After calling the eight-month-old Cohiba Brasserie in Pembroke Pines, I wasn't too jazzed about my forthcoming visit there. I'd phoned for two reasons -- to find out if reservations were required, given that it was a Saturday evening, and what type of cuisine was served. You know, the normal questions people ask when they have absolutely zero knowledge about a place. And while everyone was perfectly friendly, the answers I received weren't exactly reassuring. I didn't need a reservation but I "could make one if [I] wanted to," and the description of the fare amounted to "a lot of different ingredients from many countries."
Talk about shortchanging yourself. This may be Sales and Marketing 101 for some of us, but had I been the one to pick up an inquisitive phone call from an obvious newcomer, I would've tried just a little more enthusiastically to sell the customer on coming in for a meal. In short, I would have scripted the conversation this way:
Potential Customer: "Hi, would I need a reservation for tonight?"
Jen the Hostess: "Absolutely! Cohiba Brasserie is a very small restaurant, only about 40 seats, and it is increasingly popular with the local fine-dining crowd, who are grateful that they no longer have to drive to Hollywood or South Beach for a contemporary, trend-conscious meal. Not to mention that this is a Saturday evening. We would be delighted to ensure you the opportunity to experience the restaurant."
PC: "Oh, really? What kind of food do you serve?"
JtH: "Well, it's eclectic and hard to describe to people who aren't familiar with global gastronomic perspectives, but mostly I'd say it's a Latin-based fusion cuisine prepared with classic French technique. Of course, there're a few Asian and Caribbean influences thrown in, as befits our regional style. For instance, our pan-seared duck breast is plated with ginger-sweet potato mash, ponzu stir-fry vegetables, and a passion fruit demi-glace. Most intriguing of all is the hint of Spanish avant-garde cooking you'll see in some of the desserts, like the mango espuma (foam) that tops the wild berries macerated in Cointreau."
PC: "Oh, I thought you were a cigar bar. The name sort of threw me."
JtH: "Yes, that's a common misconception. Have you ever heard of the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables? Our chef-owner, Roberto Ferrer, was the chef at the restaurant there for a couple of years before opening this place. He named it Cohiba because in Cuba, where he's from, it means 'excellent.' It's a Taino [native Indian] word, and it was common to utter it after you rolled yourself a really fresh cigar."
PC: "Wow, it sounds great! But I bet there's a lot of smoke, huh?"
JtH: "No, not at all. In fact, though the tables are emblazoned with cigar labels, it's only to promote the 'cohiba' ambience. The only smoking allowed is outside the restaurant. By the way, Chef Ferrer made the tables himself, along with the bar. I'm not sure if he laid down the Italian tile by himself, though. All the rust and green colors are pretty, but those tiles are so hard, not to mention expensive, that they break saws the way cowboys do horses -- for good. And he even installed the tile in the rest rooms!"
PC: "So what's the catch? You must be really expensive."
JtH: "Actually, we're quite reasonable, especially when you consider that Chef Ferrer uses the finest-quality ingredients available -- our carpaccio, for example, includes Black Angus beef and organic arugula, and he uses imported Iranian saffron in his paella -- and the portions are on the generous side of humongous. Even our wine list, which features select bottlings from small, underexposed producers, has low-end wallet appeal, but its $20 to 30 offerings can easily compete with pricier equivalents in other venues. Chef Ferrer believes that diners have a right to appreciate fine food and drink without going bankrupt. He also likes to change the wine list around frequently, so one day you can score a Pinotage from South Africa and another day a Peruvian vintage that is so exclusive that the pope drinks it in the Vatican. Indeed, you should make it a point to sip a glass of Inniskillin Silver eiswein with your dessert of coconut crème brûlée. Chef Ferrer's palate is quite sophisticated, and he personally tastes every wine on the list to make sure it pairs with his dishes."
PC: "Write me down for 8:30. And I'll be bringing my entire extended family."
OK, maybe I wouldn't be that talkative. But you get the point: Given the pedigree behind Cohiba Brasserie and the stunning results of such training to be had there, the restaurant was as grossly undersold as a condo on South Beach was in the 1980s. Ferrer has worked in eateries from the Dominican Republic to Los Angeles; he says he has "great respect," he says, for the top Basque regional chefs who are currently considered the cat's meow.
