It all began with Douglas Rodriguez, widely recognized as the godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine. Then came Alberto Cabrera of the recently refurbished Bread + Butter and the upscale Cuban sandwich spot Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Co., who has taken up the mantle.
Now, near Cabrera's Coral Gables spot, Lilia "Fifi" Molina, the chef and owner of MesaMar Seafood Table (264 Giralda Ave., 305-640-8448), has been looking to put a delicate touch on the seafood dishes that make up an important part of Latin gastronomy. Since opening MesaMar early this summer, she has teamed up with Versailles owner Felipe Valls Sr. to bring a handful of the beloved dishes from Fifi's Place — New Times' best under-the-radar restaurant in 2009 — to this ritzy part of the Gables.
The carryover that stands out most is the whole fish ($27 per pound), prepared as you like and presented with the deboned body fried and propped upright. On a recent weeknight, a server hauled a one-and-a-half-pound hog snapper out to the dining room for inspection. With bright red gills and clear eyes, it was a perfect specimen. Molina has long relied on fisherman such as Yunieski Gonzalez, a former Cuban free-diving champ, to bring the bounty of the sea to her.
In some cases, however, Molina strays from what works best. A pair of misguided sushi rolls squeezed items like caramelized cashews, capers, and cream cheese into a place they should never have been. The menu also leans heavily toward Peru and its Asian influences, with classic ceviches and sashimi-style offerings dressed in yuzu, ponzu, and miso. A humble bowl of lobster bisque ($10) tasted more of cream than any rich lobster stock. Yet the kitchen made up for it with plenty of sweet knuckle meat, and a hefty-size knot showed up in nearly every spoonful.
A cazuela de mariscos ($28) was served in a tangy tomato broth amped up with a hefty dose of white wine that provided some fruity richness. The bouquet of seafood — shrimp, scallops, Florida middleneck clams, and a generous corvina fillet — was cooked perfectly, a seemingly impossible task. The accompanying out-of-the box fettuccine was tossed in a pungent combination of butter, olive oil, and garlic and made a fine stand-in for the usual white rice.
What stands out most here is the service. Waiters are effortlessly polite and attentive, clearing and resetting tables midmeal while double-checking every need throughout each course. It's enough to rival the service at Italian standby Caffe Abbracci just down the road, which has long been heralded for its waitstaff. Combine that with some of the simple, precise seafood, leave out the fusion, and MesaMar could become one of the best tables in the Gables.
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