Restaurant Reviews

Good Move

Now that the performing arts center is finally operational, how soon will it be before the rest of the much-vaunted downtown Miami gentrification process happens? How soon until the area becomes a genuine 24/7 urban center with relatively sophisticated people walking the streets and enjoying nice restaurants and civilized amenities at all hours?

Not soon enough for the three young, vibrant Valderrama sisters who ran Lila's Bistro, on SE First Avenue, from 2003 until early this year. Surrounded by a sea of scuzzy steam-table joints and fast-food stands, Lila's, which featured clean California-cool décor and eclectic, globally inspired food at budget prices, was a real find. Sadly, though, few diners found it. Reasons included a hidden courtyard location, invisible from the street, and a nonexistent marketing budget. But largely the place was just ahead of its time, a charmingly trendy eatery in a low-rent area that still resembled a Third-World capital (and one that shut down when businessfolk departed at 5:00 p.m.). "We tried opening for dinner, opening on Saturday, but it didn't work," says oldest sis, Rosa. "We hoped downtown would turn into a real downtown, New York- or Chicago-style, but it didn't happen. We just couldn't hold out."

Downtown's loss is the Gables' gain. Rechristened Mama Lila's Bistro (a tribute to the sisters' grandmother), the restaurant opened in early September in a warm, welcoming space vacated by short-lived Vida. All three sisters are still there — Rosa running the front of the house, chef Elisa and sous chef Lili in the kitchen — while a fourth sister, actress Roberta Valderrama (a star of the new TBS series 10 Items or Less, premiering November 27), helped organize a budget-friendly wine list.

The general cooking style is the same too: simple yet creative American with Asian, Latin, and Mediterranean influences. Also from the old place are many favorite dishes, as well as the delightful touches that make them unusually appealing, such as the savory homemade olive tapenade, instead of plain old butter, that arrived with the bread basket. And basic BLT or club sandwiches are transformed into something special by impeccable housemade mayonnaise — a labor-intensive nicety usually found only in the most perfectionist fine-dining establishments. In a casual neighborhood spot, that touch bespeaks a mind-blowing degree of dedication.

What's new, aside from location, are expanded hours and a somewhat expanded selection to accommodate the dinner crowd. My party mulled over the menu, which featured a new stuffed mushroom appetizer that was generous (eleven flavorful creminis — no common button 'shrooms here) but disappeared fast; a melt-in-your-mouth filling of Serrano ham-flecked mascarpone and cream cheese made the bite-size bits irresistible. Neither could we resist Elisa's signature cilantro-spiked jalapeño, chicken, and cheddar soup — an old favorite. A new starter-size walnut bistro salad was also wonderful, thanks to a plentiful portion of glazed nuts plus a lightly applied goat cheese vinaigrette.

An equally unique sweet onion dressing, similar to but more subtle than honey-mustard vinaigrette, enhanced Lila's chicken salad. Topping a bed of greens, red grapes, and Muenster cubes, the main ingredient was not typical mayo-bound stuff but a thinly sliced whole chicken breast that's nut-crusted and baked, making it a tasty entrée for high-protein dieters. If carbs don't matter, the Oriental noodle stir-fry (al dente linguine with bok choy, scallions, garlic, and a touch of zingy red chili, available plain or topped with a protein) is a tasty and filling choice. And if there's still room for dessert, try new specials like homemade chocolate truffles or the sisters' popular souffle chantilly (actually not a souffle but a light cake with almonds, caramel, and whipped cream).

Signing up for the eatery's e-mail list alerts diners to promotions like a coupon awarding free house wine with dinner — a deal that enabled my party to scarf down three starters, two entrées, dessert, and a bottle of robust Chilean Château Lujaise plonk for roughly 40 bucks (before tax and tip). Like the first Lila's, Mama Lila's is a budget-priced find ... just one that's easier to find.

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Pamela Robin Brandt

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