Nibbling Rivalry

I met a chef for dinner at Two Sisters Restaurant. A happy coincidence, which I discovered when I got there: He had helped open the restaurant in 1987. Glancing around the stately stone and marble dining room, accented by a square bar at one end and a long open kitchen down one side, he noted with satisfaction, "Everything's the same."

Then he received his menu. "Whoa," he said. "Everything's changed."
True enough. Prices for entrees have come down to the high teens from the mid-twenties. The restaurant, located in the Coral Gables Hyatt Regency, is busier than it's been in a long while and even serves an enthusiastic happy-hour bunch. But the biggest alteration concerns the food.

I favorably reviewed Two Sisters, named for the hall where the Alhambra's harem lived (the Hyatt is modeled after that castle in Granada), a couple of years ago, during its New World cuisine days. One of the few corporate hotel restaurants cognizant of its multicultural dining environment, the Sisters has switched to Pacific Rim cuisine. But executive chef Jim Palmeri, late of the Hyatt's Cafe Japengo in La Jolla, California, takes the pan-Asian trend over the top, spinning in a Latin influence. The new menu, which features Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Japanese, and Spanish flavors, made its debut a month ago.

I had my doubts about this particular mixture. Dim sum and tapas may be similar in philosophy, but in ingredients they're quite literally worlds apart. Ditto fried rice and paella, sashimi and ceviche, black bean soup and black bean sauce. Indeed, in some cases the blend failed to impress. Generally, though, I was as surprised as my dinner mate to find that most of the dishes were fantastically successful. The only real disappointment was the wine list, with excessive pricing and a philosophy that seemed far from the Far East.

A tapas dish of steamed blue mussels topped with garlic and diced tomatoes, which we sampled at the bar before dinner (a selection of tapas and champagne is served on the house every Friday night from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m.), seemed more Mediterranean than Asian. But it was also delicious, the sweet plump shellfish retaining the spark of the sea. Calamari, another tapa, was equally masterful and a bit more Pacific-oriented, tender rings married to a fragrant lemongrass dressing.

Appetizers on the regular menu carried on the squid's spirit of reinvention. Four rice-paper-wrapped pot stickers encased a blend of ground chicken and duck and were given a South American charge with a spicy poblano-chili-and-tomato relish and a Japanese-influenced garnish of curling beets and carrots. A very pretty presentation. Soft-shell crabs were likewise lovely, a pair of tempura batter-dipped crabs fried and served over slightly sweet vinegared cucumber and carrot crudites. Though I found the shells a bit tough, the crabmeat was plentiful and mild and the portion was generous for the eight-dollar price tag.

A mixed green salad with a tangy miso-ginger vinaigrette made a refreshing starter. Daikon sprouts and tiny pinhead enoki mushrooms wound around a host of crisp baby lettuces, while tricolored red, orange, and yellow teardrop tomatoes splashed in vibrant color and juicy sweetness. A bowl of black bean soup was the only appetizer that failed to capture our interest, largely because nothing in it spoke in South Sea tones. The turtle beans, though whole and just tender, were too heavily doused with cumin and salt. Lying atop a dab of sour cream, a manchego-serrano fritter (fried cheese in the shape of an empanada) was the soup's sole outstanding feature.

Grouped under the twin menu headings "Wok" and "Grill & Specialties," entrees were especially impressive. We avoided some of the stranger-sounding ones A a wokked jerk pork with roast plantains, yellow rice, and Caribe salsa, for example, and a wokked chicken with beans, potato dumplings, and a brown vinegar sauce A and went with what seemed to be the house specials. From the "Wok" list, we picked a ten-ingredient fried rice, which our waiter was kind enough to offer as a half portion (and at half price). The dish was fabulous, with meaty shrimp, chicken, pork, egg, and numerous vegetables dotting the soy-browned grains.

Fish predominates in the province of "Grill & Specialties," and rightly so. We tried three seafood main courses, all of which were outstandingly prepared and beautifully plated, exhibiting the synesthesia the Japanese bring to food preparation. When our server recommended a whole tempura-battered yellowtail snapper, my chef friend was concerned that the yellowtail might not achieve the legal minimum weight. He needn't have worried. Presented as if swimming through a sea of shredded cucumber-cellophane noodle salad, this was a veritable monster of the local deep. After bringing it to the table, our waiter deftly twisted the fish flat, coaxing the sweet white flesh to pop out through the crisp exterior. A spicy ponzu vinaigrette added some tang, if not the piquancy for which it was billed.

Mahi-mahi was expertly grilled, and almost hidden beneath a deluge of gingered tomato chutney. Rather than overpowering, the chutney was a mouth-watering complement to the thick fillet of still-pink fish, whose grilled-in flavors meshed nicely with an accompanying smattering of charred portobello mushrooms. Finally, rich rock shrimp were made even more so by the black sesame-seed butter sauce that united the components of the dish.

Black-pepper-seared ahi, succulent and steak-red from the addition of the Japanese herb shiso, was another wonderful treat. The tuna was also accented with ponzu-flavored butter; baby bok choy were sliced in half, wokked, and served, still green as grass shoots, on the side.

The only service flaw -- the failure of a main dish of slow-roasted duckling to make a timely appearance -- was balanced by our waiter's willingness to patiently provide tastes of sauces and side dishes that accompanied other dinner offerings. We sampled, for instance, the sinus-clearing wasabi aioli that dresses an ahi appetizer, and devoured a healthy scoop of what was undoubtedly the most unhealthy roast-garlic-chili-mashed potatoes in fat-free America.

The duckling eventually arrived, steaming hot. The breast meat was simultaneously soft and resilient, the glazed skin crackling like a fire. Though the coating was too salty, a dish of pureed plum sauce exhibiting notes of raspberry and mango helped even out the seasoning. A mound of stir-fried vegetables supported the duck from underneath, while warmed flour tortillas did double duty, substituting for Peking duck pancakes and adding Mexican flair.

Dessert was outrageous. A warm chocolate raspberry bombe was sectioned with peanut shortbread cookies and lidded with a smooth, intensely flavored roast banana gelato. On the lighter side, three scoops of mango sorbet spilled out of a horn-shaped sesame-macaroon cookie; kiwi, strawberries, and a passion fruit coulis completed the plethora of fruits.

At first glance the revamped Two Sisters appears to have joined the hot-membership-of-the-moment, the pan-Asian club. In reality, it leads the Pac.

Side Dish
New York City's China Grill, self-proclaimed originator of "World" cuisine in 1987, has finally put an end to years-old rumors about opening a second location in South Beach by doing precisely that, at 404 Washington Ave. The 200-seat main dining room will open to the public in early December; the indoor/outdoor And Zen Sum Cafe, serving mainly sushi and satay, debuts in November. Executive chef Ephraim Kadish pulls influences from Italy, Japan, France, China, and America to create dishes such as the oxymoronic tempura sashimi, lamb dumplings with a ginger-mushroom sauce, spice-rubbed pork loin with papaya and berry salsa, and grilled rosemary scallops with plum and goat cheese risotto. If you can manage to get a reservation before the New Year, be aware that cachet don't come cheap -- entrees range from $18 to $29. Call 534-2211 for info.


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