Does Miami need another tapas bar? Does it even need another Spanish restaurant? The Lizarrán chain, from Spain, which already has spots in California and New York, thinks so. On the Coral Gables site of the former Diego's, a restaurant popular with Spaniards and Cuban Americans, Lizarrán has opened a slick tapas bar with cocktails, a wine list and pintxos of the day - tapas-size snacks on a slice of baguette.
But for all of its gastronomic Hispanophilia, Miami is not easy. Let's recall that this is the city where Spain's famous high-tech cuisine failed. The accomplished La Broche, offshoot of a well-regarded Madrid restaurant, closed the very weekend in 2003 that The New York Times Magazine proclaimed that in culinary matters, "Spain is the new France." Let's also note that there are well-established Spanish restaurants all over town, plus bustling tapas bars like Coral Way's Xixón, now in its third and biggest location. And let's consider all our Spanish delis, where one can buy cured meats, cheeses, imported beans and just about anything you need to make an authentic Spanish meal. You want Madrid? You don't have to leave home.
The Lizarrán empire has its work cut out for itself. How is it doing? Not so great.
Granted, it's only been open a month, but one would think the popular Diego's location on Alhambra Plaza plus our appetite for all things Spanish would drive business. During a recent lunch hour in office-heavy Coral Gables, the place was nearly empty. I sat at the counter to pick out a pintxo, settling for a classic, stuffed pimiento del piquillo. Rather than the usual codfish brandade, it was stuffed with ensaladilla rusa, the Spanish potato salad. OK, but bland.
A tortilla de patatas, the classic Spanish tapa, was also bland where it should send off a strong onion aroma - the one Penélope Cruz's lover detects on her skin in a make-out session from her early movie Jamón Jamón. Pulpo a la gallega can be had at every Spanish joint in town, and at nearby La Dorada the octopus is indeed gallego, flown fresh from Spain. The pulpo at Lizarrán was not remarkable but not bad, traditionally served on a bed of sliced, boiled potatoes.
There are main courses, but this is a tapas bar. On the next visit, I tried boquerones - fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar - on a bed of potato chips topped with a "Lizarrán sauce." The combination would have worked had the chips been handmade, as they are in many Spanish restaurants, but these were from a sack, and not a very distinguished one at that. Artichoke hearts sautéed with Serrano ham is another classic dish, served here on a bed of french fries. Wanting to escape the potato blight, I ordered the battered eggplant with honey, an intriguing combination that didn't work. The eggplant slices were without much taste and the drizzled honey did little to improve them.
Lizarrán has a decent list of Spanish wines and an inviting decor, but a tapas bar needs to be a hopping scene that makes you feel you're where it's at. And for that to happen, the tapas need to rock your palate. Miami is full of Spanish culinary pleasures, from innovative spots like Michelle Bernstein's Sra. Martínez to renewed old restaurants like Rincón Asturiano.
As La Broche learned years ago, this may look like a town begging for more of Spain's cuisine, but we're a tough crowd to please.