Nuevo Cuban, Old Faithful

On Thursday nights I watch TV. Sit-coms, to be precise. There, I've confessed. An almost-comatose couch boniato, I munch from a bag of chips and snicker until my cats meow in chorus, begging me to stop the high-pitched wheezing. Okay, so the chips are more likely to be gourmet spiced yucca rather than Wise salt-and-vinegar. But the shows are the same ones every other exhausted, overworked Jewish Jane watches, hopelessly aspiring to the characters' lifestyles: Mad About You, Seinfeld, and my personal favorite, Frasier.

I like Frasier Crane because his life is one big upscale party: pretensions are de rigueur; delicious food, premium coffee, and brand-name drinks are taken for granted; and guests don't vomit on the polished wood floors. I particularly enjoyed the episode in which Frasier and his uppity brother attempt to take their street-smart ex-cop father to Seattle's restaurant-of-the-moment. A comedy of errors ensues when the reservation is lost and the three wind up at dad's oft-frequented steak joint, choosing their cuts of meat from a cart the waitress wheels to the table.

Although our reservation at Coral Gables's nuevo Cubano eatery Yuca was honored promptly, I still felt like a sit-com character during a recent Saturday-evening visit there. Sitting near the stairwell on the second floor of the two-story, 220-seat restaurant, we childishly chuckled at patrons who stumbled on the top step as they came up the stairs, and blatantly stared at the party that accidentally smashed its bottle of wine on the sand-colored tile floor. Along with other customers, we got up to crack nearby windows when the open-performance kitchen filled the dining room with eye-smarting smoke and haze. But the real jokes were yet to come.

Apparently, a heavy-on-the-attitude dude seated behind us had been promised a veal chop special while he and his date waited for their table. Unfortunately, the kitchen ran out of that entree, and he was offered a porterhouse steak instead. Either to impress his date or to reaffirm his own importance, he decided he needed to view the beef before ordering it. Our waiter, who neglected to inform my party of any specials but who was practically tap dancing on his ears for this guy, brought out the marbled cut on a china plate.

The whole preferential procedure from beginning to end was so time-consuming that the ice cubes in our mixed drink had melted; meanwhile, our bottle of wine (a hearty Vina Alberdi Rioja, $25) sat on a tray, just out of reach, for ten minutes before being uncorked and tasted. Bread -- corn bread with raisins, a superior banana bread, and rolls made from yucca -- didn't appear for fifteen minutes, and our appetizers took twice that long to be prepared. Despite the comic edge to all this, I was getting cranky, and boy can I be dangerous when my blood sugar drops.

The only thing that could have restored order to such internal chaos was an exquisitely prepared meal, and Yuca -- an acronym for Young Upscale Cuban American, as well as the Spanish spelling of the versatile Latin American fibrous root of the same name -- ultimately delivered.

Yuca opened in August 1989 to numerous rave reviews and one negative one A from New Times restaurant critic at the time, Rafael Navarro. Thanks to the culinary imagination and skill of executive chef Douglas Rodriguez, Yuca thrived. Five years later Yuca has moved once (across the street, to bigger digs) and undergone a radical change in the kitchen. Last year, Rodriguez, despite his frequent validations of the Miami restaurant scene (as opposed to Manhattan's -- he was quoted in the June 1992 issue of Elle as saying, "I am sure that I get better fish here than absolutely anyone in New York"), left the Magic City for the Big Apple. His Park Avenue South restaurant, Patria, a northern version of Yuca, has startled seen-it-all, done-it-all Manhattanites into admiration in much the same way Yuca shocked Miamians.

Despite Rodriguez's departure, Yuca continues to host full houses, with former sous chef Guillermo Veloso, now promoted to executive level, preparing traditional black bean soup, "Marina's" sweet plantain stuffed with dried cured beef, and the restaurant's trademark baby back ribs basted with a spicy guava barbecue sauce. Same as it ever was. This insistence on re-creating Rodriguez's work night after night might signify the current kitchen's lack of distinctiveness, which may, in the end, result in boredom for diners.

But it doesn't prevent the preparation of an excellent gazpacho criollo, a just-chilled bowl of pureed tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, and onions spiked with vinegar, citrus juices, and olive oil. While the soup's appealing fresh vegetable flavor was potent enough to overcome its lack of piquancy, it failed to live up to its menu billing as "spicy." Several pieces of snappy poached shrimp peeked through the broth, and plantain mariquitas, sliced lengthwise and fried like potato chips, curled around spoonfuls of vegetables and aromatic fresh dill.

