Mexican Standoff

"The thing I miss most about waitressing," I told a friend not too long ago, "is the exercise."

Having spent her fair share of time dishing the fish, my friend heartily agreed. She never needed to go to the gym or watch what she ate while she was on the job; the brisk pace of hustling chow can be a calorie-burning occupation. I for one always loved flinging around plates and silver, running back and forth to the kitchen for orders, and performing ten different tasks simultaneously. Which was why I always looked for the kind of restaurant job -- usually pubs, bars, or grills -- that would provide the activity I required. (I did work one summer in a formal dining room, but soon found out I wasn't the polite, sedate type.)

On the receiving end, I appreciate competent, no-nonsense service. I admire hard-working waiters who have little time for idle chitchat. In noisy, crowded eateries, on hot South Florida nights, I never mind a little honest sweat on the brows of servers and busboys, accompanied by terse and to-the-point commentary. But only, I have to add, if the restaurant's atmosphere warrants that attitude. If I'm fine-dining at a place like the gourmet Mexican restaurant Los Girasoles in Coral Gables, I certainly don't expect service to be so rushed that several varieties of salsa are dropped off without explanation, spoons are scattered sideways to soup bowls, and I have to stand up and wave down my waiter.

Even so, I can accept a certain degree of harriedness if service is efficient. On the weekend evening I dined at Los Girasoles, the 140-seat restaurant was packed with patrons, abuzz with activity. But menus were forgotten, wine glasses were mistakenly refilled with water, and main courses took more than an hour to appear -- and were lukewarm when they did, despite the silver warming domes that covered them.

The grottolike space, formerly occupied by the Italian restaurant Ramiro's, now boasts pretty terra cotta-tiled floors dotted with the restaurant's namesake sunflowers and walls sponge-painted in rosy sunset hues. And the luxe fare at this three-month-old eatery, as far from basic bean burritos and chiles rellenos as Tijuana is from Mexico City but not unreachably expensive, is as attractive as the restaurant itself.

A trio of on-the-house salsas -- a smooth green jalapeno, a brown smoky ancho, and a crystalline habanero plugged with pickled red onions -- was served with thick-cut homemade tortilla chips. All three salsas were tasty, but the habanero was the most addictive, its endorphin-releasing burn so exquisite that we kept going back for more, intermittently cooling off all the warmth with some of the best frozen margaritas in the business, frosty and refreshing in their fluted glasses. (Mexican beers are also available.)

Appetizers were a pleasant mixture of the familiar and the unusual. Ceviche was enjoyably simple, cubes of firm white grouper "cooked" in lime juice and presented over lettuce, each pearly bite a burst of cilantro, onion, and red bell pepper flavors. Quesadillas were enhanced with a minced filling of smoked marlin ($3.95). The three little turnovers -- actually more like empanadas -- were crisp and delicious, though the stuffing was too sparse to be the primary focus; a unifying scoop of pureed, well-seasoned guacamole took center stage instead.

Cream of cilantro soup sounded tempting but heavy, so we opted for mushroom soup, which wasn't milk-based. The crock of red, peppery broth was aromatic and tangy, afloat with chunks of white mushrooms. Simplicity edged over into dullness, though, with a bland house salad. While the romaine lettuce was fresh and sweet, dotted with sliced strawberries and juicy sections of orange, the peanut-citrus vinaigrette was boring and lacked balance -- too much orange and not enough peanuts or chili-pepper punch.

The supply of warmed rolls with seasoned butter wasn't replenished until we made a request, nor were the tortilla chips that came with the salsa trio; if your entrees take as long to appear as ours did, you might want to speak up. Keep in mind, too, that a la carte dishes don't come with a variety of sides. A tamale roasted in banana leaves, for example, was served solo. Fortunately the cornmeal preparation, stuffed with ground chicken and heavily flavored by the long flat banana leaves on which it was served, was rich enough to satisfy in itself.

A taco platter was a bigger serving: three soft corn tortillas rolled with chunks of beef tenderloin. Tacos sound finger-food casual, but these were more appropriately eaten with a knife and fork; finished with onions and a chili-pepper gravy, the dish was a tender treat.

Los Girasoles's strength is its sauces, as demonstrated by a grouper recipe indigenous to Baja California. A sparklingly fresh fillet was blanketed with ribbon-thin slices of mild zucchini and set on a light green, cream-sweetened poblano pepper concoction ($13.95). Orange-stained rice partnered the dish, as did three chunks of fried plantains that rivaled the Cuban variety for candied excellence.

An unusual tamarind mole-glazed chicken breast also utilized a tropical fruit in its preparation, the dark, sticky dried fruit a delicious alternative to the traditional chocolate, with sesame seeds adding a discreet snap ($13.95). Rice readily absorbed the sauce.

Rose-petal pie for dessert sounded interesting, but we were drawn to a chocolate torte that purported to be an aphrodisiac ($5.95). Unfortunately, three slices of jellylike flourless chocolate cake chewed like old flan and depended too much on a walnut garnish for texture. This preparation didn't even stimulate our taste buds, much less anything else.

The coffee we ordered with our dessert arrived, not unexpectedly, after we'd finished and were waiting for the check. Owner Arturo Sobrino, whose family owns a restaurant in Mexico City, ought to be able to rectify such annoying service problems without much difficulty. The quality of the food at Los Girasoles certainly deserves it.

Los Girasoles
2700 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 649-8888. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 to 3:00. Dinner Monday -- Thursday from 6:00 to 10:00; open Friday and Saturday until 11:00.


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