Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Talavera Restaurant - Coral Gables (updated)
(Note: this was first posted November 3, it's been updated after a couple additional visits to the restaurant). I paid a visit to the now-really-actually-open Talavera Restaurant, a new restaurant in Coral Gables opened by the folks who run Jaguar in Coconut Grove on its opening day, and have now been back a couple more times since. Jaguar has been one of the few restaurants in Coconut Grove with any staying power, thanks to an interesting selection of ceviches (cleverly offered in spoon-sized samples if you like to try several) and what I'd found to be a surprisingly decent grab-bag of Latin American entrees, with something of a focus on Mexican dishes. That focus is explained by the fact that owner Lalo Durazo, managing partner Martin Moreno, and partner-executive chef Oscar del Rivero all came from Mexico City. And their new restaurant in Coral Gables, Talavera, hews more closely to an exclusively Mexican theme.
It seemed like they had been working on a space on Ponce de Leon Boulevard forever, and then just in the past couple months the worksite expanded to include the corner that stretches out to Giralda Avenue. They've made good use of the space, too, with a welcoming bar in the front, some tall bar height seating, a plethora of booths and tables, and an open kitchen behind it all. The room is decorated with Talavera pottery, as well as a series of portraits over the bar ranging from Frida Kahlo to masked Mexican lucha libre wrestlers. It's a big open-feeling space, the only drawback being that noise just seems to bounce all over and it was difficult to hear someone on the other side of the table (apparently I wasn't the only one eagerly awaiting this opening, as the place was packed for lunch on their first day open).
The menu is fairly extensive. In light of Jaguar's success, it should come as no surprise that there are a few ceviches items on offer (though not nearly as extensive or exotic as some of Jaguar's choices). But there are also a number of appetizers and salads, several tortas (Mexican sandwiches), a few moles, and additional main course options. They also have several variations on a "signature" item, a "huarache," which is a toasty slab of corn masa shaped like a flip-flop, crowned with a variety of toppings. We were pleased to find a lengthy list of lunch options all priced at $12.
Given that it was opening day, I'm sure some of the kinks will be worked out, so please keep in mind that some of these comments are solely first impressions. I'll highlight additions from my subsequent visits where clarification is needed.
We were started off with some chips and salsa. Salsas (plural), actually, a red and a green, both quite good. The chips on our first visit, on the other hand, were ... interesting. The round, coaster-sized, grey-tinted chips were baked rather than fried, and tasted stale, even though they surely weren't given that it was extremely unlikely they'd had much chance to sit around. I'd say just let me feel guilty about the greasy fried chips later, and bring 'em on. On later visits the basket offered a much-improved variety of chips including some nicely crispy and salty blue corn tortilla versions, and the heat level on the salsas (the green one in particular) had been amped up. I'd take this as a good sign that they don't feel obligated to tone things down for a Coral Gables crowd.
The ceviches come in a regular or "atomica" size, which given that it was priced nearly twice as much I figured was just a heartier portion. Though when we tried to order an "atomica" on our first visit we were told it wasn't available. Huh? It's the same ceviche, no? Maybe they didn't have appropriate serving dishes for it yet. Anyway that gave our table the opportunity to try a couple different variations. My favorite was the "Vuelve a la Vida," the seafood enrobed in a slightly sweet tomato-based sauce, but the "Al Natural" (with clam juice and olive oil) was also good. Both featured a mix of different seafoods. That they have good ceviches will come as no surprise to anyone who has tried Jaguar.
Another good way to start is with their guacamole, which is made to order and served in a big molcajete-shaped Talavera pottery bowl. The guacamole gets a sprinkling of queso fresco for a little variety, and also another interesting addition - some chicharrones for scooping. Nice.
On my first visit, I had a grilled chicken "huarache" off the $12 lunch menu, which brought a big paddle of masa, nicely crisped on the outside, which was topped with a black bean puree, shredded iceberg lettuce, queso fresco, salsa verde, and shingles of grilled chicken breast, with a pool of a dried red chile salsa around it. I liked the idea and the combination of flavors, but the chicken was a bit underseasoned (a sprinkling of guajillo chile powder added more color than heat) and dry. This was something of a common theme on our initial trip, as a companion who ordered a torta with grilled steak also found it undersalted and a bit overcooked. A couple of us got tacos from the lunch menu, which were good but seemed a meager portion for a $12 lunch, particularly because they came without any sides. A little rice, beans, vegetables, or the like would really help round out a meal.
Happily on subsequent visits it seems both issues - timid flavors and lack of accompaniments - were addressed on our return visits. The tacos de chilorio, with a filling of tender, juicy pulled pork that's been cooked with a blend of chiles, spices and a little vinegar, were vibrantly flavorful, and came with a small bowl of Mexican rice and black beans that nicely rounded out the meal. The Quesadilla de Marquesa was not quite at the same level: though I enjoyed the lightly crispy corn tortilla used as a wrapper, the flavors of the filling - chicken, Oaxaca cheese, grilled vegetables - were somewhat indistinct. The huarache has been a hit with everyone I know who's tried it, but the tortas not as much.
It's obvious these folks have restaurant experience because service-wise, this was one of the most seamless opening days I've seen. They were getting slammed for lunch service but everything came out on time and pretty much as ordered. The staff seemed to know the menu well, were there when you needed them, and there were a few folks working the room (including at one point the chef) to make sure everything was going smoothly.
They had apparently only resolved their liquor license issues that morning and so had not yet been able to take in any liquor inventory on opening day, but I suspect when they do so (as they've now done), the bar in front will be a fine place to settle in for a little tequila sampling. I noticed people at several tables drinking their hibiscus iced tea, and understand that ingredient will be making its way into some cocktails as well.
With the stress of opening day now past, I expect that Talavera is going to become a regular rotation place for the Coral Gables crowd. Judging by the bustling dining room I've seen there on subsequent visits, it seems the Gables crowd agrees.
2299 Ponce de Leon
Coral Gables, FL 33134