Restaurant Reviews

Sittin' on Tapa the World

In a Mexican restaurant some years ago, my sister and I were scraping up the last of our guacamole with tortilla chips and slurping what was left of our salt-rimmed cocktails. We hadn't been spending much time together, so we were content to be doing something we both loved -- eating and drinking.

"Anything else?" the waiter asked, as waiters do.
"Yes," my sister said. "We'd like another round."
"Two more margaritas coming right up," he promised.
"No," Betsy corrected him. "I mean the appetizers."

I was aghast, and not just because we'd already consumed enough salsa and refried beans to fuel a hot-air balloon. We're devoted sweets fans. At this point, we should have been primed for dessert -- flan, maybe, or some churros. Since when, I asked her, did we desserters prefer real calories to empty ones?

"In certain situations," my sister the traitor replied. "You'll see."
Choosing an extra appetizer over an end-of-the-meal sweet is not a policy I thought I'd ever endorse. Like giving up your cigarette with your coffee, it couldn't be done. But I did begin to light my way to it a few years later when I dated a confirmed apps-man. At our first lunch together, he ordered four starters and two main courses, leaving no room, either on the table or in our stomachs, for dessert. I married him anyway. (You can imagine the fights in our house.) Still, I wasn't convinced of the merits of feasting on appetizers instead of finishing with dessert until I dined at Uva Wine Bar & Eatery, a six-week-old Spanish-Italian restaurant on SW Eighth Street at Ponce de Leon Boulevard, where the tapas are superb, the main courses are distinguished, and the desserts suck.

Perhaps Uva hasn't concentrated on the after-dinner portion of the menu because tapas, and the California and European vintages that complement them, are its main focus. Or because most sweets don't pair well with table wines (unless you're drinking port or dessert wine). But Uva served my guests and me a disc of flan so rubbery it could have doubled as a Frisbee. A rummy chocolate cake dotted with candied fruit wasn't much better, stale and refrigerator-burnt. But having made the best of Uva's tapas and starters offerings, we didn't really care.

Though an Italian from the province of Tuscany by birth and upbringing, chef-owner Vasco Cecchi moved to Cuba after World War II as a young man. The coastal Spanish influence shows at Uva, where the tapas are Old World traditional, utilizing the staple seafoods: anchovy, octopus, and squid. Not to mention the Latin-Caribbean overtones. Crabmeat empanadas were three deep-fried turnovers served with a chunky marinara sauce. Chicken, mushroom, or spinach empanadas also are available. While the amount of stuffing was underwhelming, the crab was fresh and tasted mild and sweet, while the skin of the empanadas was airy and completely grease-free.

Ditto the polenta with porcini mushrooms. The appetizers section of the menu states that this is "the lightest creation of cornmeal that will ever stick to your ribs." I'm automatically suspicious of oxymoronic assertions, but this one happens to be true. A half-dozen sticks of fried polenta were smothered in dark porcini mushrooms and a whole lot of garlic; despite this damp cloak, the cornmeal presented a crisp outer layer and a smooth, porridgelike inside. Filling, yes. But captivating.

Meatballs the size of cherry tomatoes doused in a garlic-heavy tomato sauce were rich and flavorful, with an ideal ratio of seasoning and bread crumbs to ground meat. Fried calamari, one of three squid preparations, was another generous starter. Lightly battered and flash-fried, the rings of body meat were remarkably tender, the tentacles pliant enough to cut with a fork. The portion was garnished with cut lemons and a ramekin filled with the aforementioned tangy marinara. Other seafood selections included slightly sandy but savory clams in a sherry sauce loaded with garlic. Buffalo shrimp, which the menu warns are messy and spicy, were neither, especially because we ate them with forks. Blanketed in a tomato sauce studded with garlic and dime-size caper berries, the four very large shrimp boasted excellent flavor despite the lack of promised piquancy.

