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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Versailles (Miami, Florida)

3555 SW 8th St
Miami, FL 33135
(305) 444-0240

Versailles is an unlikely name, of course, for a Cuban restaurant. According to local lore, it began its life as a French restaurant, but didn't win much of a following as such on Calle Ocho, in Little Havana, the heart of Miami's Cuban-American expat community. In 1971, Felipe Valls, Sr. converted Versailles into a Cuban restaurant, and under his management, it became a highly visible locus for anti-Castro protesters. Today, many still consider Versailles to be one of the best Cuban restaurants in town, despite its tourist-heavy clientele.

The space is an odd juxtaposition of glitz and New Jersey diner. Etched mirrors backlit by fluorescent lights line the walls and dangling glass light fixtures grace the ceilings. The tables are typical 1950s-style formica diner tables and sometimes slightly sticky, giving the place an authentic New Jersey diner touch.

The Classic
As soon as you're seated -- fairly quickly even on a bustling weekend morning, since the place is huge and the turnover rate fairly high -- a waiter drops a basket of toasted bread, drenched with melted butter, down in front of you, along with menus. These menus are as long and wide-ranging as a diner's, but there are two options that make things easier for indecisive tourists: the "Classic" and "Criolo" Cuban sampler plates, which offer a selection of standards. The Classic comes with white rice, black beans, picadillo, roast pork, sweet plantains, ham croquette, yuca and tamale. The Criollo comes with yellow rice, black beans, shredded beef in creole sauce, fried pork chunks, ham croquette, sweet plantains and yuca. Both were a jaw-droppingly inexpensive $11.95 considering that each plate was large enough to feed a small family for a week.

To be perfectly honest, Justin and I do not have much of a basis for judging Cuban food. We've only eaten it in New York City and Puerto Rico, never in Miami or Cuba (since like most Americans, we are prohibited from traveling there). My impression of the cuisine was that it's somewhat bland. In New York, Cuban restaurants don't use much spice, hot or otherwise, and meats tend to be cooked to a shoe leathery state, even at higher end places like Victor's Cafe.

The food at Versailles was not at all bland, for the most part. Even pedestrian black beans and rice (known in Cuba by the rather non-PC name "Moros y Cristianos" or "Moors and Christians"), which came with both plates, were remarkably delicious and complex. I couldn't identify what gave the beans their wonderful flavor, especially since I didn't detect any chunks of cooked down vegetables or meat in the mix. Hopefully it wasn't MSG.

The standouts on the "Classic" plate were the tamal and the picadillo. The masa in the tamal was fragrant and sweet, with distinct granules and a fluffy, light texture that somehow managed to avoid being either waterlogged or dry. Unlike most other types of tamales, which have a filled center, Cuban tamales are made with fillings mixed into the masa. Versaille's tamal included what I think was smoked pork, which contrasted beautifully with the sweet corn. These were some of the best corn husk-wrapped masa-based tamales I've had anywhere. Picadillo was also complexly spiced, balanced and not overly salty (a common sin for this dish, in my experience). Roast pork was a bit bland by itself, but it went nicely with bites of yuca drenched in garlic sauce and bites of the potent, barely sauteed onions. The texture was commendably moist and much more tender than versions of the dish I've had elsewhere. Plantains were made with a nicely caramelized crust.

The Criollo
On the "Criollo" plate, the shredded beef in Creole sauce was the star. I was worried that the beef would be rather tough like versions of ropa vieja we've had in the past, but this was even more tender and moist than the roast pork and very flavorful, thanks in part to the sweet pepper-studded Creole sauce. Fried pork chunks were a little less to our taste. They were very moderately seasoned with little more than salt, and were basically just large chunks of fatty meat -- great for filling your belly (not to mention growing your belly), but not exactly gripping from a culinary standpoint. The ham croquette that came with both plates was fair, but a little underfried.

Cassava and Yuca Croquettes
Far more delicious than the ham croquettes were the fried cassava and yuca croquettes with cilantro and garlic sauce that Justin ordered on the side (not realizing just how massive our plates would be). These croquettes were fried to a nice, crusty crisp on the outside, but creamy and soft on the inside, filled with what I think was picadillo. They were pretty much orgasmic when paired with cilantro garlic sauce, a.k.a. mojo. This sauce was creamy, more similar to Peruvian aji sauce than to mojo verde served in the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands.

Sadly, we were too stuffed and intimidated by the size of our plates to try the restaurant's famous desserts. I did walk through the bakery and cafe next door to look at what was on offer. These ran the gamut from many different kinds of flan, tres leches cake, sweet and savory empanadas and cookies to a number of different varieties of attractively presented cheesecakes and puddings. A separate area with a takeout window, directly adjacent to the restaurant, serves up savory snacks, including various croquettas and fritters. It's quite an empire. If anyone ever actually succeeds in eating their way through all of it, they deserve a prize.

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