By Victoria Pesce Elliott
The name Alta Cocina -- haute cuisine in Spanish -- conjures images of smoking beakers of foam or minuscule gelatin cubes of the sort made famous by Ferran Adria and Angel Palacios.
South Miami's 3-month old Alta Cocina doesn't dabble in that kind of science, however, nor does it seem inspired by any era of Spanish cooking. Yet, the newbie does put out some tasty dishes in a comfortable setting staffed by at least one enthusiastic foodie who seems to be working hard to make diners excited about what is coming out of the kitchen.
Under-30 owners Juan Mario Maza and Vani Maharaj are partners in both the kitchen and life. The couple met at Johnson & Wales, and later worked together at Michelle Bernstein's Michy's.
Their culinary heritage shows, though they seem to have skipped the hospitality classes. On two visits with few other diners, neither manager Maza nor chef Maharaj stopped by the table to see how we liked our meals.
Still, the place is welcoming in its sparse elegance, with simple dark woods and low-key lighting. The sidewalk tables take advantage of Sunset Drive's usual vibrance.
Some super dishes, like an expertly seared salmon with crispy skin, a smooth and creamy white bean puree and sweet caramelized onions, demonstrate a good instinct of combining complementary textures, flavors and colors. Others, however, were overwrought or too heavily fried to work.
The best offerings on the "creative global fusion" menu are the most elemental. Standouts reflect Maharaj's Trinidadian roots. A fantastically kicky curried chicken with flaky puffs of steaming hot roti is the kind of dish I could eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Its creamy, smoldering Caribbean flavors are just right for Miami.
Another favorite is the slightly bready but utterly delicious salt cod fritters, brought to greater heights with a generous helping of fresh herbs and a tangy-sweet tamarind dipping sauce. Good, too, is an escabeche-style fried calamari.
Exquisitely juicy sea bass loves its warm red curry bath, but a needlessly fried frond of bok choy lends a greasy flavor. Fried okra, zucchini, shallots and potatoes had the same effect on other plates.
All that oil is cut by light and lush salads -- including a spicy arugula with caramelized fennel, sugar-coated pecans and earthy goat cheese -- that are across-the-board good.
Most dishes here are served in compact portions, a good way to try a few, but also a way to run up a big tab. Markup on the 50 or so mainly New World wines, from a $32 Chateau St. Michelle reisling to a $120 brunello from Pogio Antico, seems to be the usual two to three times retail, but it's hard to judge with vintages absent.
Cubed short-rib meat served atop planks of corn bread has an off-putting gelatinous texture and slightly gamey taste. A tangy red cabbage slaw in a sprightly vinegar dressing strives for a balance, but the dish doesn't quite come together.
Pastas, too, are underwhelming. Nubs of gnocchi as mushy as cookie dough float in too much runny gorgonzola sauce, detracting from a tiny mound of flavorful oxtail in the center of the plate. Braised lamb shank in a gummy curried polenta is also disappointing.
Desserts on a newly revamped list are worth checking out. Yes, if you must, there is respectable Key lime pie and a molten chocolate mini-cake with vanilla ice cream. But it's the crustless goat-cheese cheesecake with a creamy shot of crème fraiche and fragrant fig jam that would be worth coming back for.
There are some flashes of talent at Alta Cocina and some truly cravable dishes, but so far the experience has not come together to reach its full height.
Alta Cocina, 5837 Sunset Dr., South Miami.
Contact: 305-662-7435, altacocinarestaurant.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 6-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; later on Saturday-Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $8-$13, entrees $17-$25, dessert $8.
FYI: Valet parking available for lunch and dinner, $5-$7; free self-parking in rear lot after 6 p.m.; Reservations accepted. Wine and beer only; corkage $18. AX, DS, MC, VS.
Vani Maharaj and her husband, Juan Mario Maza, have recently opened Alta Cocina. Photo: Roberto Koltun/Miami.com staff