Jay Gatsby’s Jazz Age party home has been stuffed with a whimsical collection of Mexican folk art to give us Cantina La Veinte, a 3-month-old import from Mexico that drips with glamour and eccentricity in Brickell near the mouth of the Miami River.
An eclectic assembly of Mexican sculptures, vases and collectibles adds eye-popping color to the space, competing for diners’ attention with the water view. Waiters in fuchsia bow ties formally deliver shots of mezcal with chile-dipped orange slices to black-lacquer tables that quickly fill up for lunch and dinner.
Want a spot at Miami’s most refined, 225-seat, two-story Mexican restaurant? Call a week ahead for reservations or — if you can locate the invisible, unpracticed hostess staff — be content with a perch at the taqueria bar, overlooking a bustling open kitchen where puffy tortillas are handmade daily.
Downstairs, a small waterfront patio serves the overflow crowd and private parties next to an adjacent mercado, which offers sandwiches, salads, Mexican candy and glass jars of aguas frescas.
Owned by Cinbersol Group, a large, ambitious Mexican hospitality corporation co-founded by politician Alberto Cinta, Veinte is the company’s first U.S. restaurant. Comfort food, such as sopa de fideo seco — a spicy-sweet tomato noodle dish topped with melted queso fresco and cilantro — dots the two-page menu, but the cantina reference is more of a wink to the classic Mexican fare that executive chef Santiago Gomez spins into trendy, international incarnations.
Flavorful, steaming shrimp consomme starts off a meal on a complimentary note. Among the two dozen seafood and meat appetizers, the fist-size sopes con pollo, while unremarkable, leaned true to tradition, with handmade masa topped by black beans, shredded chicken, tomatillo and tomato sauce, with dollops of sour cream and fresh cheese.
Bacalao a la vizcaina, one of three pressed sandwiches offered for lunch and dinner, presented the Spanish-influenced salt cod as a satisfying warm filling with tomato, capers, olives and red pepper sauce. A handful of french fries sprinkled with parsley were a curious and disappointing accompaniment.
The belly of the menu — where make-your-own tacos and stuffed chiles dominate — is where you’ll want to focus. Pork shank confit, zucchini flowers, lime-cilantro sautéed octopus, grilled bone marrow and slow-cooked beef tongue combine with more familiar taco fillings, such as braised pork marinated in achiote-orange sauce and pickled red onion, to keep diners satisfied and sampling for days.
Goat cheese-stuffed fried chipotles, our favorite of the stuffed peppers, delivered a sweet, fiery punch with its drizzle of sugarcane reduction. A light black bean sauce and a creamy avocado sauce were unable to revive a limp ancho chile filled with chewy skirt steak and tomatoes.
A dozen large entrées appear more as gestures to please the masses, with predictable presentations of Mexican meatballs in chipotle sauce, boneless whole red snapper, chicken in mole sauce, and four choices of steaks served with more of those lifeless fries. (And though they’re not listed under the entrée heading, Cantina’s margaritas will cost you about as much as a large plate of food.)
Bold, non-ravenous diners may want to stick to sharing multiple small plates. We were wowed by the aguachile de rib eye, smoked rib eye marinated in canica chile-lime juice. The pink steak was sliced carpaccio-style, with garlic chips, chopped avocado and red onion. Equally impressive were slices of fresh tuna marinated in yellow pepper, lime and soy sauce, served with guacamole and crunchy leeks.
Small plates mean there’s more room for the spectacular desserts. I still have dreams about the dark chocolate truffles dusted with tart hibiscus powder. A pudding-soft, buttery corn bread with sweetened condensed milk and corn nuggets has been created to convert vegetable haters.
An evening at Cantina La Veinte is a worthy, high-end adventure. But to become a true event, the restaurant needs to shed some of its corporate stuffiness and display a touch more passion and attention to detail. Otherwise, pricey drinks and play-it-safe Mexican food could lead to a Gatsby-size hangover.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.