Chef Alberto Cabrera has worked alongside such Miami luminaries as Norman Van Aken and Robbin Haas. He even had the pleasure of working with celebrated Spanish chef Sergi Arola at the short-lived La Broche.
All this from a guy who has no formal culinary training. What he does have, and what he celebrates at his 11-month-old Coral Gables restaurant, is a fondness for and early education in Cuban cuisine.
The restaurant is called Bread + Butter / Pan Con Mantequilla, which says loads about the chef's intentions for all us lovers of this simple combination. The pan con mantequilla ($8) on the menu is a warm loaf of Cuban-style, Parker House bread served with house-made pickles and creamy butter. It is simply wonderful.
But it's not all so simple. My favorite dish among those I sampled, for instance, is a Chinese-restaurant-like bun ($8) filled with roasted pork shoulder with mojo criollo and scallions. Except for three entrees, the food is meant for sharing, and I was so taken with this bun, I wished I'd ordered my own. Three of us had ordered two.
Similar mash-ups are all over the menu. Fritas, sometimes called Cuban hamburgers, can be found at any mom-and-pop Cuban joint in Miami. They began as street food in Cuba. Ground beef, sometimes mixed with chorizo, is formed into patties seasoned with paprika. They're grilled and served on a soft roll with fried shoestring potatoes. Cabrera's chorizo burger ($8) is dressed with napa cabbage kimchi, cilantro, onion, Sriracha ketchup and crispy potato strings. It's an ingenious update.
The only dish I wouldn't order again is bone marrow ($14), with too little marrow lining a too small bone with ropa vieja, chimichurri and parsley. It's hard to remember anything on this sad, little plate.
But then came plantano en tentacion ($6), or caramel-glazed plantains, which Cabrera gives a 1970s-style rumaki makeover. The plantains are wrapped in crisp, house-made bacon and served with five-spice-scented syrup, sour cream and chives. These would be incredible appetizers to serve at home.
Media noche croquetas ($8), with the cheese and ham of the traditional sandwich in each orb, are served home-style with saltines and a not-so-homey mustard aioli.
The menu veers into gastropub fare, which typically relies on meat and fat and frying, in chicharron de puerco ($10), pork belly served with truffle-black-bean puree, maduro-plantain relish and puffed rice. It needed more beans and plantains to offset the richness of the pork.
Cabrera's riff on fried chicken ($8), however, was flawless. Meaty pieces of crunchy breaded chicken arrive with a buttermilk biscuit, honey-Buffalo sauce and celery. The dish is not exactly part of the Cuban culinary canon, but its ingenuity feels right at home here.
The dining room in a small storefront is set with wooden-topped tables and gray chairs. A reclaimed wooden counter has old-fashioned metal stools. Two walls are covered in white subway tile. Another is decorated with black-and-white photos, perhaps of family back in pre-Castro Cuba. Much of the work was done by Cabrera himself. It works.
The napkins are linen. Water is served in metal cups. I was mighty impressed with the beer selection, including five drafts from Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Mich. Bilingual service was disorganized, even though I was with a Spanish speaker. The food is so good that it would be nice to have servers who can carry on the chef's vision.
No matter. We loved the Humboldt Fog goat-cheese flan ($5) served in a tin can, where the Cuban flan meets the near-ubiquitous goat-cheese-cheesecake trend. Torrejas, or Cuban French toast ($5), is worth every last calorie served with guava-maple syrup and cream-cheese ice cream.
I always knew Cabrera was a talented chef. I can't wait to see where his creativity takes him next.
2330 Salzedo St., Coral Gables
Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, Sunday brunch
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Noisy when full
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Meters and garages