Seafood puteria, one of Rodriguez's favorite dishes, was a fricassee of tender rings of conch and delicate shrimp bathed in a fragrant brown sauce and then cooled with a dollop of sour cream and chunks of avocado and tomato. The mixture was loaded into a crisp plantain basket made from individual fried mariquitas that had been "glued" together, resembling, depending on your frame of mind, a tarantula frozen in motion or the open face of a flower. At any rate, the entire concoction was a wonderful play of textures and flavors.

A traditional corn tamale was delicious, moist with ground corn; some whole kernels and an abundance of pleasantly chewy conch added contrast. The plate was garnished with green and black olives, wedges of ripe tomatoes laid on strips of queso blanco, a salad of baby lettuce, and a spicy jalape*o, garlic, and cheese pesto.

Three-bean terrine also was an elaborate construction. A slice of the terrine, which featured layers of hearts of palm, buttery avocados, and tri-colored beans (black turtle, white navy, and red kidney), stood upright on a sweetly pungent, bitter orange mojito sauce. Two pieces of thin, pressed garlic bread and marble-size bites of goat cheese finished the dish. The plate itself was garnished with Jackson Pollack-inspired swirls and drips of an avocado puree, sour cream, and artfully placed sliced red peppers. Although it sounds like too many flavors, the mellow avocado, sour cream, and hearts of palm balanced the notes of garlic, bitter orange, and goat cheese perfectly, and the firm beans were an evenly spiced pleasure.

Like the appetizers, main courses were slow to arrive. However, "Evita's Grilled," a skirt steak, was worth the wait. Seasoned and grilled to medium-well rather than the requested medium-rare, the steak nonetheless exuded a tasty gamy flavor. Cut to resemble a tutu surrounding a belly of delicious marinated cabbage salad, the steak was complemented by matchstick fried yucca with garlicky mojo and a tangy, finely chopped tomato salsa.

Yucca stuffed with a picadillo of wild mushrooms (a semisweet combination of finely sliced shiitakes, raisins, onions, capers, and tomatoes) on a bed of sauteed spinach and topped with beet-and-carrot vinaigrette sounded great. However, when I ordered the dish the server informed me that the vinaigrette would be replaced by sofrito, the tomato, onion, pepper, and garlic mixture used as a base for many traditional Cuban dishes (we both thought this sounded even better). He didn't tell me that the chunky saute also would replace the spinach, a serving of leafy, iron-rich greens I was looking forward to.

As he served the yucca, the waiter warned me to be careful of the steam when cutting into the baseball-size ball of potatolike dough. But no vapor rose from the luke-cold dish. Too bad, because otherwise it was extremely satisfying, the mashed and reformed yucca smooth and free of stringy fibers, the filling complementing the sofrito underneath.

Neither was pasta mariscada particularly successful, although its mingling seascape flavors were palate-inspiring. Bay scallops, shrimp, calamari rings, one mussel, and two whitewater clams were tossed with linguine in what was described on the menu as a rich lobster sauce. That sounded like a cream sauce to us, but actually it was a very thin, albeit delicious, broth that didn't stick to the linguine whatsoever. A grilled lobster tail and fully armored jumbo prawn topped the dish. My gringo guest wasn't at all fazed by the head-included crustacean, but he was disturbed by the difficulty he had in slicing the lobster tail into pieces (in order for the entire table to have a taste). Seconds later, we were all horrified by the lobster meat, which was unquestionably raw. (Unlike some sea creatures, lobster does not have an appetizing taste or texture when consumed uncooked.) After politely hawking into our napkins, we sent the whole dish back, only to become victims of the kitchen's overcompensation A tossed back into a saute pan, the remaining seafood became overcooked.

Matters improved with pan-seared tuna loin, also served on the raw side -- but then we wanted it that way. Red in the center, the inch-thick tuna medallions were a tender treat, too many to finish. The only dish on the menu to own up to an influence that's not Cuban (in this case, Latin and Asian), the tuna featured a creamy coconut-curry rice and a fantastic black-bean-and-shrimp spring roll.

Our waiter checked back with us as our entrees were being cleared, and then he died. Yes, that's right, the overburdened server who replaced him informed us that between the entree and dessert courses, our waiter had passed away. And good service apparently died with him.

Coffee was served fifteen minutes after our dessert, an outrageous, spongy chocolate tres leches served with a scoop of dense chocolate sorbet on the side that didn't exactly arrive tout de suite, either. Of course, we had plenty to entertain us. The downstairs area was packed with patrons dressed to the dientes awaiting a Hispanic songstress scheduled to perform at midnight, a party to which, according to our new, rude server, we weren't invited. I'd like to think our original waiter was somewhere down in that throng, and not laid out in the ice machine awaiting an autopsy. I'll bet Frasier never had this particular problem.


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