Israel Torres, who opened Brisa with his friend Juan Orozco in October, will tell you that completing a Cuban jazz café wasn't easy. There's only one thing to do, he says, while you're waiting a year for the city to approve your permits to renovate an abandoned house in the marina district. You go fishing.
Torres did. And he sloped around Miami listening to Latin jazz, salsa, rumba, and Afro-Cuban dance music for talent he might persuade to come north. The 45-year-old Torres, a Cuban/Puerto Rican-American with a thick Jersey accent, spent a lot of time thinking about what he was going to do with that abandoned 1934 Key West-style shack on Seventh Avenue. First, he was going to gut the house until nothing was left but a roof, a handful of supporting beams, and that big, luxurious veranda. He was going to open it up to catch the ocean breezes and fill it with candlelight. Then he was going to serve the kind of lip-smacking food his Cuban mother used to cook during long days in the kitchen: plates of ropa vieja, picadillo, fried tostones, tamales with mojo sauce. He had in mind the kind of place where lively couples would throw back mojitos and devour plates of croquetas, then trip the light fantastic across its polished wood floors until early in the a.m. He's had to wait three years to realize his dream. But he pretty much got what he wanted.
Even with the rain coming down in buckets, the story goes on at Brisa. If you turn up before 9 p.m., you'll get to watch the band setting up, shaking the water off hat brims, and wiping down instruments. On a recent Thursday, Adalberto Delgado, a percussionist otherwise known as "El Sacerdote de la Rumba" (the High Priest of Rumba) was unpacking his kit, along with a horn player, a guitarist/vocalist, and a standup bass player. Delgado really is Miami's high priest of Cuban music: He's been kicking around the Magic City's art scene for years, running a gallery, setting up semi-spontaneous rumba parties in Little Havana; he's a human vortex sucking talented Latin musicians into the warm circle of his music-making. Perhaps as much as any other Miami musician, he's worked to keep the flame of traditional Cuban music burning. Torres says he stumbled across Delgado's band playing at Tropical Cigars on Lincoln Road and knew this was what he was seeking. To have Delgado play three nights a week in Delray Beach (he performs Thursday and Friday as a quartet and with a five-piece band on Saturday) is like physically transporting the most happening block of Little Havana to a spot just off Atlantic Avenue.
So you settle down with your menu, inside if it's raining, out on the porch if it's not, and take the place in. The effect is both warm and cool: spacious, gently lit, whitewashed walls are hung with photos and prints. The floors are polished to a brilliant shine; those open windows break down the barrier between nature and art. A brick patio below the porch extends this dreamy space into the darkened, residential street.
Torres and his partners have assembled a menu of Latin classics that match the breezy feel of the place in lightness and warmth, drawing on recipes from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and South America. We started with a martini glass of ceviche ($9.95) and a plate of papas rellenas ($6.50) while the trumpet player tuned his horn. These potato croquettes are common from San Juan to Lima, usually filled with a mixture of ground beef or pork and vegetables. It was one of the night's specials. And we ordered the house green salad ($7.50).
Our first taste of Brisa was a mixed blessing. Made with fresh grouper, tilapia, and snapper marinated in lime, the ceviche had fallen apart. Somebody in the kitchen had missed the point: Lime breaks up fish proteins. If you leave a chunk of grouper marinating for a good long while, it generally disintegrates. Which is a terrible waste of fresh grouper. The generous mixture of green and red peppers couldn't make up for the ruined fish, and even the lime left a bitter, metallic tinge in the mouth. Our tossed green salad, like the ceviche, was too heavy on the acid, overly garlicked, and not delicate enough to be really refreshing. And at $7.50, it was a pricey spoonful of vinegar.
The special papas rellenas went a long way to assuage our hurt feelings over the fish -- they were delicious. I won't quibble over the ingredients: Our waiter, ever polite and solicitous, said they had olives and raisins mixed in with the ground beef, but I wasn't lucky enough to find any. Still, the missing raisins didn't detract from our pleasure. These rellenos are the ultimate comfort food, warm and fluffy as a thick blanket: mashed potatoes wrapped around spicy ground beef and then fried golden crispy, drizzled with a little herbed aioli. Yummy.
A plate of masas de puerco ($16.95) arrived, chunks of pork shoulder pan-roasted with mojo sauce and tostones. And a grouper special ($21.95), a filet pan-fried in butter with sweet plantains. A metal gravy boat of black beans and a round of saffron rice came with both. Mojo -- usually some combination of olive oil and citrus, garlic, red pepper, oregano, parsley, and wine -- can be used as a marinade or served separately as a sauce. Our tender pork shoulder had good flavor, so it had probably been marinated, then pan-seared. We would have loved to have had some of that mojo on the side. The tos -tones came floating in an unappetizing pool of oil (we refused to entertain the possibility that this was the mojo sauce) that detracted considerably from their crispiness. The black beans and rice were nothing beyond pleasant. Even a tablespoon of sofrito would have livened up those beans.
As for the grouper, it was a nice piece of fish with a fresh, clean flavor, but it was sautéed in so much butter that even for me -- a woman who can just about eat butter with a spoon -- it was overwhelming. The sweet plantains were wonderful; the butter there had been put to good use, producing that almost caramel-y crust that means you're in business. No complaints.
For dessert: rice pudding ($4.95) made in the Uruguayan manner (or so my Uruguayan friend tells me) -- a glass of warm milk and white rice spiced up with cinnamon -- and an undrinkable espresso. I'm still not quite sure what happened to that coffee, but clearly somebody at Brisa needs to learn to do a decent café cubano -- the one I was served wasn't even on the map.
The kitchen also serves a ropa vieja that I'd try next time and a picadillo of ground beef with onion, tomato, olives, and raisins ($16.95 and $15.95). Shrimp, tilapia, snapper, and grouper are all on the menu nightly. My guess is that these are good bets, since Torres the avid sport fisherman probably knows what fresh fish tastes like.
Despite reservations about the menu, I'm putting Brisa Atlantica on my "must do" list. For its tropical Old Havana feel, the Afro-Cuban tunes, and the Latin jazz (Charambo, a five piece jazz band performs every Sunday; a guitar duet plays romantic ballads on Wednesday) the place is just unbeatable. And I'll eat my way around the menu with care -- opting for comfort foods like the Cuban sampler plate of croquetas and fried yucca, the plates of simply prepared fresh fish, and those addictive mojitos. Until Castro kicks the bucket and Cuba opens up again, Brisa's the next best thing to Havana.