The Spanish Imposition

When a restaurant makes the evening news, it's usually something you'd just as soon not hear about: a fire, a shooting in the parking lot, a record number of health violations. Whatever the tragedy, that kind of mention can spell doom for an eatery, and I cringe in sympathy for the restaurateur whenever I hear some reporter's startling revelation -- though in the matter of health violations, I can't seem to summon much pity.

But sometimes being on the news is actually good for a restaurant. Such would seem to have been the case with Malaga, the landmark Spanish restaurant on SW Eighth Street in Little Havana. As the celebratory headquarters for Miami's newly elected mayor, Xavier Suarez, Malaga has been on the news so often these past few weeks that I would be able describe its two-story warren of cozy dining rooms, stucco walls lined with oil paintings, and terra cotta-color tile floors even if I'd never dined there.

If I were owners Nestor and Damarys Peralta, who took over the 25-year-old operation (now dubbed the new Malaga) this past April, I'd be reveling in the unasked-for attention. I'd also look to convert that fifteen minutes of fame into fifteen more years of longevity. Sadly, if that's what the Peraltas have in mind, they're going about it the wrong way.

Damarys Peralta told me over the phone that she and Nestor did make some minor changes, consolidating the unwieldy dinner menu and creating an independent list of 24 tapas. That separation of starters from entrees explains why no appetizers other than soups and salads appear on the regular menu, but it doesn't explain why our server seemed to know nothing about the tapas menu, which Damarys claims is perched on every table. (Except ours, apparently; we didn't learn of its existence until later). When we asked the server if there were any starters available, he smiled and pointed to the dinner menu.

Much as I wanted to blame such difficulties on a language barrier -- no one other than the proprietors seems to speak much English here -- there was something far sadder at work than my deplorable Spanish. One of my companions asked in English if the restaurant stocked Spanish beers. My husband, whose Spanish is fine, interpreted the question. Regardless of the tongue, the answer was the same: "Si, Corona."

Getting our order straight also seemed too taxing for our waiter (though when it came to the bill, he had no problem figuring in a twenty percent tip for himself, a practice the menu fails to mention). He brought out as starters the sides of black beans and rice that we'd requested with our main courses. This would have been okay had they not been ice-cold. One half of our actual appetizer order -- a sopa de pollo and a caesar salad -- got lost somewhere, either in the kitchen or in the translation. When they finally showed up, we realized we would have been just as happy without them. Stocked with dark-meat chicken, carrots, and egg noodles, the soup was unremarkable -- save for an unpleasant overabundance of salt. The caesar, meanwhile, was a straightforward plate of chopped romaine accented with croutons and dusted with Parmesan that tasted processed. The croutons were crusty and tasted homemade, but they were diminished by a dressing that seemed bottled.

Those dishes that did appear as originally scheduled included an ensalada al Malaga comprising chopped romaine, radishes, and shredded carrots that was served without any dressing whatsoever. After several disgruntled requests, we eventually settled for some of the caesar salad dressing. A bowl of caldo gallego was a better investment, a hearty and garlicky soup thick with tender white beans, chunks of potatoes, and carrots.

A well-made white bean soup can usually restore my good humor. Not at Malaga, where I made the mistake of ordering paella valenciana. I'm what you might call a paella aficionado, but I hardly ever request it -- most places won't make it as a serving for one, and I'm always reluctant to waste an entree opportunity. Though Malaga is no exception to the two-person minimum, one of my guests and I decided to indulge, figuring the 45-minute preparation augured a freshly cooked treat. We got our hopes up in vain. Oh, the platter of rice, chicken, and seafood was quite generous, steaming mounds of pea-and-pimiento-pocked rice laden with poultry and shellfish, including shrimp, clams, mussels, stone crab claws, and lobster tails. But all that wonderful shellfish was overcooked -- the shrimp dry, the clams rubbery, the mussels gummy. The rice itself was simply inedible, so salty that it puckered the lips.

We were also let down by a simple bistec empanizado. The pounded, breaded steak covered most of the plate and appeared to have been nicely browned. But the breading was cold and soggy, as if the meat had been fried earlier and then left to sit awhile. A molded scoop of mashed boniato was tasty, but a second side dish -- whipped potatoes that had been thinned, colored green with food dye, and then squirted onto the plate in a decorative ribbon -- was a bizarre garnish.

We persuaded one friend, who was moodily making do with his Mexican Corona, to have a real motherland experience and order cochinillo segoviano as an entree. We told him how the suckling pig's skin crisps, how the juices ooze from underneath that buttery shell. We shouldn't have been so persuasive. The two ribs he was served were more fat than meat and were layered with a greasy, soggy skin. I couldn't help but compare this cochinillo to the superb version I was once served at nearby Casa Juancho, where it's all too easy to make a pig of oneself.

I can only consider the neighborhood's influence as explanation for the Cuban side dishes. Tostones were thick and crunchy fried green plantains, though we were mystified by the double servings we were given (and charged for) when we had ordered singles. Ditto the platanos fritos, pan-fried ripe plantains, the sweet flavor of which was overwhelmed by a cindered exterior.

I'm not sure why we stuck around for dessert -- masochism, perhaps? Crema catalana was certainly punishment enough for this misjudgment. Tinged an odd orange color, the unpleasant, lumpy custard had clearly been refrigerated, and the browned sugar crust was concave and sodden. A slice of New York-style cheesecake was a vast improvement, firm, smooth, and rich, though hardly Spanish.

Despite all that had come before, I might have returned to Malaga for a go at the tapas menu had not the bathrooms clinched my opinion. Overflowing trash cans and paper all over the floor made me speculate about the state of the kitchen, just as oversalted, indifferent fare made me question the talent within it. The Peraltas may not want to mess too much with the reputation the old Malaga established in this city. But a laissez faire attitude, especially when it comes to cleanliness, could easily obliterate the new Malaga's politically correct standing.

740 SW 8th St; 858-4224. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

White bean soup
Breaded steak
Roast suckling pig
Paella valenciana (for two or more)
$16.95 per person
Crema catalana


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