Mambo Kings

There are a lot of restaurants with unusual names in Miami, Tu Tu Tango, Momotombo, and MamboJambo, the newest addition to Coral Gables's Restaurant Row, which goes the others one better. As if their name weren't enough, the husband-and-wife chefs John and Laura Pariseau (formerly of Mark's Place, Chef Allen's, and Stars & Stripes) also take liberties with the names of the dishes they serve. In this "Floribbean grille," the Cajun jambalaya becomes "jambo-laya," and the Southern hoppin' John translates to "hoppin' Juan."

Peter Piper and his peck of pickled peppers pale in comparison to MamboJambo but, to be sure, they haven't simply jazzed up monikers here. Ingredients, too, have been tampered with - chorizo, pork, and black beans put the "bbean" in "Floribbean" - and the results are delicious. You won't find these recipes in your Frugal Gourmet or Joy of Cooking books, and many of the dishes may be as startling to out-of-town visitors as their first palmetto-bug sighting. But for drama, color, and startlingly new taste sensations, this tropical fusion (as I like to call it) is the cuisine of the Nineties.

A happy jumble of utilitarian Eurotech (exposed pipes, stark white walls and tile floor, track lighting), Deco glass blocks, and bold splashes of tropical color fill the dining room. And the menu is just as spirited a dance through fusion fare as the Roseta Santiago mural on one wall; like the painting, everything - flora and fauna, old and new, familiar and exotic - seems to come together. Starters include shrimp bisque Creole, ceviche of snapper and scallops in key lime juice, alligator cooked in lime-chive butter, and salads such as mixed greens with a vinaigrette of orange-blossom honey and mustard, and a warm spinach salad embellished with toasted nuts and grilled Florida venison in a berry vinaigrette.

A special note on the menu refers to the aromatic wood used for grilling and, naturally, grilled entrees abound. The wood scent infuses everything from chicken pepper-pot ragout to chicken paillard to beef tenderloin to jerked pork to venison. Seafood is not immune to the heady treatment, and grilled items include snapper (served with a Caribbean salsa), dolphin, barbecue shrimp, and a hedonistic dish called "pina colada grill," which is made of lobster, shrimp, and scallops grilled with Jamaican rum and served with a smoked-pineapple butter.

Other specials hopscotch from the Glades to the Bayou to the deep South and even the pueblos of New Mexico. There's an alligator "chili," a thick chowder of gator, grated cheese, and creme fraiche. There's the aforementioned twist on jambalaya, and there's a seafood etouffe Creole with rice. Appetizers and salads range in price from $3.50 to $7.95, and about a third of the entrees cost less than $10.95. The top of the line is $15.95 for the venison or one of two grilled combination dishes. With our entrees, we each received side dishes of yellow squash and zucchini - all grilled over that wonderful wood fire - but other accompaniments are available at an additional cost, including a bonanza of boniato, jicama, and sweet-potato chips, a threesome of grilled vegetables, rice prepared one of three ways, and a grilled twosome of sweet potato and boniato. These extras are priced between $2.25 and $2.75.

We doused small loaves of sesame-seeded, grainy bread with the oil and balsamic vinegar provided and shared a bottle of Gran Vina Sol from Torres, the Spanish vintner. The extensive wine list includes about three-dozen bottles, many of which are available by the glass.

My companion started with the ceviche, which was beautifully presented on a bed of red-leaf lettuce and garnished with darker greens and grated carrots. This ceviche was not swimming in liquid as many do, but the tender, succulent snapper and scallops had clearly absorbed the tart juice of the key lime. Because the juice was used so deftly to marinate the seafood, their distinctive tastes and textures were maintained.

When our waiter said the soup of the day was callaloo - a famous Caribbean soups that is, inexplicably, more difficult to find here than hockey pucks - my heart skipped a beat. While MamboJambo used fresh spinach instead of taro leaves to make the brew (brought to the Caribbean from Africa in the Seventeenth Century), I finished the marvelous, slightly thickened mixture in record time. Rather than the standard crab meat, it contained dozens of baby shrimp - not a bad trade at all. And the substitution of chorizo for chopped salt beef was another inspired touch. The chicken stock spiked with lots of black pepper, shallots, chives, thyme, and a fiery scotch-bonnet pepper was true to the recipe and so good I could have eaten a gallon of it.

While we were skeptical about the aromatic-wood bit, the young woman who joined us that evening was nearly delirious as she inhaled the heady aroma - shades of oak, nuances of mesquite - when the plates were placed on our table. It turns out she's into aromatherapy, and we'd lucked into the perfect restaurant for that new rage. She had ordered one of the evening's specials, grilled chicken breasts with three cheeses: One breast was covered with stripes of sharp cheddar, another with Monterey Jack, and a third with goat cheese. The restaurant uses a goat cheese from Loxahatchee, and the texture of this was creamier and less dry than most others I have eaten. It tasted extremely fresh, with a mild aroma and flavor, not at all stout. The plump, juicy chicken breasts had all the scent of the wood fire our guest so craved, and she deemed the dish a rousing success.

My companion opted for chilies Laura, chilies stuffed - overstuffed, actually, and overflowing - with chicken, pork, vegetables, and rice, and this was no taco-stand dish. These chilies would pass muster even in my companion's hometown of Albuquerque. He said he could count on one hand the number of places east of the Mississippi where he'd tasted such good Southwestern fare. The distinctive flavors of the chicken and pork were enhanced (not inhibited) by the perfume of the wood smoke, and the portion was extremely generous.

I tried the hoppin' Juan and it was hoppin' good, an improvement on the traditional New Year's Day combination of rice and black-eyed peas usually cooked in pork stock. This version was a seven-course meal in one dish, with thick chunks of zesty chorizo, tender chicken-breast and pork-loin morsels, with Cuban-style black beans in addition to the black-eyed peas. Moist but not soggy, the mixture had been cooked in a blend of pork and chicken stocks, and seasoned with green peppers, onions, shallots, scallions, and cayenne pepper. Truly a melting pot, it proved not only that tradition can be improved upon, but that traditional dishes - in this case one from the Caribbean, one from the deep South - can be combined. I wouldn't mind seeing more of this kind of new world order.

The tropical adventure continues right on through dessert. Priced between $3.95 and $4.95, the sweets include cappucino flan, coconut tart with mango ice cream, a citrus-almond cheesecake, and banana rum cake, which we tried. It was a wonderful finish to a great meal. Layers of spice cake were filled with a banana-and-rum mixture, and the cake itself was only slightly sweet.

Reluctant to leave this convivial spot, we wanted to order something else - a Red Stripe or Caribe beer or some sangria. But as we deliberated over our choice, the waiter asked us if we would accept a round of champagne to help christen the new spot. Help christen it? Heck, we were willing to appoint ourselves the godparents.

What's in a name? A lot if it's MamboJambo, Miami's newest home of exciting tropical-fusion cuisine.

139 Giralda Ave, Coral Gables; 447-8550. Hours: Lunch Monday - Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; dinner Monday - Thursday from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 6:00 p.m. to midnight.


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