Some years ago, while living in Boulder, Colorado, I took my parents out for dinner in a former mining town called Gold Hill. After a harrowing car ride up a steep, twisting, barely illuminated mountain road, we arrived at the tiny community. There was no restaurant in sight, but an unmarked barn with lots of cars parked around it drew our attention. Sure enough, inside was a huge dining room packed with more people than, I suspect, populated Gold Hill. With equal parts disbelief and admiration, my father declared, "This place must have some word-of-mouth!"
The proprietors of Mendoza are likely banking on the same buzz. You won't have to put your life at risk to get to this six-month-old restaurant, but its location in the Mark condominium building on Brickell Bay Drive is a bit out-of-the-way, and to make matters trickier, it is bereft of exterior signage. Don't fret. Just do what I did the first time I dined at the equally reclusive prior tenant, La Broche: Upon exiting your car, stand around and look puzzled. Valet workers will point the way.
Another potential obstacle on the bumpy road to buzz-dom: the restaurant changed its name and chef within the first half-year of operation. Until recently Mendoza was the Biscayne Bistro Terrace Bar, a lengthy, clumsy moniker. The "Biscayne " part referred to views of the bay, the "terrace" to a lovely two-level patio (separated from the interior by floor-to-ceiling glass walls), the "bar" to a chic mahogany lounge by the restaurant's entrance.
Fans of the departed La Broche will note that its minimalist white essence has been retained. There's not much to look at except white walls, white linen tablecloths, plush white leather chairs, wooden floors, and dashing nosegays in glass bowls set about the space. Muted lighting, romantic (and well-chosen) music, and amiable staff soften the starkness, and when the room fills with diners the atmosphere is enchanting. When customers are sparse, however, it can feel like dining in a design showroom after closing. On such occasions I recommend opting for the perennially scenic outdoor seats.
La Broche put up two roadblocks that Mendoza has shrewdly avoided: complex cuisine and extravagant prices. New chef Francis Mallamann's Argentinean/Mediterranean fare drives in the opposite direction -- or as the restaurant's tag line so aptly puts it: "Our view of fine dining is simple." Within this realm, results range from simply sublime to simply simple; most fall into the latter category. Prices are far friendlier than previously: Starters range from $12 to $17, entrées from $22 to $29, and sides such as asparagus or mashed potatoes are $9. Intelligent and international wine selections are marked up less than at many high-end places.
We were started off with porcelain ramekins of olive oil, black olive tapenade, butter, and herbed goat cheese; hearty whole wheat and crusty white breads wouldn't come for another ten minutes. The staff here is friendly and accommodating, but the waiters need polishing in the more nuanced aspects of their job -- like attentiveness to detail and being able to explain menu items without first heading back to the kitchen and consulting with the chef.
Simply sublime: Warm baby beets atop pristine green leaves of arugula, with clumps of creamy French goat cheese, garlic slivers crisped to a golden brown, a splash of fruity olive oil, and balsamic vinegar -- each bite a burst of contrasting tastes, textures, and temperatures merging into sheer scrumptiousness.
Simply simple: A salad of "preserved" artichoke bottoms with arugula, "confit" of lemon, and toasted almonds. It's not just that the confit was merely blanched snippets of lemon peel -- I'm a reasonable person and would have gotten over that disappointment in due time. I likewise resisted the temptation to complain about the difficulty of spearing one of the numerous slivered nuts with my fork -- instead I'd pick a few up with my fingers and toss them into each mouthful of salad. I might even have been able to get past the artichoke not being preserved; it was, after all, perfectly cooked, without a hint of mushiness or toughness. The problem was that the cooks forgot to include flavor. There may have been a slight splash of olive oil applied to the arugula, but no squeeze of lemon or hint of vinegar, no seasoning whatsoever. I mean even Alice Waters, the queen of culinary purity, would have added a dash of sea salt. Neither were there salt or pepper shakers on the tables, and the staff didn't offer any. Following our request a waiter, suddenly realizing the lapse, sheepishly brought some with apologies.
Between first and second visits the menu choices doubled in size (from six appetizers and entrées apiece to a dozen), and started leaning more toward Argentina than the Med. This is likely because chef Mallamann, an Argentinean restaurateur experienced in dining establishments from Uruguay to San Pablo, Brazil, arrived just weeks earlier. New items included three of the only warm starters available: thin-crust pizza, scallops with endives and lemon, and empanadas "from Rio de la Plata," two delicate pastries pleasingly plumped with chopped beef, black olives, and hard-boiled eggs. A mound of mesclun on the side was tangy with lemon juice.
A main course of seared magret of duck breast was sliced into five thick, juicy wedges and fanned over a black pool of slightly reduced Modena vinegar. The waiter neglected to ask us about doneness, and the bird came rare -- okay by me, if not the person at the table who ordered it. An arzak potato accompanied the duck. Arzak is a French term for stacking shredded potatoes together into a tower shape and baking until it comes out as a beautifully delicate rendition of hash browns.
Sounding even more impressive than arzak was "71/2 hour gigot of lamb," but after a few bites of the tender but dreadfully dry meat it occurred to me that it may have stayed in the oven about six and a half hours too long. Astonishingly there was no discernible lamb flavor, the cylinder of meat tasting instead like a passable pot roast. Mashed potatoes, fried croutons, and a thin, dark Malbec wine sauce melded into a plate of pub food as brown and drab as Joyce's Dublin.
A splash of color came to the table via two sautéed fillets of red snapper stacked upon a bright "hash" consisting of diced potatoes, bits of bacalao, and sautéed strips of onion and red and green pepper. All of the components were fresh and balanced, but to say the flavors were subtle would be like describing Paris Hilton as someone who lacks substance.
Buttery-crusted almond pear tart steered us back toward the sublime, as did chocolate "fondant," a more refined rendition of the same faux soufflé served elsewhere, but fresher, smaller, and better. Passion fruit sorbet in a tuile on the side possessed pure intensity of flavor -- the sort Mendoza's cuisine needs more of if, after a rocky start, the owners still hope to inspire spirited word-of-mouth. After all, if the foods don't speak with enthusiasm, chances are the customers won't either.
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