Granted, we were invited to eat there, so special attention was paid to our table. But it is nevertheless the strongest showing for a restaurant at opening that this writer has experienced. Service was impeccable and the overall dining experience pleasant. Even South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder Lee Schrager, who's already visited a few times and raved about it via Instagram, calling it the restaurant that will put Coral Gables on the map, agrees.
Najat Kaanache is the woman running the show. Prior to arrival in the Magic City, she staged in three Michelin-starred kitchens (Per Se, Noma, French Laundry, Alinea) all around the world, and worked alongside Ferran Adria for two years leading up to El Bulli's last and dreaded supper. When asked what she took away from her role models, Kaanache responded by "saying each one taught me something different. With Grant I learned that I am not crazy. Ferran taught me to listen to the little girl inside me and let my imagination run wild."
She has taken all of this and applied it at Merrick Park's newest restaurant. But don't expect to find molecular gastronomy here – the menu is mostly traditional — although Kaanache has a few tricks up her sleeve.
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Wet your whistle (and appetite) by starting off with some spirited beverages. To honor Spain, a mammoth gin tonic is offered and spiked with thyme and grapefruit bitters ($14). Other cocktails include sangria of the day (go for the traditional – it's divine), Frodo's garden (Bombay Dry, heirloom tomatoes, broken basil, Spanish olive oil & cracked peppercorns; $16), cucumber gimlet, or spiced melonada (Grey Goose Le Melon, cantaloupe, and lime cordial; $14). The latter was the favorite of the evening.
If you do go for a gin tonic, you'll get to see the blast chiller in action, which primps the glass by frosting it to the point of cool perfection.
In Spain, it's customary for every meal to start off with gazpacho. At Piripi, the cold Andalusian soup ($8) isn't what I was used to growing up (this one's spiked with sweet and sour watermelon, spicy garlic, and has a chunkier consistency), but it does what it's trying to do extremely well and had me finish my bowl faster than anyone else at the table.
Padrones fritos ($10.50) had more blistered hot green peppers in one batch than what's typical, which was a nice and unexpected surprise. Thankfully the idiazabal cheese brings it down a bit.
House-cured salmon (done in the gentle style of he Pyrenees mountains) with cherry tomatoes, house-made cream cheese, and pea shoots ($12).
The salad dubbed "hobbit on the Shire" ($14) is a work of art itself. Once you get past taking in its natural beauty, go ahead and eat the menagerie of petite vegetable ribbons and tips, avocado mousse, cherry tomatoes, roasted beet medallions baby carrots, and txakoli-limoncello-ginger granite. If it sounds like a mouthful, it is.
Wild mushrooms are sautéed in txakoli (a light sparkling white Spanish wine), and idiazabal cheese ($14) were magical (not in that kind of way).
Navajas (razor clams) are typically grilled with garlic and lemon, but these come with horchata (a traditional nut milk drank during the summer months in Spain) and cilantro ($16). The juxtaposition of both flavors (shellfish and nutmilk) and texture (velvety and slimey) works against all odds.
No Spanish meal is fully complete without sucking some prawn heads, and at Piripi, the succulent sea crustaceans have been seared in garlic and are chockfull of flavor ($28).
"Fideos" de jamon ($22), although no longer on the menu, can be ordered by special request or in Piripi's private dining room dubbed Lola via a special chef's menu experience. Perhaps the only molecular type dish we sampled, Kaanache has fashioned "noodles" from ham broth and accompanied them with a poached egg, saffron, and more some magical mushrooms (cause you can never have enough).
Paellas have a special part on the menu with about a handful of rice dishes ranging from fixings like wild rabbit and naked chicken to the calamari and squid ink. We devoured the "meloso con bogavante," which flooded a paella pan with generous amounts of lobster, crawfish, and shrimp. The rice itself has a soup like consistency and was oozing with flavor. The price is per person ($39), and there's a minimum of two servings for any paella. It was hands down the best dish of the night and possibly even one of the best paella's in town.
Bacalao al pil pil ($26) was the only disappointment of the evening. The key to the classic and delicate Basque seafood dish of cod, garlic, olive oil, and peppers lies in getting the pil pil sauce to thicken, and unfortunately that along with no outstanding flavors was the case here.
Tokaji dessert wine is what they'd give the Pope on his deathbed to bring him back to life. That's just one of the many tidbits we learned from sommelier, beverage director, and ball of knowledge Matt Reiser. Feel free to pick his brain about any of the 100 bottles of organic and boutique wines, half of which are priced at under $60. Now there's something to cheers to.