Life's a Cantina Beach on Key Biscayne

If swine flu has spoiled your appetite for a weekend getaway to Mexico, pocket the airfare and head to the Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne for vacation-like ambiance.  At the open-air, poolside dining room of Cantina Beach, new chef de cuisine Andres Parlange is reviving a standard menu of hotel-style Mexican fare with authentic favorites inspired by his grandmother's kitchen. 

Parlange is a native of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, and has traveled the globe from Barcelona to Kuala Lampur with the Ritz Carlton family.  Now he's returning to his roots at Cantina. You can sense this in the menu to be unveiled in early June.  A sneak preview of the new dishes proved tasty. The idyllic setting didn't hurt. 

It's hard to resist kicking off a meal here with the expected, yet addictive, tableside guacamole station.  It's nothing new, but it's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that makes one thirsty for liquid refreshment of the margarita variety.  Here, cubed and mashed hass avocados come mild, medium, or hot (with corresponding amounts jalepeno doing the trick) and a confetti of fixins including diced red onion and tomato, and a hearty helping of cilantro.  We couldn't get enough of one of three salsas - a tangy and piquant green one - that arrived to the table with crispy tortilla chips. You'll have to ask for soft tortillas if you want to roll up and devour your guac cigar-style.

One of the yet-to-be-launched appetizers is Tostadas de Cochinita Pibil, made from delicately fried, round corn tortillas that receive a spread of slow-cooked garlicky refried beans,and  topped with tender, sour orange-marinated pork meat that has braised for four hours in a stew of bay leaves. There's also charred garlic and onions, fresh oregano and annato seed (achiote.)  The crispy package arrives at the table balanced with a light finish of shredded Romaine, queso fresco, and your choice of salsa.  In Parlange's kitchen, it's freshly-made pineapple pico de gallo and an avocado and tomatillo sauce.

Cut-with-a-fork Enchiladas Suizas melt in the mouth and are made employing many different cooking techniques. Thus there are myriad flavors and textures. Flash-fried tortillas are filled with zesty Chihuahua cheese, diced and lightly-roasted squash, zucchini, red onions and tomatoes along with herb oil-marinated and grilled chicken breast.  Prior to service, the enchiladas are topped with a fresh-roasted green tomatillo sauce, Mexican cream, more slices of Chihuahua (the cheese!) and put back into the oven to melt into a creamy bundle I'll take any day over lasagna.

As for the Queso Fundido, it's a very simple dish to make, so I'd save it for home where you can whip up just as tasty of a version without paying a luxe hotel premium ($16 for a two- person portion.)  Parlange suggests trying a Latin supermarket for the Chihuahua cheese and the rest is history.  Once the cheese has been cut into small cubes, place them in a cast iron mold and melt in a hot oven for about five minutes, or until the top begins to caramelize.  Serve with hot corn or flour tortillas -- or as at Cantina, top with sauteed Chorizo.  Just don't wait too long to dig in, because it becomes a challenge to spread once the cheese cools. 

Cantina Beach claims South Florida's largest collection of tequila, 85 100% agave brands to be exact and its very own Jalisco-trained Tequilier presiding over the collection (Jalisco is to tequila what the region of Champagne is to the bubbly.)  Daily complimentary 6:00 p.m. tastings come with a bonus -- pairing recommendations for the restaurant's menu.

While a later visit to try entrees off the current menu, including chipotle-glazed chicken breast and grouper fillet with green mole and seasonal vegetables, felt less inspired and lacking the authentic, layered flavors of the new apps, I'm rooting for Parlange after a taste of what's to come.