Depressionist Culinary Art

About a year and a half ago, Andrea Meza decided to turn her Meza Fine Art Gallery in Coral Gables into a gallery café that would feature fine art, fine music, and fine "global" food. A fine idea. The handsome gallery/dining room of Meza Fine Art gallerycafé, which seats about 40, is sleek in white and gray, with a large blue-glass mobile hanging from the ceiling, Persian carpets on the floor, and a tasteful flower arrangement atop the grand piano that sits on a "stage" at the front right side of the restaurant. More tables line a creamy apricot-color corridor that leads to a stylish bar in back.

A manager, or perhaps he was the maitre d', served as the waiter for most of our initial visit. He didn't mention what the soup of the day was (cream of green pea), didn't articulate the food well, didn't refill water glasses. He wasn't impolite but his attitude was suggestive of having better things to do than cater to us, even though the only other people in the room were two musicians playing jazz. Not the case on a Friday return, when the tables and bar were filled, and we had an official, personable waiter from the start. Unfortunately he too neglected to tell us the soup of the day (bouillabaisse), and never returned to refill wine glasses. Although the menu brags that "with respect to the culinary philosophy we zealously uphold, each day we research and propose new 'Special' dishes," we were not informed of any during either trip. I don't know if that's attributable to waiter lapse, or if chef Luis Contreras (former executive chef of Yuca in South Beach) didn't prepare any.

A wood and wire-mesh bread basket of warm rolls came not with butter or olive oil, but dull, dry strips of sesame-coated eggplant. The starter of "tantalizing tostones" that followed, also parched, was ordered partly to sate our curiosity as to how a "lobster enchilada" could be "stuffed" into a "crispy green plantain." Of course it wasn't. The trio of twice-fried tostones shaped into bite-size cups was filled with morsels of savory lobster and minced vegetables. A sauce (like on an enchilada?) would have added moistness and flavor, and might also have made the dish more cohesive as an appetizer, less like a plate of hors d'oeuvres. Beef carpaccio ($9.95) was better, even if we did have to wait more than 30 minutes for it. The waiter never came by to explain the delay until we flagged him down and asked, at which point he confided that they had "dropped the plate" in the kitchen and had to start again. How long could it take to prepare raw beef, even twice? Eventually room-temperature slices of tenderloin with ripe crescents of avocado, shards of Parmesan, and a drizzle of fruity olive oil found its way to us, and it was good. So were pimientos del piquillo ($9.95) -- three roasted red peppers stuffed with chorizo and porcini mushrooms -- though the spicy sausage masked the mushrooms' presence, and the promise of a "pool of Cabrales cheese au gratin" was never fulfilled; the peppers were pooled in a light cream sauce.


Meza Fine Art gallerycaf

275 Giralda Ave, Coral Gables; 305-461-2723.

Open for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 3:00 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday 6:00 to 11:00 p.m.

Main courses, four selections each of fish, meat, pasta, and risotto, were mediocre at best, that best being mahi-mahi wrapped in a banana leaf and oven-poached with "mussels, capers, red onions, red peppers, cilantro, and a splash of chardonnay" ($22.95). The thick fillet of dolphin was juicy and flavorful, with one plump shrimp the unannounced mussel substitute. Our other seafood choice was corvina, a lean, white-flesh member of the "weakfish" family from the shores of Central and South America. The menu describes the dish as "The Old Man and the Sea," the tale of a "pan -seared cilantro-dusted corvina over a ripe plantain ring, sailing on a lobster broth and avocado salad." Had the kitchen actually cilantro-dusted and pan-seared the fish, it might have made for a more exciting story. As it was the corvina was blandly seasoned and lightly sautéed, the lobster-mirin broth and minced avocado salsa lackluster supporting characters; the plantains were tasty. The fillet also was way too small: The old man would have thrown this one back into the sea.

Lord knows what he would have done with the "risotto de zetas," a dreadfully pasty plate of rice. Maybe he could've used it to patch his boat. What should have contained porcinis, portobellos, and shiitakes, boasted mostly white button mushrooms -- for $17.95. An infusion of white truffle oil added some of the wild, musty flavor of the missing 'shrooms, but the rice was unsalvageable. "Gallerycafé veal," thinly pounded cutlets puffily breaded and fried, were topped with warm, not-quite-ripe tomato slices and asparagus spears (also $17.95). Not bad, but boring; like the tostone appetizer, it needed saucing. Braised red cabbage, thin slices of roast potato, and raw julienne carrots that came on the side were nothing to talk about either, nor were potato gaufrettes and chive shoots that served as vertical garnishes on many of the plates. It's surprising that a gallery dealing in visual art can't come up with more interesting presentations than that.

Actually the coconut crème brûlée ($6.95) was eye-pleasing, attractively cupped in a coconut shell with a detached cap of caramelized sugar. Tasted fine, too, but the consistency was way too loose. A couple of crêpes filled with dulce de leche likewise were served with a twist, in this case a blanket of blue flames fueled by 151 rum. Nice effect, but they would have been tastier with a less dominant liquor, and with the addition of something else (ice cream, whipped cream, sauce ...). The check for two appetizers, two main courses, and two desserts, minus wine, beverages, or tip, came to just under $90. That included a $10 cover for the live music. Thankfully they didn't further plump the bill with an admission fee to view the paintings on the walls, not that there was anything wrong with the series of gauzy, brown- and gold-tone Impressionistic landscapes. Nothing wrong with the music, either. The priority of a "fine food" restaurant, though, is to assemble a well-trained, professional service staff that proffers real, fine, food. On that count it seems gallerycafé has been putting the art before the course.

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