If such a worldly talent seems to have landed by accident in this very suburban neighborhood of southwestern Broward, think again. Ferrer deliberately chose his shopping-plaza location, convinced that nearby residents were as urbane about food as he is. "I felt that this area needs to have a nice, fine-dining restaurant," he says, "that I could bring to the people the latest of techniques and dishes from Europe."
He felt correctly. Ferrer succeeds on every level, from the homemade Sangría stocked with apples to the "deconstructed" tiramisu -- chocolate-fudge soufflé, mascarpone ice cream, and amaretto-espresso espuma -- except one. Quite simply, the man needs a proofreader, because the inconsistencies on the menu are so numerous and glaring that you don't know when a dish is innovative or simply a spelling error. The carpaccio, for instance, surely comes with ciabatta toast and not "cibata," and the baby "bock choy" is the vegetable and not the dark beer. I vote for the latter with "Peruvian ahi tuna sachimi ceviche." Interpreted as simply as possible, the dish was a mound of sushi-grade tuna marinated with a host of citrus juices and spices, mixed with hunks of buttery, bright avocado, and served in a martini glass for extra effect.
And surely he didn't really mean that the "My Way chicken quesadilla" was partnered with "caramelized sour cream" or that the "Cohiba tenderloin-sausage mixed brochette" would literally be "served on fire."
Well, turns out that, in the latter two cases, he meant exactly what he wrote. The sour cream had been mixed with savory bits of caramelized onions, adding sparks to a rousing example of a chicken quesadilla that was more poultry than paltry. And the brochette was not flambéed but rather set upon a miniature spit that the diner could turn over a butane fire until the desired results were achieved. We didn't let the goods cook for long, as the nuggets of beef were already dripping medium-pink juice, and the skin on the highly flavored sausage hunks was at a perfect textural contrast to the supple interior. A quick dip in the robust horseradish chimichurri was all the meat needed to refuel our incentive, even after our appetites were exhausted.
Indeed, as per the Spanish fad, the menu descriptions didn't, or couldn't, quite match the customer's vision of what a dish would look or taste like. Fortunately, the surprises are all pleasant ones. In other words, while you may not know at the outset that the delicate tongue-shaped slices of beef in the Japanese salad will be raw, you'll be thankful in the end. Layered like carpaccio, the leaves of exquisitely fresh and shockingly tender meat were blanketed with greens tossed in a gently vibrant miso-honey-chipotle dressing. And while no coddled quail eggs in hardened shells of sugar will be in your fish soup, like you might find at the Michelin-starred restaurant La Broche in Madrid (and now in Miami), you will find a quail egg sunny-side up on top of your "one-eyed" giant hamburger. Garnished with bacon, Monterey jack cheese, and sun-dried tomato mayonnaise, that burger numbers among the best I've had this decade.
Oddly, the "eyes" have it when it comes to appetizers as well. The "Korean BBQ 'Three Eye' Spare Ribs" were like ribs that had been shaved by a knife that in television commercials can cut through a can and still slice a tomato afterward. The succulent results looked like a fan of combs -- the bones as handles and the meat hanging down -- and tasted exactly as if they had been cooked on a Mongolian grill set in the center of the table. Large, crunchy onion rings and crispy spinach were intriguing companions to the ribs.
Ferrer can not only handle a wide disparity of ethnic flavors; he can move easily from bufala mozzarella, arugula, and astonishingly good and reasonably priced risotto -- $12! -- spiked with homemade Italian sausage to halibut that was so translucent and cleanly flavored with a lemon grass-saffron broth that it tasted coddled. He also plates dramatic presentations: The red wine/sofrito-braised lamb shank, for example, arrived with the bone pointing upright and stuffed like a vase with fresh herbs. Underneath, the no-knife-required lamb was cushioned with malanga mashed with goat cheese. Topped with "baby tomato mojo" and napped with a rich sauce echoing rosemary and truffles, the concoction was simply stunning. As was the entire dining experience at Cohiba Brasserie, which does its "excellent" if oft-misinterpreted name complete and utter justice.
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