Falling in love with Coya, Miami's Peruvian queen

Tuna ceviche photo via Coya Miami.

First, London’s sexy Japanese stunner Zuma showed up in downtown Miami. And now its darker, moodier cousin Coya has found her own spot in Brickell, just a mile away.

Some may find it snobby. (There’s a semi-secret, invitation-only club, and just scoring a regular reservation is nearly impossible.) I, however, adore it.

This young, hip Peruvian is one of the royal class, after all. Her name Coya, from the Andean highlands, means empress or queen. And she is presiding over a bustling court.

Hidden like a buried tomb in an anonymous office building, this multi-roomed palace is awash in sumptuous shades of gold and purple, fabrics from saffron velvet to deep red ochre leather. 

Three-story ceilings, turquoise stone columns, carved wooden chairs, rich tapestries, brass chandeliers, teal paintings, gold nail heads and intricate metal screens combine to conjure a feel of ultra-luxe antiquity. Music, played at civilized levels, veers from bass-heavy samba to brooding electronica and jazz.

But even without a firm reservation, you can walk in and wait for a seat at the ceviche bar. The accommodating hostesses are happy to help. And waiters in natty purple uniforms with Nehru collars are equally quick. 

But it is not just a pretty bauble. This beauty boasts some exceptional food and a fantastic cocktail program to match her looks. Even the international wine list with affordable and unexpected by-the-glass options enchants. Fresh muddled juices and inventive combinations elevate the cocktails.

The menu is a South American version of the informal Japanese izakaya. For those who do not like the dizzying pace of a small-plate experience, this may not be for you. Yes, dishes come out fast. Portions ARE small. But all the better for sharing.

A buttery leather binder holds the encyclopedic menu with dozens of alluring dishes — traditional and inventive — that compete for attention. Thankfully, the well-trained waitstaff is ready to advise. Our server suggested edamame and guacamole while we looked over the menu.

The emerald soybeans, charred until smoky, are popping fresh with a spicy pepper sauce. The guacamole with handmade, still-hot, soft-corn tortillas is smooth and creamy without overwhelming seasoning. But as good as they are, you don’t come here for such pedestrian offerings.

As you might expect, ceviches are highlighted, and with good reason. From the classic sea bass with sweet-potato cubes, threads of red onion and fat white corn to a luxurious version done up with snapper and generous shavings of black truffle dotted with chives in a zippy ponzu marinade, they’re all spot-on. There’s even a vegetarian version made with zucchini (here very Britishly named courgette) and delicately meaty shiitake mushrooms.

Tiraditos and rolls, including the not-so-subtle creamy wasabi mayo-spiced yellowtail with jalapeño, are exemplary and almost directly off the Zuma menu.

Glorious salads and another dozen vegetable-centric dishes delight. A favorite, despite an unfortunately saltlick of a dressing, is the lobster with hunks of succulent white claw and knuckles. 

Dishes cooked in the flame-throwing Josper oven, like the exquisite ribeye, are dramatically scorched, almost smoked, with an intense meaty flavor. This tender and crusty piece of beef with a needle-to-the-eye chimichurri and salsa made from the pungent aji rocoto is reason enough to get in the car on a rainy night. 

Another signature is the sea bass in an iron pot with crunchy bits of rice like a Spanish paella with a coveted crispy layer of socarrat. Here, splashes of acidic lime balance the starchy grains and velvety fish.

Typical anticuchos, grilled meat skewers, include toothsome cubes of ox heart threaded onto a wooden stick painted with a sweet-sour tamarind glaze and showered with fresh parsley, while a regal tiger prawn is sheathed in bright red, mild and smoky aji panca, another Peruvian pepper.

Desserts range from the sophisticated amaranth grain pudding with 23-year-old Guatemalan rum and roasted bananas coated in a glasslike caramel plank to a kid-friendly corn sundae dotted with popcorn.

A three-course, prix-fixe lunch for $29 is a great way to get to know this exciting new neighbor for those who may not be ready to commit.

But for me, it was love at first sight. 

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter and Instagram @VictoriaPesceE.

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