on the ground floor of Lorraine Travel, which has been around for more than 50 years. The building and the business are owned by Jack Guiteras, a Cuban immigrant and the father of Globe owner Danny Guiteras, who was raised in the Gables and has traveled the world. "It always amazed me how so many people opened restaurants here," the younger Guiteras says, "but nobody opened a casual place."
I'd been mystified myself. Despite the presence of so many young professionals, college students, and teachers concentrated around the University of Miami, there didn't seem to be a place for young people to hang out, listen to music, and eat without dropping a week's salary.
Maybe this was it. I enlisted my husband and a South Beach neighbor to join me in sampling the place on a Friday night. As we drove up the quiet and dimly lit street, Alhambra Circle, quite sure that we were lost, I suddenly saw, clustered on a narrow sidewalk, a mass of people chatting excitedly as though in the middle of a dormitory fire drill. As we got closer we realized they were customers of The Globe clustered in front of the place like coffee-junkies at a take-out window.
We found a parking spot within a few yards of the entrance without having to circle the block. Yet the restaurant was overflowing and the sidewalk tables packed. There didn't appear to be a maitre d' or hostess around so I ventured into the packed bar to see if I could find someone to seat us. There was no band onstage, but the music -- house filtered through a powerful amp with a heavy bass beat -- was earsplittingly loud. The crowd and the waitstaff were all seemingly engrossed. Jazz would have to wait until Saturday night.
The first person I managed to distract was a waitress who shrugged her shoulders and scurried away with a platter of dirty dishes. Another cheery brunette shouted, "Do you want this table?" gesturing to the only empty one, smack in the middle of the deafening din. I shook my head and waved her outside. She walked us out through the mahogany French doors just as a table of young executive types were slipping some $20s into the leather check cover. They had no dishes to be cleared.
At this hour, around 10:00 p.m., they, like most of the other well-dressed patrons, were drinking rather than eating.
But we were famished. In addition to ordering drinks, we picked a couple of appetizers to tide us over. I had a pinot noir from Oregon (one of more than a dozen wines offered by the glass), my neighbor a single-malt scotch, and my husband an O'Doul's. The menu was relatively short, with four pizzas and as many pastas, plus a few sandwiches and a half-dozen hot entrees. In a nod to the travel agency upstairs, there were some house specialties inspired by famous hotels around the world.
We started with Canadian mussels. The large blue-black mollusks were perfectly steamed so that the shells burst open, exposing the soft pink flesh inside. They were seasoned with a mellow white-wine broth accented with fresh torn parsley, a hint of garlic, and chunks of tomato. The light and tasty sauce combined with the utterly fresh shellfish to make this the best version of classic steamed mussels I've had in years.
A special of the night, crabcakes, was less exciting. The three Ritz-cracker-size discs tasted of fresh crab, but were marred by a rubbery consistency and a bready center. A house salad, with a colorful mixture of baby greens in a tangy balsamic vinaigrette was, on the other hand, a perfect appetite teaser.
The item listed as a lobster club from the Hong Kong Oriental turned out to be a luscious combo of bacon, arugula, and mayo on only two pieces of toasted white bread. Instead of overwhelming us with bread, as so many club sandwiches do, the tender chunks of lobster took center stage.
My husband ordered the grilled filet mignon medium rare. Modeled after the Paris Hotel Ritz's version, this steak with a Dijon mustard-port sauce tasted fine but not exciting. About as thick as a deck of cards, it was thinner than he expected and slightly overcooked. I had the grilled salmon, a perfectly seared fillet coated with a walnut crust and sweet tomato and butter sauce.
Service was a bit slow but considering the crowd, it was surprisingly pleasant and professional.
Not so a few days later at lunch, when there were only a dozen filled tables and three waitresses to serve them. Not only were the waitresses seriously inattentive (we stood on the sidewalk for more than fifteen minutes waiting for menus and drinks), but they were rude. When my friend, a vegan, tasted the gazpacho, she was sure there was cheese in it. I had a spoonful of the creamy soup and confirmed that it did indeed have a distinct tang of parmesan cheese flavor. When we asked the waitress, she said dourly: "Gazpacho doesn't have cheese." She removed the soup from the table but not from the bill, I realized later.
Instead of ordering anything else in its place, my friend watched me eat my house salad. The portion was generous, the greens young and pert, but they were so drenched in dressing that the bottom half of the salad, which had been submerged in the tasty vinaigrette, was rendered inedible from the soaking.
Suddenly fearing that her main course, a portobello mushroom salad, would be subject to the same fate, my acquaintance beckoned the waitress to ask if it would be possible to bring her dressing on the side. "Uh. I don't know," she stammered, "I'll see." She returned moments later to announce that no, indeed, she couldn't bring the salad undressed because it was "already made." Like mine, it arrived drowning in dressing, but otherwise well composed.
My pizza with gorgonzola cheese, grilled chicken, and toasted walnuts was the stuff cravings are made of. The thin golden crust was topped with a layer of mozzarella and chunks of sharp gorgonzola, accented with cubes of tender white-meat chicken and slivers of rich nuts. It was outstanding.
Because we both had to get back to work, we decided to skip desserts.
I had tried two on my previous visit and found them to be delicious. The tiramisu was hardly authentic but, like its name implies, very rich and creamy. It was made with fluffy cocoa cream and a layer of mascarpone spread over an espresso-soaked cake. The guava cheesecake was also superb. The pastel-color wedge was dense and tangy-sweet and rested on a cookie crust studded with crushed nuts.
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All in all worth a visit. The best nights for the ears are Saturdays for live jazz and Mondays for blues; for the palate their shellfish, pizza, and a glass of wine are hard to beat. Sometimes friends know best.
377 Alhambra Cir (off Le Jeune Road), Coral Gables; 305-445-3555. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. till midnight. Friday and Saturday 6:30 p.m. until 2:00 a.m.
Steamed mussels $8.95
Grilled salmon $13.95
Grilled chicken and gorgonzola pizza $12.95
Lobster club $15.95
Guava cheesecake $4.95