Pleasingly Peru

For those who love to dine out, strolling along Giralda Avenue in Coral Gables is like being a kid again and traipsing through the aisles of a candy store -- a global one at that, with alluringly packaged delights from Spain (La Dorada), Italy (La Gastronomia), Vietnam (Miss Saigon), and so forth. Giralda Café is the Peruvian selection, and might be considered the chewing gum of the block: less gaudy and expensive than the rest, but gratifying to a positively habit-forming degree.

Painted lettering upon the storefront windows reads, "Giralda Café, International and Peruvian Cuisine," but if you peer through the glass it appears to be more wine shop than dining establishment. Wooden crates and cardboard cases filled with mostly South American bottles, sold retail, take up the restaurant's entranceway, and like stage props, provide the requisite setting and mood -- that of a quaintly cluttered Old World bistro.

You can't discount the disarmingly charming ambiance when discussing Giralda Café. The long rectangular space is dimly lit, the floor made up of wide planks of darkly worn pine, the tables covered with white butcher paper atop red linens. Wooden shelves on pale, mustard-colored stucco walls are chock-a-block with sizable antique tchotchkes, and a wooden bar stretches nearly from front to back along the right side of the room. Congenial, reposeful, and snug, the eatery is equally viable for an informally romantic dinner for two or a large party of rambunctious revelers. The atmosphere, in fact, practically begs you convert a couple of those wine bottles from inert props into a starring role with your meal; so do those retail prices ($4.50-$29), and a corkage fee of only two dollars.


Giralda Caf

254 Giralda Ave, Coral Gables; 305-448-6064.

Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

While Giralda Café's cuisine may play second fiddle to the endearing environment, much of it is first-rate just the same: Fresh, packed with full flavors, and true to classic recipes from Peru. The allegiance to tradition manifests itself in a causa rellena appetizer, which some Miami restaurants reinterpret with all manner of fancy fillings. Here the classic dish is presented as in Lima: a saffron-soaked torte of fluffy mashed potatoes layered with savory seasoned tuna.

Another potato starter, papa a la huancaina, sports chunks of boiled potato draped in a bright yellow sauce made from milk, soft cheese, and aji amarillo, a spicy Peruvian pepper that contributes the color and kick; a hard-boiled egg slice serves as garnish. This plate works within the context of sharing, but how much tuber do you want to partake of before the main course? Fried yuca and choclo (large, white Peruvian corn kernels) likewise come covered in huancaina.

An exemplary fried calamari, with thick, ultracrunchy battered crust, is one of a number of appetizers culled from the deep-fryer; shrimp, chicken, and corvina also get the chicharron treatment. Other starters include a tamal that, though tasty, lacked much else besides the husk-steamed, cilantro-green masa; anticuchos, or skewers of marinated heart kebabs, which is a true Peruvian specialty, but not for the faint of heart; and a fantastic dish of tenderly poached slices of octopus enlivened with vinegar and immersed in an emulsified olive sauce colored kalamata-purple.

Most diners choose to start with ceviche, the most familiar of Peruvian delights. Giralda Café trots out the usual lineup of lime-and-cilantro-marinated seafoods, like shrimp, scallops, octopus, and corvina -- alone or in tandem with one another. We tried the corvina ceviche straight up, small cubes of firm-fleshed fish flecked with choclo and capped with thinly sliced, pickled red onions; a soft wedge of cold sweet potato came on the side. You can also order tiraditos, which are ceviches that are sliced rather than diced.

Giralda's seafood-intense menu goes on for pages, but the number of base ingredients is actually quite limited. Corvina, for instance, is the only fish offered, though it comes deep-fried, broiled, stewed, and sautéed, with sundry sauces such as tomato, garlic, picante, or cilantro. Shrimp is prepared in similar ways, and along with other shellfish such as mussels and scallops (plus squid) gets teamed with corvina in various dishes. In jalea de mariscos they arrive, like the fried calamari starter, crisply coated and neatly fried, along with wedges of fried yucca; in pescado sudado con mariscos they stew together with tomatoes and onions; in picante de mariscos the same cast is adrift in a different red sauce, one with potent postbite piquancy. Peruvian fare is one of Latin America's spiciest, though you wouldn't know it from dining here -- unless the menu item contains the word "picante," this kitchen tends toward timidity when applying heat. Problem is, not many "picante" meals are proffered, and they were all out of aji de gallina, translated as "spicy chicken stew."

Beef offerings are few, but include a grilled churrasco flank steak, served with vibrant green chimichurri and a clean, classical version of lomo saltado, the time-honored Peruvian sauté of sliced flank steak with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and French fries; tacu-tacu con lomo eliminates the fries in favor of steamed white rice speckled with white beans.

Service was lax and lousy during an initial visit, on our return a little bit better -- how well you are served is simply a matter of which waiter you get, and if he is in the mood to work. Management is nonexistent. And trust me, you don't want to have to call Giralda Café to get information regarding a review -- I lost count of how many times I was put on hold for extended periods, and how often someone would then, on the other end, hang up. On one occasion, a woman picked up the phone and said she'd get the chef -- she wouldn't tell me his/her name. After twenty minutes she finally picked up the phone again but had forgotten who I was, and then informed me that the chef had left. No apology. This is why, after eight dialups, I still cannot tell you the so-called chef's name.

The description of suspiro a la limeña as "a puff of whipped egg whites that get poached," sounded like the French dessert, oeufs à la neige, or "floating islands" -- and that's just what it turned out to be. Actually perhaps it was closer to a "bathing island," as a custardy crme anglaise, along with caramelized sugar syrup, draped the free-form meringue -- usually the sauce forms a pale yellow pool upon which the island "floats." When prepped too far in advance, the meringue can turn spongy, but when performed flawlessly, as this rendition was, it is the cotton candy of desserts -- evaporating without a trace upon contact with the tongue, but imprinting a deliciously sweet sensation. Dining at Giralda Café likewise left a lovely lingering impression, though incredibly rude phone manners by owner and staff needlessly added a bitter aftertaste.

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