Although it's quite possible to make a meal from tapas and wine alone, Uva's salads and entrees shouldn't be neglected. We sampled an interesting and tasty panzanella salad, marinated bread served with white beans, tomatoes, and onions. The bread was spongy with vinegar and oil but not mushy, and the bean mixture was a textural accomplishment. Chunks of tuna were listed in the menu description but failed to make an appearance. Unfortunately, that quibble is moot: The dish has been scratched from the menu. Perhaps the kitchen can be persuaded to run it as a special from time to time.

Seafood salad "Uva" style was an attractive presentation that seems destined to become a mainstay. Shellfish marinated in olive oil and citrus juices (like ceviche) were laid out on a bed of radicchio. Two succulent jumbo shrimp curled around each other in the middle of the plate, while mussels and bay scallops, which were both just a touch oversaturated with the marinade, alternated around the edges. Exceedingly tender rings of squid meat stood up best to the citrus, absorbing just enough of the liquid to be flavored but not dominated by it.

The same delightfully fresh squid enlivened a special, a bowl of spinach fettuccine threaded with tomatoes and garlic. The homemade pasta was fantastic, coiled and springy, the sauce light and savory. The kitchen kindly split this into two portions for us, with the end result that each half looked -- and ate -- like a full meal. Quite a bargain for the $12.50 price tag, the mean around which the risotto, pappardelle, lasagna, and gnocchi (in addition to other pasta dishes) all hover.

Under the heading "Main Focus," meat, chicken, and fish dishes are reasonably priced, too. We ordered pork chops with spicy beans, in actuality more of a single tenderloin than plural chops. A little too well-done for our taste (we'd ordered it medium-rare), the meat was nevertheless juicy. Moderately spiced with pepper, the pork was enhanced by a layer of the by-now familiar white beans and diced tomatoes.

Hunter-style chicken also suffered from too much cooking. Three pieces of chicken on the bone were dry underneath a lovely sauce, rich with mushrooms, salty black olives, chopped tomatoes, and wine. The fragrance and flavor of this hearty dish were tantalizing, worth ordering if only for the inhalation of pungent steam. Sides of sliced carrots, buttery and sweet, and fresh steamed broccoli and cauliflower accompanied the main courses.

Owing to the newness of the place, the wine cellar had not been completely stocked upon my visits. But vintages are arriving daily, it seems. And while the list is a bit shorter than one might expect, it's also fairly select, encompassing my favorite Cakebread and St. Francis cabernets, and for the vinophobic, imported beers. A wines-by-the-glass menu, I'm told, is in the works, and wine-tastings will soon be paired with cigar-samplings in a room upstairs.

Uva's menu isn't the only element in the restaurant that demands decision-making. The question of where to sit presents a dilemma, as well. Patrons can order tapas in the bar area, a comfortable section of the restaurant that is equipped with couches along the wall, round cocktail tables embossed with wine labels, and two unintrusive television sets for the sporting crowd. The (full liquor) bar itself is square, made of varnished wood, brass railings, and brick columns.

But first-timers should do the dining room, for to miss the decor in this stunning area would be to shortchange oneself of the Uva experience. A vaulted ceiling is made of ocher-hued bricks, casting an earthy glow on diners' faces. Verdigris light fixtures recessed into the walls give off dim light. Each table is covered by maroon linen and topped with green wire-and-wicker baskets that hold salt shakers and pepper grinders, cruets of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and packets of long, thin breadsticks. And on the back wall, the purported reason for Uva's existence -- a mural of grapes and grape vines, framing the glassed-in wine racks. The same artist is currently fashioning another mural, this one depicting a wine cellar. Only problem is she's painted the doors of the restrooms, and it's nearly impossible to discern the difference between wall and door. (And I was sober.)

Those of you who choose a place to eat based on its desserts may not want to attempt Uva. But I've been converted, for good this time. While I may not have seen the door to the ladies' room, I've certainly seen the light.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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