Juan Mario Maza and Vani Maharaj, owners of the new Alta Cocina in South Miami, have an interesting backstory to tell. Vani, from Trinidad and Tobago, and Juan, from Guatemala, met while studying cuisine at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami. Maharaj went on to work with Michelle Bernstein at Azul and Michy's; Maza joined her at the latter spot. The couple married this past May, and in October opened an eatery of their own on Sunset Drive. Unfortunately, compelling narratives make for great screenplays, not restaurants.
The first problem with Alta Cocina is that it doesn't match preopening buzz, which suggested that its "creative global fusion" and "upscale casual" cuisine might add up to a sort of Michy's south. There is nothing remotely creative, upscale, or Michy-ish about the place. The restaurant's name is even more misleading. Most foodies worldwide know alta cocina as a palatable term for the mash of science and haute cuisine also called "molecular gastronomy." Those who don't know this might otherwise assume, wrongly again, that the place is Italian.
Alta's most appealing aspect is its clean-lined, 76-seat dining room, defined by buffed hardwood floors and black wood columns playing handsomely off white linens and light, unadorned walls. A bar at the rear of the space is backed by racks of wine bottles, but because nobody bothered to offer us a wine menu, I won't bother describing them.
The lack of wine lists was just one symptom of absolutely clueless service — all the more surprising in light of Vani, the chef, working the room as a waiter/manager. It starts with shaky hospitality, such as nobody being at the door to greet diners as they enter. On one occasion, there were no farewells or please-come-back-agains upon our departure. Nobody even noticed us go. Another time, a waiter yelled goodbye as we were walking out the door.
Between coming and going, we froze. Shortly after being seated in the practically empty room, we politely inquired whether the temperature could be raised a tad. The waitress we asked either didn't raise it at all, or took tad too literally. Normally I'd attribute this to an employee's uncaring attitude, but the waitress was Vani. Exiting the establishment brought the same relief one feels upon passing from a brutal winter day into a hearth-heated home.
Perhaps glasses of warm water were meant to neutralize the cold air. Fresh rounds of doughy, delectable, homemade Trinidad-style bread were heated, too, and toothsome in tandem with a bruschetta toss of diced ripe tomatoes dressed with olive oil, vinegar, and basil. Too bad we had to wait 20 minutes before it was brought to the table, at which point our appetizers were served as well.
Every scribe's first lesson, "write what you know," also holds true for chefs: Cook what you know. Curried chicken, a Trinidadian staple, was the best starter sampled; deeply spiced, it produced a slow, warming sensation in the mouth. Fried roti bread, the curry's traditional sidekick, was greasy but otherwise ideal for sopping up the sauce.
Alta's quaintly misshapen salt cod fritters are feathery-light, with soft interiors spotted with herbs. Don't bother with the potent tamarind dipping sauce on the side, which overwhelms and fritters away the bacalaos' delicate flavors. Fried calamari, tossed with lightly pickled escabeche peppers, were tender, if not crisp.
A main course of "Fusion del Rabo" translated to gently braised oxtail meat ringed by tender homemade gnocchi glazed with mild Gorgonzola sauce. The sweet meat and pungent cheese make a pleasurable pairing, but the nuggets of gnocchi were cold as the room. The dish was brought back to the kitchen, reheated, and returned in a barely lukewarm state. No Parmesan cheese was offered.
Nor was there any A.1. Steak Sauce or Worcestershire in the house, even though two of the four meat selections are steaks:filet with wild mushroom sauce and cubed potatoes, and skirt steak with fries. Points go to the kitchen, though, for coming up with a quick makeshift au jus in their place, which helped warm up the medium-rare slices of skirt — served on a chilly plate. The steak was presliced, another sure way to release heat from the meat (and to leave behind tasty juices on a kitchen cutting board). One more technical gaffe: The meat was sliced with the grain, not against it. No quibbles with the grilled, well-seasoned flavor. Pale, crisp, skinny fries and a ramekin of ketchup came on the side, as did a paper-thin slaw of red cabbage with a sweet/tart red wine vinaigrette. Alta needs more touches such as these.
Other entrée selections on the concise menu include seared Asian-style quail, roast half chicken with creamy corn rice, sea bass with curry sauce, and salmon atop red bliss potatoes (what's wrong with fish from Florida waters?). A nightly special, which our waiter neglected to mention until I asked if there were any specials, brought a succulent slab of Chilean sea bass sided by fried bok choy in a mildly piquant red curry sauce.
There is little reach with regard to ingredients. A "veggie sailboat," for instance, employs grilled Portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, and the bane of plain vegetables — zucchini and yellow squash. Because this is a restaurant ostensibly run by a couple with a passion for food, the lack of more exotic garden offerings is surprising. Plus, if they used fuller-flavored vegetables, there would be no need to put expensive lipstick on the pig — in this case truffle-basil dressing. And although the chef/owners brag of using organic crops, our waiter didn't think the "sailboat" components were; he was sure, however, that they were grilled. He is blameless for his ignorance; the onus for instructing waiters about a menu falls on the establishment's management.
Of all the concepts to purloin from the Eighties, few could be as regrettable as sun-dried tomato sauce, but here it is atop ricotta-mushroom ravioli. We went instead with shrimp Reggiano, six cheese-coated crustaceans lined up alongside "handkerchief pasta with wild mushrooms" — which were rolls of thick, graceless noodles wrapped around regular old white button mushrooms.
Desserts reflect a prosaic, formulaic approach, from a "tropical" fruit plate of "strawberries with berries" and ricotta whipped cream, to "passion fruit key lime pie," two pyramids of passion fruit sorbet over a scattering of loose graham cracker crumbs — actually quite pleasing, but patrons expecting some sort of key lime pie are likely to be taken aback, if not downright disappointed. And of course there is molten chocolate cake, which I grow weary of mentioning week after week. Would a stab at vanilla molten cake be asking too much?
The amiable waiters and well-intentioned owners can go only so far in fostering a forgiving attitude. Prices, too, though reasonable, aren't quite low enough to warrant the weaknesses: Appetizers are $9 to $14, and entrées, excepting the filet mignon, run $17 to $28. But the good news about being so flagrant an underachiever is that it leaves plenty of room to grow. Let's hope Juan and Vani's narrative will continue with stories of rolled-up sleeves, ironed-out kinks, and further culinary and hospitality training (they should seriously consider bringing in an experienced, professional chef who can help them learn the trade). With due diligence, they might become accomplished culinarians and restaurateurs — thus fulfilling the promise of their premise.