Restaurant Reviews

Chino-Latino No Go

"Where Cuba meets the Far East" is Oriente at Cardozo's motto, which on paper isn't a bad idea. The crisp, light flavors and exotic spices of Asia offer a potentially tantalizing contrast to heartier, homespun island fare. A little yin and yang, so to speak. Throw in American-style salads and pizzas and you've got yin, yang, and yanqui — what could go wrong? Plus there are precedents: Asia de Cuba, a Jeffrey Chodorow property in four major cities, has been deftly doing Chino-Latino cuisine for years. And Cuba's eastern coast, including the province of Oriente, was long ago inhabited by European and Asian immigrants who fused their native foods with indigenous tropical ingredients. Oriente also happens to be the birthplace of Emilio Estefan, who with his famous missus owns a piece of this South Beach restaurant and lounge. But Oriente the dining establishment doesn't serve the sort of down-home fare you'd find in Oriente, Cuba. Nor does it offer innovative pairings such as black beans and edamame, or wasabi crema with boniato crisps, as Asia de Cuba does. Sadly it proffers instead the fussy and unfocused food found mostly on tourist strips such as Ocean Drive.

Our meal began with a traditional Asian touch: no bread — at least on the first visit. A return brought a basket of warm rolls and a terrific triangle of sesame seed multigrain bread. On both occasions the appetizers were served relatively rapidly. Service here isn't especially smooth or professional, but it is fast — in a let's-turn-the-tables-over-quickly way. Still, we took our time tasting a crab croqueta of luscious white lump meat mildly melded with filler and encased in a delicate golden crust. The cake came perched atop two ripe slices of avocado and a base of cracked wheat tabouleh salad that wasn't old but possessed none of the cleanly delineated tastes of fresh, recently dressed grains. A vinaigrette dappled with diced tomatoes and snippets of chives proved a perky partner for the crab, but if you want to follow with a mahi-mahi main course, you'd better really like tomatoes, vinegar, and chives — the fish comes pooled in the same dressing.

Speaking of which, I just had to try the Asian slaw — not because I wanted to, but it's difficult to avoid, coming as it does alongside a starter of chicken drumettes, a "Latin-spiced" tuna appetizer, and a main course of tamarind-basted pork ribs. We ended up encountering our shredded salad below four sizable slabs of tuna — too much for a starter, though pretty nifty for sharing. The fish was fresh but a little too rosy-red in color (indicating dye). The Latin spices tasted an awful lot like a Cajun blackening blend. I'm not sure what became of a promised ginger-kim chee vinaigrette, but it wasn't on the tuna or the plate. Wasn't on the big mound of slaw either, which consisted of carrots, red cabbage, greens, and crunchy fried rice noodles in sesame-ginger-soy vinaigrette. By the way, the Asian slaw that accompanies Cajun — er, Latin-spiced tuna with ginger-kim chee — I mean with sesame-ginger-soy vinaigrette, is not to be confused with the Oriental slaw that comes with an entrée of "five-spiced" tuna with ginger-kim chee — er, sesame-ginger-soy vinaigrette. Even though, far as I can tell, Oriental slaw is indeed the same as Asian slaw.

Now that I've clarified that for you, we can turn to the Chinese chicken salad in soy-ginger vinaigrette (and whose attendant slaw goes under the "Oriental" moniker). Back in 1984, when Miami Sound Machine scored its first hit with "Dr. Beat," Chinese chicken salad with soy-ginger vinaigrette might have been considered a viable interpretation of Far Eastern food. Diners' expectations of cuisine, however, change the way taste in music does, and this menu is about as playable today as that dated dance-chart song.

If only redundancy and irrelevancy were Oriente's sole problems. Some of the cuisine is tasty enough, but it is to real, passionately cooked food what paint-by-numbers is to real art. Meals here seem to be prepared by rote for one-time tourists who are more likely to recall the "interesting people" streaming by their outdoor table on the Drive (some of whom look ready to take hostages) than the lukewarm and lackluster nature of the duck ropa vieja. Actually, substituting braised duck for beef is a dandy idea, but rather than moist shreds of meat stewed in sauce atop a bed of steaming white rice — the inherent appeal of the traditional rendition — the duck and "sticky coconut" rice (neither sticky nor particularly coconutty) came layered and molded into the sort of namby-pamby prefab entrée one might expect to be handed on an airline tray. Two nubs of sweet green plantains tasted as though plucked from a steam table, and a vertical plume of fried plantain strip rising Iwo Jima style from the rice proved an apt symbol for the inadvertently retro nature of the cuisine. The plate also contained squiggles of glowing red goo that tasted vaguely of cinnamon; I pushed the food away from it in the same gingerly way one would steer a strolling child from a puddle.

Duck is also available atop one of the designer pizzas, mixed with a medley of mushrooms, scallions, shredded carrots, mozzarella cheese, and hoisin sauce. I passed on this one — sounded too much like something a Survivor contestant would be forced to eat — and went with the margherita pie, which was burdened by an overly crackerlike crust rim but otherwise savorily sauced and satisfyingly cheesy.

"Latin pad thai" wasn't bad either; the usual mix of rice noodles, peanut sauce, and "Asian veggies" (in this case scallions, carrots, and peppers) was tossed with plump shrimp and squares of chicken breast that were a little overcooked. The Latin infusion comes via chorizo, which contributed a welcome hint of smokiness. While I'm stressing Oriente's positives, let me add that the kitchen crew here presses a heckuva good Cuban sandwich, nicely crisped bread heftily filled with roast pork, ham, mustard, and pickles — and skewered closed with toothpicks bearing large Spanish green olives.

A mojito-glazed twelve-ounce New York strip is plated with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, a grilled tomato, and another crisp fried plantain — not particularly alluring accompaniments, and even less so for $29. You can save a ten-spot by choosing Mongolian beef steak instead, but I wouldn't necessarily suggest doing so. The portion of skirt steak, cut into meaty strips and piled into a large white bowl, was inarguably generous (as are all of the entrées, most of which go for less than $20). But the meat was too heavily marinated in soy and overbearing spices. And although a pair of chopsticks and a Chinese take-out container of fried rice on the side make for a clever presentation, the rice was pale, weak, and mushy — as lifeless as Fidel.

As if dulce de leche cheesecake weren't sweet enough with its thick center of caramelized milk between layers of cream-cheesy fluff, Oriente's signature dessert also comes with a puff of canned, sweetened whipped cream on top, another puff to the side, and is drizzled with a different iridescent red goo, this one's flavor suggestive of Robitussin cough syrup. Another offering, fried cheesecake with guava sauce, is at least original, which is more than one can say for the rest of the lineup of key lime pie, chocolate fudge cake, and crême brulée.

The only sound machine in Gloria and Emilio's lives nowadays is the cash register — Ka-ching! Ka-ching! — each time a tourist takes a seat at Bongos or Casa Larios or Oriente. Actually I'm not at all sure what kind of cut the couple ekes from these eateries, but whatever it is can't be worth the embarrassment they must feel whenever they think of real Cuban people, lured by the Estefan name, actually eating in one of these establishments. Then again, that's easily enough solved: They probably never think of this at all. Oriente is where Cuba meets the Far East, all right — and together they decide to dine someplace else.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein