Restaurant Reviews

Xixon: bigger, better

It is often said dining at an ethnic restaurant is just like being in the country of the fare's origin. It's generally not. But dining at Xixón (shee-SHON) is just like being in Spain. Seriously. Not just because it is owned by a husband-and-wife team from Asturias — Carlos Mattos and Begonia Tuya — or because Spanish is the only language you're likely to hear. This is Miami after all. No, Xixón transports diners across the ocean via the construct, concept, and camaraderie of the place — and then by way of the authentic fare.

Xixón has been serving tapas and Spanish cuisine on Coral Way since 2001. It used to do so from a small and cozy spot on the corner of SW 18th Avenue. Then, around six months ago, it shifted to a new, multifaceted venue a few blocks south. On the main level, facing the entrance, is a long counter where serrano ham, Manchego cheese, and a host of other enviable imports from Spain are displayed and dispensed. A few steps up from the market area is the quieter, more formal of the two dining rooms, which is used to seat large groups; a few steps down from the market is a wine bar replete with about 3,000 Spanish bottles and an enomatic system for computerized one-shot, half-glass, and two-glass pours. (Other wines are poured from bottles by the glass.) This is perfect for the tapas experience.

To the right of the entrance is the epicurean epicenter: a large dining area fronted by a 12-stool tapas bar. The crowd's heady buzz provides a surging soundtrack to bumblebee-like flights of white porcelain plates held aloft by waiters as they weave through the room. Atop those plates: bright, colorful tapas.

The new Xixón is much larger and far more modern than its predecessor, yet it has retained the same warm, family-run ambiance. When the place gets jammed, which is often, diners tarrying for a table or barstool grab drinks and bites from the tapas bar and then search the waiting area for any flat surface to place them. It's like a crowded cocktail party. The vibe is affable and informal, the music and thermostat are set at modest levels, and cheerful chatter reverberates into every corner — so similar to Seville!

Daily specials are spelled out on two blackboards hanging above both ends of the tapas bar but are also listed on a printed sheet that comes with the menu. Some two dozen sandwiches, fríos, and calientes ($7 to $10) are layered with varied combinations of charcuterie and cheeses (serrano, chorizo, cured pork loin, Catalan cured pork sausage, Manchego, Cabrales, and so forth). Iconic pata negra ham is available for those in the know and with the dough ($28 per platter). Tapas, too, are categorized by temperature: ten chilled selections ($2 to $11) and nearly three times as many hot (all but a few from $5 to $10). The former includes white asparagus, white anchovies, assorted seafood, and hefty hunks of grilled octopus with crisp snippets of onions and peppers, each presented in vibrant vinaigrette. Guests curious about less common, more complexly constructed cold tapas can order codfish pâté with piquillo peppers in garlic sauce; salted and pickled anchovies paired with Manchego cheese; or a pâté of black olives and anchovies.

We sampled one simple, impeccably prepared tapa after another. Among them were creamy codfish and chicken croquetas; plump, juicy littleneck clams steamed in garlicky parsley sauce; griddled razor clams; fleshy whole sardines lightly fried; and whole white anchovies prepared in the same manner. There are also slices of spicy chorizo a la sidra, which folks in Seville will tell you means cooked and flamed with hard apple cider. And though I requested the veal cheeks stew during several visits, it was consistently sold out.

There is no such shortage of potato profferings: boiled potatoes in creamy garlic sauce, fiery potatoes in spicy sauce, fried potatoes with either four cheeses or three sauces, and potatoes layered with onions in the classic tortilla española. A tapa consisting of thick planks of boiled potatoes bathed in a lusciously rich and creamy shrimp sauce was fantastic too, except we sampled it as part of a makeup main course: Our codfish with black rice had to be returned because the arroz negro, made with squid ink, was noticeably off. The thick, narrow rectangle of cod was cooked just right — the top attractively bronzed in olive oil, the translucent flakes of fish meltingly moist. The waiter apologized, brought the plate back to the kitchen, and returned asking what we'd like as a substitute side. That's how we came upon the combo of cod with potatoes and creamy shrimp. The three items melded so beautifully (wet as it was, that fish needed a sauce) and looked so inviting that I fully expect to see it listed on the specials board sometime soon.

We were less impressed with an entrée of besugo (sea bream) "with vegetables." The fish was not as fresh as the other seafoods, and the accompaniments were just capers and some limp slivers of zucchini, yellow squash, and tomatoes. Xixón's chef, Jon Gonzalez, and his kitchen crew show such a deft touch with the tapas that it would be surprising if some of the main courses we didn't try weren't a whole lot better than the ones we did. Paella, for instance, looked terrific, served in a shallow Valencian paella pan — an immense one for large groups. That said, tapas here are too good to skip in order to save room for entrées. Plus they match better with the ambiance and are way more fun to eat and to pair with wine.

Soups shine as well, from a bright, traditional gazpacho that comes by the bowl or shot, to a rustic Castilian garlic-and-bread soup potent with slices of the namesake bulb and smokiness from bits of bacon. That the broth came with flecks of charred garlic and a thin film of oil floating on top only added to its peasant charm.

Flan, churros, a spot-on version of rice pudding, and deep-fried slices of milk custard with vanilla ice cream lead the parade of dessert offerings. Some of the others are a bit more eclectic, like marzipan balls (mellower on the almond and sugar than most) in moats of freshly whipped cream drizzled with chocolate syrup, or dense little squares of almost candy-like "fig cake" matched with slices of Manchego.

Service suffers the occasional hiccup, such as taking too long to fill water glasses and wipe down tables. But this is one busy place — diners are apt to request one round of plates, then another, and then another; waiters and waitresses must carry this cavalcade of comestibles to and from the tables at a dizzying, nonstop pace. Under these inherently chaotic circumstances, the staff does quite well. It is also appreciated that the servers don't indulge in needless chatter or incessant inquiry as to how things are, yet manage to be informative, friendly, and polite. Just like in, well, you know.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein