Return of the Prodigal Chef

Chefs these days have two choices: Open up your own place, or work for someone else -- restaurateur, hotel, or corporation. Both options require dedication and long hours, but the first also demands vision, good business sense, a well-trained staff, an eye for decor, and cash to make it happen. Some chefs are happy working for others, but a controlled environment tends to dampen creativity and drive. So most chefs dream of owning and running their own place. But few make it that far.

Eduardo Pria was one of the lucky ones. In January 1993, he founded the upscale gourmet Mexican restaurant Eduardo de San Angel in Fort Lauderdale with his three brothers Jose, Luis, and Rafael, and their mother, Ana Mary Pria. They designed the 75-seat eatery and adjoining bar to look like a hacienda -- one where heads of state might be served at secluded tables by tuxedoed waiters. The stucco walls are hung with plates, photos of turn-of-the-century Mexico, and Ana Mary's vibrant oil paintings. When they were kids, the Pria brothers helped their father run a restaurant in their native Mexico City. After he passed away, Ana Mary took over the operation, developing her own recipes and teaching them to her children.

Her passion for cooking inspired two of her sons to attend culinary institutions. Eduardo, the eldest of the four, was schooled in Madrid, Luis in Mexico. Luis eventually became a pilot for a commercial airline, but Eduardo stuck with cooking; he headed to South Florida, where he worked as an executive chef in restaurants such as The Down Under in Fort Lauderdale and the country club at Williams Island in Miami. But after years of working for others, Eduardo, then age 39, was desperate to strike out on his own. He recruited his family to help out, and from the beginning, Eduardo de San Angel has been one of the most well-regarded restaurants in the state, winning awards and rave reviews for its haute cuisine.

Earlier this year, however, Eduardo started thinking that he'd like to spend more time with his wife and two-year-old son. In April he did what most ambitious chefs would consider sacrilegious and/or professional suicide: He left his namesake behind and became vice president of food and beverage at the Original Sci Fi Cafe and Explorium, which will open in December in Fort Lauderdale.

While his family supported his decision and decided to continue operating the restaurant without him, those of us who dine at Eduardo de San Angel were understandably concerned. It appeared as if the creative force behind the restaurant was gone. What most of us didn't know is that brother Luis cooked alongside Eduardo for almost six years while their siblings managed the front of the house. Eduardo may be gone, but Luis remains -- as does the talent behind the piquant fare.

These days, when somebody mentions Mexican food, the Taco Bell Chihuahua comes to mind. So it's tough, if you're not acquainted with genuine Mexican cuisine, to be open-minded about entrees such as las crepas de cuitlacoche, ancho chili-flavored crepes stuffed with cuitlacoche, serrano chilies, and onions and dressed in a squash-blossom sauce. Cuitlacoche is a dark-hued fungus that grows on corn and tastes like mushrooms. Squash blossoms are frilly flowers that bloom on squash plants; they have a mild flavor and silky texture and aren't very common in the United States. In Mexico, however, these exotic-sounding ingredients make for typical dishes. The crepes we had at Eduardo de San Angel were not only authentic, they were delicious. The musky filling was tempered by a just-creamy sauce, which featured asadero, a whole-milk cheese from northern Mexico.

Other dishes demand a thorough knowledge of chili peppers. The el chile relleno de salmon, for example, made use of two peppers. First, a whole poblano -- a fresh, semihot, green-black pepper -- was hollowed out and filled with a rich North Atlantic salmon mousse. Then, an ancho chili -- the wrinkled, dried version of the poblano -- was combined with pungent Panela cheese for a savory sauce. The texture of the fleshy poblano contrasted beautifully with the softer mousse and sauce.

An entree, en filete de pescado a la barbacoa, incorporated the lesser-known mulato chili, which looks like a poblano when it's fresh but is usually sold dried. This medium-hot chili was blended with citrus juices and brushed over a fillet of red snapper. The fish was then grilled over mesquite to infuse it with extra flavor, and accompanied by a jicama-jalapeno salad and juicy mango salsa.

Although regional Mexican ingredients add flair to Eduardo de San Angel's dishes, the focus is often an American piece of fish or game. One entree, la gallinita con mole poblano, featured rock Cornish hen from Arkansas. The small bird was split and roasted, the crisp skin glazed with a complex Puebla-style mole sauce. The dozen or so chili peppers and spices in the chocolate-based mole sauce lent the poultry pizzazz.

Las chuletas de cordero a la parrilla, featuring Colorado lamb chops, were grilled and brushed with a cilantro pesto and finished with tomatillo (green tomato) and guajillo chili (dried, with a smoky, earthy flavor) sauces. They were quality lamb chops, but they were too charred on the outside. Featured in la ensalada de calamares were Boston Bay calamari. Succulent rings were grilled over mesquite and scattered among baby greens, which were garnished with pickled red onions and a zingy chipotle chili vinaigrette.

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