Busman's Holiday

'Tis the season to start dreading the holidays. Commercial warfare is on, tinsel and tacky lights are up, and hollow good cheer abounds, soon to be followed by the inevitable extra pounds. But those aren't the reasons I'm miserable. I actually kind of like the round of social events and festivities, though I think that's because I usually manage to go on vacation and skip out on half of them. (The invitation's as satisfying as the party itself, I figure.) But this year it seems like all my long-distance friends and family are descending on me. This year 'tis the season I'm stuck in Miami.

'Tis also the season my husband had a great idea (the first of many, I hope) to bring me out of the no-vacation doldrums. We can't go to, say, the Caribbean, he reasoned, but why not pretend? We could investigate a few good Caribbean restaurants and then go back for a meal when our guests are in town. That way we'll all feel like we're on holiday.

Acting on the principle that a sound plan is best when quickly set into motion, we journeyed that very night to Haiti. Actually, we visited La Coupole, a Haitian restaurant on Sunset Drive. I was a bit concerned about our choice when I opened the door. With one fully mirrored wall, mauve linen napkins twisted into glasses, white tablecloths, and a white tile floor, the restaurant seems sterile, like a banquet hall where any type of cuisine might be served by a caterer. I appreciate the cleanliness, but aside from a few Haitian paintings on the wall, the atmosphere lacks character. Not even the piped-in music (generic pop) hints at La Coupole's roots. Fortunately, the menu gives it all away -- and for a nominal fee.

Though the menu is limited (comprising two starters and eight entrees), the restaurant offers tasty renditions of the island's basic fare. A plate of fried malanga fritters, called acras ($4.00), were crunchy outside, smooth and light inside, with a chili afterkick intensified by an accompanying horseradish-heavy sauce of the sort you'd see in a shrimp cocktail. The same sauce came with the other appetizer, deep-fried chicken wings. The cocktail stuff seemed a little strange but we still enjoyed the juicy wings, which were coated with a crisp and flaky seasoned batter.

Entrees were preceded by green salads, refreshing if ordinary mixes of iceberg lettuce, sliced plum tomatoes, and slivers of green and red bell pepper. The dressings -- an oily Italian or a watery French -- were the problem here; they tasted bottled. The dinner rolls served with this course also appeared packaged. My advice: Save your appetite. The home-cooked dishes to come, generously plated, are worth your hungry attention.

Lambi, strips of sauteed conch smothered in Creole sauce, was tender enough to evoke a love song ($8.00). A slow-cooked, tomato-base sauce garnished with sauteed bell pepper and onion was tangy and piquant. Cabrit ($7.00) was simmered in an almost identical gravy and differed only in its main ingredient (rounds of goat meat) and a mellower sauce. The succulent, musky goat itself was some of the best I've had.

Goat is also available fried, as are turkey and pork. Although a trifle dry, deep-fried, unbreaded hunks of pork were tasty and plentiful, and greatly enhanced by a relish of pickled cabbage and carrot. All main courses were accompanied by terrific fried, pounded plantains (similar to tostones) and a mound of red beans and rice, steamy and fragrant but somewhat skimpy on the beans.

The waitstaff seemed a bit bewildered by our presence -- we weren't the only people in the restaurant, but we did seem to be the only paying customers -- and brought the check without asking if we wanted dessert. We ordered it anyway, choosing a slice of cheesecake ($2.50) over the only other option, chocolate cake. Like the decor, the dessert was presentable but somehow antiseptic, cleansed of nationality.

La Coupole
10855 Sunset Dr; 271-1382. Dinner Tuesday -- Saturday from 4:00 to 10:00 p.m.; Sunday from 4:00 to 9:00 p.m.

