Like the Honda convertible of similar name, Cafe del Sol has plenty to do with the sun. Opened in early February, the restaurant replaced the Terrace Cafe in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Miami (formerly the Omni) as part of a nine-million-dollar renovation of the hotel. I haven't seen the rooms, so I can only hope they were done in better taste than this self-proclaimed "Bistro of the Americas," the decor of which is so unremittingly subtropical that it diverts one's attention from the food. Which is too bad, because Cafe del Sol's Latin American and Caribbean cuisine shines brightly enough to tan.
The restaurant's primary colors are that of a sunny sky. Window dressings are broad vertical stripes of blue and yellow. Sun logos decorate the menu and the busy carpet on the floor. A mural of hand-painted palm leaves on one wall contributes a third pattern to the melange. Black-and-white wicker furniture is the final distracting element. Fortunately, the interior designer wasn't allowed into the kitchen. Executive chef Louis Roman, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who last headed the staff at the renowned Victor's Cafe, has seamlessly pieced together an affordable, approachable menu.
Roman and his new staff prepare the best black bean soup I've tasted in this town (we're talking about a lot of bowls of black bean soup): a rich and heady broth, beans whose skins have split but have not disintegrated, a tiny float of pork fat, and a bigger boat of bay leaf. Truly outstanding, and made even better thanks to the crusty white rolls the staff kept bringing.
Tamal habanero seemed somewhat bland by comparison, but a garnish of crunchy, salty pork morsels and a well-seasoned avocado relish distinguished it. Served in a corn husk, the tamal was dense and sweet, accented with chewy bits of fresh corn. This appetizer, priced at a mere $3.50, is a bargain.
At more than twice the price, tostones rellenos were easily the most expensive hot starter on the menu. Three pieces of green plantain had been shaped into miniature baskets and then deep-fried and topped with creamy coconut shrimp. The plantains were meaty and mild, an ideal backdrop for the more savory shrimp.
Red snapper ceviche was a generous portion of the marinated fish, white fleshy chunks spilling out from a fire-hued shell. Though the zip of cilantro, the zing of Scotch bonnet peppers, and the tang of lime were welcome, the snapper tasted a trifle too, well, fishy. Still, the texture was ideal, firm but not tough, yielding gently to the tooth.
Beef lovers will gnaw their lips with indecision when faced with the entrees. Nine meat dishes from Cuba and South America include old favorites such as picadillo and churrasco con chimichurri. We sampled an excellent vaca frita, which used limes and Seville oranges to achieve that tart marinated flavor. We wished the surface of the pan-fried skirt steak had been a little crisper, but were delighted with the tender interior of the beef, which was served in a skillet-type dish with grilled white onions and a side of buttered white rice.
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A large scoop of the same rice accompanied bistec de pollo en manigua, a pounded chicken breast that had been pan-seared, then covered with a fabulous salad of watercress, radicchio, avocado, tomato, and scallion. A lively vinaigrette contributed notes of vinegar and salt and added moisture; a necessity -- the dish's only flaw was the chicken, so overcooked it splintered when we tried to cut it.
Red snapper was ideally prepared, though a little tame. Encrusted with green plantain chips and fried, the result was a Cuban version of fish and chips. The extremely large fillet, flaky and juicy inside, was given added flavor by a smooth avocado sauce, identical to the relish that accompanied the tamal appetizer. A too-sweet plantain mash overdid the banana theme. A side order of yuca con mojo succeeded admirably, the boiled cassava pliant and the garlic sauce chunky and powerful.
Dessert was our first real disappointment -- the boniatillo (white sweet potato paste) we ordered from the menu was no longer being prepared owing to low diner interest. Without asking us first, our waiter presented us simultaneously with a pathetic hangdog look and arroz con leche; we accepted the latter as a substitute. Creamy and sweet, with cinnamon, vanilla, and lemon fragrances, the dessert was served in a pretty almond tuile, which we promptly devoured along with the rice pudding.
Hotel restaurants, particularly the more casual cafes, frequently attempt to cater to a diverse crowd, cooking up a largely continental -- and largely dull -- menu. As a Bistro of the Americas, the 190-seat Cafe del Sol succeeds in two areas: livening up hotel dining and introducing guests to the Miami culinary scene. For locals it represents a reasonably priced alternative to Calle Ocho, a place to bask under a multitude of suns without getting burned.