Review: Piripi in Coral Gables wobbles on its road to tipsiness

It was the waitress, in the bathroom, with the lipstick. Or the chef, in the kitchen, with the spoon. Perhaps it was the manager, at the table, with the check. 

If this were a game of Clue, I’d have plenty of suspects for the crime that is happening at the fancy new Piripi in the Village of Merrick Park. 

What promised to be an exciting, upscale Spanish addition to Coral Gables dining scene has turned into a frustrating whodunit at best, a comedy of errors at worst. 

Start with the Moroccan-Basque chef Najat Kaanache, whose impressive résumé includes a two-year stint at El Bulli followed by stages at Noma, Per Se, The French Laundry and Alinea. Add in a team of dopey locals and untrained imports, and the results are disappointing and expensive. 

Despite Kanaache’s background in culinary alchemy and Piripi’s cutesy menu descriptions, the chef’s cooking is as traditional as croquetas de jamon — and as uneven as the peaks of Montserrat. 

With a name like Piripi, slang for feeling “tipsy,” you expect some fun. No such luck. The place is as somber as a funeral. Managers whisper in huddles in the half-empty dining room as if plotting an assassination.

Still, the multilevel dining room is decidedly handsome, with caramel-color leathery booths and gorgeous wood-slat ceilings. A profusion of Chihuly-esque blown glass floats confetti-like over the bar. The stools, however, are too tall for the banquette tables, resulting in bruised knees, and repetitive electronica music tortures grownup ears. 

When I called for a reservation, I was informed the dress code is “formal, no, I mean semi-formal.” Oh.

Once seated, we dined without shell bowls during one meal full of mollusks. Without water on another. And without bread until after our appetizers. 

A waiter pointed out that the chef crafted some of the ceramic serviceware herself, including a little thumbprint of a doo-hickey meant to hold a wine cork. Kaanache’s time would have been better spent making herself a spoon to taste what is coming out of her kitchen. 

The hearty-looking cataplana was supposed to be a dish of clams and chorizo, but when it arrived we found mussels, shrimp and white fish. Only one clam was hidden beneath the other seafood, and all of it was bland. 

One of the best dishes we sampled — besides some paprika-dusted olives — was piperrada, a jammy, smoky, slow-cooked eggplant and tomato pisto manchego, like a Spanish-style ratatouille. It’s served on top of exquisite toast courtesy of Zak the Baker

But for every dish that warmed us, there seemed to be another that left us cold. 

Mushrooms were so flavorless that we wondered if they had been boiled; a photo of the dish (above) that I found suggested that someone forgot the intended grated cheese. A tiny silver wire appeared in the food, which my date thought had fallen out of someone’s orthodontics.

Three stuffed piquillo peppers had more mashed potato than cod and were as flat as roadkill. I would have loved to have tried the patatas bravas, but our waitress forgot to bring them. 

A gorgeous-looking paella was steeped in a rich stock of long-simmered seafood shells and heads. Despite the toothsome texture of the short-grained Valencia rice, the dish was surprisingly devoid of flavor. Two lime wedges and six fresh parsley leaves helped a little. 

The equally beautiful, creamy bacalao, on the other hand, was so steeped in salt that we could barely swallow the one bite we each tried. Yet, not a single staffer thought to ask why we rejected the $29 entrée seemingly untouched. 

One unqualified bright spot is a beverage program that showcases a well-curated wine list with lots of obscure wines from Spain, thoughtful by-the-glass options, dozens of bottles priced below $50 and killer cocktails. 

Lilliputian desserts were delightful even though servers seemed unfamiliar with them. Our tiny taste of simple orange granita was described as sorbet with a cream puff on top. A quirky chocolate planeta, with its varying shades of earthy browns and poppy, crunchy, creamy, sweet textural plays, was a fun finish to a roller coaster of a meal. 

While I still wanted to love the place for the few flashes of rustic greatness that I tasted, a trip to the ladies room helped me decide that I won’t be back anytime soon. 

I thought I stumbled into a frat house on Sunday morning. Wadded-up toilet paper strewn about, a stopped-up toilet, lipstick-stained paper towels and a foul stench made me want to run. I knew the place was in trouble when I saw not one but two waitresses nonchalantly ignoring the mess. 

Whoever is to blame for this culinary caper, I hope it will be sorted out soon. After all, who couldn’t stand to get a little Piripi now and then? 

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow @VictoriaPesceE