Let It Reign

Despite recent changes and additions to my home (i.e., a lake where the front yard used to be), I was feeling decidedly housebound during last week's rainstorm. Seeking respite from my newly water-logged decor of mops, buckets, and hip waders, I enlisted the aid of my dining companion, and together we made our way to the most posh restaurant we could find - the year-old Ramiro's in Coral Gables. Its understated elegance and attentive service were just what we needed to distract us from the storm that had taken over Miami's life (and its yards).

Although the dining room itself is tastefully subdued, Ramiro's is not without glitz. However it's the guests, and not the furnishings, that provide the glitter. Said to be one of the favorite eateries of Julio, Andy, Celia, and the rest of the Grupo Glitterati, even on flood night Ramiro's boasted a bejeweled, designer-outfitted crowd chattering in at least three languages.

Come to think of it, `attentive' may not adequately describe the service; in fact it's a bit of an understatement. One waiter apparently was paid to do nothing more than keep our bread basket filled with fresh, warm loaves. Moments after my companion picked up the 22-page wine list, a wine steward appeared to offer advice. No needs were left uncared for, no questions went unanswered.

We ordered a bottle of Santa Rita chardonnay from Chile, one of seven countries represented in both the lengthy wine list and the daily wine specials. At $20, the Santa Rita was priced at the low end of the range - several ports cost the same by the glass. Having conquered one tomelike menu, we moved on to the next. On the inside flap of the menu, a statement in ornate script reads: "In The Beginning There Was The Earth, Then Man Discovered Fire, He Began To Cook and Created The Menu." Theologians might not appreciate the play on Genesis, but the reference is accurate in at least one respect: It would take seven days to give ample consideration to all the offerings here. Even dessert choices are in abundance, with at least ten to choose from.

Eschewing the standard salad, award-winning chef Luis Ramiro prefers the atypical starter, such as clam pudding with avocado sauce, spinach flan with black-olive sauce, red peppers stuffed with crab meat and served with a variety of salsas, and ravioli stuffed with salmon mousse in a chardonnay and port-wine sauce, to say nothing of the daily specials. There were seven of those, ranging in price from $7.95 for quail stuffed with mushrooms and spinach and served in a port-and-raisin sauce, to $12.95 for eggs with Beluga caviar.

Before the waiter brought the appetizer we had ordered, however, yet another member of Ramiro's staff brought us a complimentary dish of homemade chicken-liver pate, served with a light cream sauce as well a pink sauce of chardonnay and herbs. The generous treat, with its splash of reddish squiggles and black olives over cream sauce, resembled more than anything a de Kooning painting; and it was even artistically presented on a ceramic dish roughly in the shape of a palette. Smooth, spreadable, and delicious, the pate was obviously fresh. This thoughtful gesture allayed our fears that Ramiro's might be another more-gourmet-than-thou Miami restaurant with a reputation based more on snob appeal than cuisine.

We had chosen an appetizer of lamb meat pie in tamarind sauce, reasonably priced at $6.95 and thick with finely ground spiced lamb. Delicate golden brown pastry surrounded the delicious meat, and all was topped with tangy, not-too-sweet tamarind. This salsa was just as refreshing with lamb as the classic mint sauce.

Bypassing the special six-course meal ($41.95 per person, with a minimum of two persons ordering), my companion chose one of the entree specials, a venison chop with blackberries and Armagnac sauce (at less than half the price). Fashioned into two huge drumsticks, the venison was as juicy and fork tender as prime filet mignon, with not a hint of gaminess. The combination of pureed blackberries and fine brandy from southwest France perfectly complemented the meat and produced a delicious meal.

My choice, "Mixed grilled fruits of the sea with special green sauce," consisted of an abundance of sea creatures: delectable lobster tails, scallops, one huge mussel, calamari rings, conch, and three pieces of grouper. All of these morsels rested in the light, saffrony, green-herb-and-garlic sauce and surrounded a squat tower of cucumber encircled by a fringe of carrots. With the exception of the conch, which was (as conch so often is) as gummy as a wad of chewing gum, all of the seafood was superb. Each fruit of the sea retained its own distinctive flavor, not at all overpowered by the sauce. In fact, the golden squid was the best I have ever eaten. It had none of the rubber-band texture that can occur if it's cooked even a millisecond too long. This $23.95 entree represents about the median price of main dishes on the regular menu, and while the meal was worth it, the side dish of fresh but rather uninspiring cooked vegetables was a bit disappointing in contrast to the seafood extravaganza.

For inspiration, however, look to the dessert menu. The adventurous entries included carmelized mango on puff pastry, five-milks flan (going tres leches two better!), and the one we had, called four-seasons chocolate. A rectangular glass-and-silver tray contained, according to our waiter, representatives of summer (warm chocolate sponge cake covered in a fudge sauce swirled with vanilla), winter (homemade chocolate ice cream), autumn (chocolate mousse), and spring (decorative lily pads under each separate container). When asked, we were hard put to say which (aside from the inedible lily pads) we liked the most. They were all excellent, sure to satisfy even the most ravenous chocolate fiend.

Topping off an already perfect evening, a young man visited every table and presented toutes les femmes with small flacons of Parisian perfume. At least I smelled good on the wade home.

2700 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 443-7605. Hours: Lunch Monday - Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday - Friday from 6:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.; and Saturday from 6:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.


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