Restaurant Reviews

New Level Of Dining

As the original supervising architect of Coral Gables, Phineas Paist established a board of review whose approval was required for any new construction or remodeling. That board is still in place today, but somehow The Village of Merrick Park shopping complex slipped past Paist's precept, and sprawls luxuriously across quite a bit of Gables real estate. The hoity-toity shops here are pricey to be sure, but the sparkling new Mariposa restaurant, hidden away (literally, due to poor signage) on level three of the Neiman Marcus department store, offers an extravagantly satisfying dining experience that you needn't be rich to enjoy.

Maybe it was the fresh, hot popovers brought to the lunch table with strawberry butter, their moist, eggy interiors releasing steam upon popping open, that made such a positive impression upon us. Or the cup of complimentary chicken consommé that warmed on a particularly chilly Florida afternoon. Or the comfort of two chic dining rooms (and outdoor patio tables with vistas of the villagelike shopping center below), or table settings composed of all the lovely linens, flatware, and accessories you'd expect from Neiman Marcus. No doubt the polite, attentive service quietly gratified as well, and one can't overstate the delectable effect of executive chef Christopher Rios's light, bright, and delightfully fresh cuisine. There is, come to think of it, nothing about Mariposa that doesn't impress.

Salads and sandwiches are the big lunchtime items. A grilled prime rib sandwich, rare and juicy, arrived in a big, soft onion roll with Roquefort horseradish spread, deep red beefsteak tomatoes, and shredded iceberg lettuce; thin, hot, salty fries came in a conical cup on the side. Same bun and fries accompanied a perfectly cooked black Angus burger, while other sandwiches are served with homemade potato chips. All selections are sided by a sensational spinach salad with tropical sun-dried fruits, mandarin oranges, macadamia nuts, and a tantalizing sweet-and-spicy vinaigrette.

Chunky chicken salad can be savored as a sandwich with avocado and alfalfa sprouts (on a choice of bread, which includes brioche, ciabatta, and ten-grain), but is more intriguing as an entrée salad partnered with fresh fruit, sweet bread, and a warm mandarin orange soufflé. Other main course salads offer equally attractive pairings, the ingredients practically glowing with color and in total sync with one another. Grilled diver scallops are embellished in contemporary-yet-classic style with spinach, corn, portobello mushrooms, applewood-smoked bacon, and a warm tomato vinaigrette. Herbed, pan-roasted salmon is elevated with hearts of palm, shaved slices of fennel, cipollini (the bittersweet, onionlike bulb of the grape hyacinth), and orange-walnut vinaigrette. Ingredients such as cipollini make Mariposa special.

Main courses exhibit similarly sleek sensibilities: red snapper lightly sautéed and plated with creamed leeks, finely diced cubes of fresh tomato, warm bacon potato salad, and lively green broccolini; crabcake dressed in melon relish and soy citrus syrup; beautifully tender slices of sesame-encrusted ahi tuna with soy vanilla reduction and a nest of deliriously sweet lo mein noodles.

I write of lunch, when main courses run $14 to $18, but Mariposa serves dinner until 10:00 p.m. on weeknights, an hour later on weekends. The slightly more extensive nighttime menu charges five dollars more per entrée -- meaning an appetizer, main course, and dessert will cost about $30 to $40. Both mealtimes are well worth the price.

One bite of the warm, individual pecan tartlette with mildly curried coconut crust is pretty much all you'll need to be convinced that pastry chef Gustavo Agudelo can do far more than just produce opulent popovers. Consisting of just the right sweetness, the fresh-from-the-oven treat is topped with vanilla ice cream layered between radiant red and green sheets of sugar that shine like glass. Teeny jewels of that colored candy come scattered on the plate, as does edible gold dust and a purple orchid -- a gem of a dessert set in a sterling restaurant.