Sweet Berries Without the Thorns

Eating your way through the creations served in Miami's restaurants is a lot like picking wild berries. Sometimes what you're faced with are immature and not ready for consumption. Sometimes they're plain rotten. Sometimes — Ouch! — they're surrounded by thorns; just being near them hurts.

But other times they're damn near perfect — sweet, ripe, bursting with juice, tasting so fresh, clean, and wholesome they make up for the crummy ones and the disgusting ones and all the little stickers that drew blood.

In other words — sometimes — they're like Berries, a hugely likable and surprisingly good restaurant on the less hoity-toity fringes of Coconut Grove.



2884 SW 27th Ave, Coconut Grove

305-448-2111. Open Sunday 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

I mean, what's not to like? The food is tasty, well prepared, agreeably priced, and dished up in portions large enough to require their own area code. The staff is competent and friendly (except the Paris Hilton-in-training at the front door). There's a big, comfy outdoor patio; a small roster of inexpensive and eminently drinkable wines (try a bottle of the Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc for $22); and even live jazz twice a week. A damn near perfect berry indeed.

Before ordering, consider how hungry you are. Berries' appetizers are the size of many other restaurants' entrées and its entrées the size of two-course dinners. A starter of fried calamari demonstrates the kitchen's skill and is easily enough for two. The diminutive rings and tentacles are lightly breaded, greaseless, golden, and barely require chewing. They come with a decent marinara sauce and what's billed as "Thai aioli," though it tastes more like a Creole rémoulade. No complaints, however. It's a fine rémoulade (or, if you insist, Thai aioli).

Roasted garlic hummus is another dish sized for two. It's creamy rather than pasty, and the garlic flavor is pronounced, albeit mellowed by roasting, but it does sneak up and deliver a subtle chili bite.

The short list of pastas contains a house signature: angel hair with marinara, cherry tomatoes, spinach, chicken, and portobellos. Not the most adventuresome, but nicely done — the pasta al dente, the spinach and tomatoes retaining their individual character, the chicken tender, and the chunks of portobello firm and meaty.

A day's special of mojo-marinated pork loin was really something special. The chili-infused marinade gave the pork a tangy, piquant edge that resulted in spectacularly moist and flavorful meat. It came garnished with a little pickled red onion and bulked up by pungent garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach that was as precisely and sensitively cooked as the cream of green glop served at many local steak houses isn't.

It somehow seemed appropriate to end with a big slab of good old American chocolate cake. Berries' milk chocolatey version falls somewhere between Mom's mix and chef's flourless on the chocoholic scale — not overly dense but not too insubstantial either. And, of course, the piece is huge. You may consider taking it home for the local kids to use as a skateboard ramp, but it tastes too good to waste.

Just like those berries, the ones without the thorns.

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