If La Coupole was something of an assimilated experience, Irie Isle, a Jamaican restaurant in North Miami Beach, was downright culture shock. Located in a strip mall next to a reggae record shop and a tattoo parlor, the eatery is shabby (but clean), with an open kitchen, a few Jamaican airline souvenirs on the walls, and a blasting reggae soundtrack. Irie Isle is strictly counter service, with food presented in Styrofoam boxes, but you can sit and eat at one of the half-dozen tables if you wish. As you wait for your food to be prepared, nibble on a homemade beef patty (94 cents; the limited menu lists vegetable and curried chicken patties as well, but they weren't available when we visited). Though the disconcerting color of Velveeta (despite the absence of any cheese), the flaky pastries are delicious and are an excellent precursor to the "everyday dishes," or main courses, listed on a blackboard above the counter.

Piles of jerk chicken, already grilled, await your order ($5.99; $4.99 for lunch). Coated with crushed spices and brushed with a tangy barbecue sauce, the poultry (your choice of breast and wing or leg and thigh) was nothing short of fabulous, a zesty and filling entree. Oxtail and beans, sections of beefy tail stewed in a rich brown sauce with chunks of sweet carrots and butter beans, is another appetite-satisfying meal ($5.99; $4.99 for lunch). The beef, which had been braised first, was supple as a good pot roast, falling off the bone in hunks.

"Brown stew fish" was the only main course that wasn't pre-prepared. Though we had to wait twenty minutes (the counterperson warns you) for a snapper to be pan-fried in oil, it was well worth the delay. The brown sauce, rife with carrots and onions, dressed the whole snapper, a sweet-fleshed if small specimen.

Rice and peas (i.e., kidney beans), fried ripe plantains, and a green salad topped with French dressing added to the already large entree portions. But there was no way that fact could keep me from the homemade golden rum cake ($1.05). Saturated with booze, the moist pastry was drizzled with an ultrasugary icing; one slice of this stuff and you're on some kind of holiday whether you like it or not.

Irie Isle
168 NE 167th St, North Miami Beach; 354-7678. Lunch and dinner daily from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10:00 p.m. Open Sunday from noon to 8:00 p.m.

We concluded our ersatz tour of the Caribbean with a visit to Benny's, a bustling, comfortable Puerto Rican seafood restaurant across from the Youth Fair grounds that sports numerous hanging plants (fake) and a crooner in the corner strumming a guitar (real).

Come armed with your best Spanish; the menu lists most items in English, but the staff doesn't speak much of it. Well-prepared fare is the common denominator here. A conch empanadilla (lobster, shrimp, and octopus pies are also available) was terrific as an appetizer, morsels of nubby conch and potatoes encased in crisp, buttery pastry ($2.00). Tostones rellenos were also excellent, fried green plantains stuffed with your choice of seafood, fish, or ground beef and served in parfait glasses so they look almost like little flowers. We chose ground beef; the picadillo, flavored with sauteed bell peppers and onions, was savory and rich, a good match for the blander plantains.

Entrees focus on seafood, and so should you. Asopao de camarones ($13.99), a soupy shrimp-and-rice stew spiced with capers, onion, bell pepper, and cilantro, is served in a metal pot with a ladle (you dish out what you want and the rest stays hot). Quartered limes were delivered on the side of this fantastic brew for a self-administered squeeze. A dish of fried green plantains featured three of the crisp, greaseless treats.

Stuffed snapper was another excellent main course ($14.99). Two long boneless fillets were filled with an assortment of sauteed shrimp, conch, and octopus, then breaded and deep-fried: a snapper sandwich. Creamy garlic sauce was poured over the top, needing only a little salt to bring out its flavor. A choice of two side dishes is offered with this course -- firm, bacon-flavored black beans and buttered white rice, or yuca con mojo. The latter, fragrant with garlic sauce, was made perfect with a dash of salt.

A soothing dessert of coconut custard ($2.50) was firm and creamy but not overly rich. But if you're looking for a real coconut kick, down the complimentary shot of coconut-rum liqueur. It tastes like a milkier, more alcoholic version of the flan, and keeps that seasonal spirit flowing.

2500 SW 107th Ave; 227-1232. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m.

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