Vine-covered Hotel St. Michel, built in 1926 as the Sevilla, oozes Old World charm in the middle of Coral Gables, with ornately tiled floors, Belgium rugs, vaulted ceilings, a brass elevator and even the original telephone switchboard behind the front desk.
Just off the lost-in-time lobby, the new Peruvian-themed Vivaldino restaurant could claim one of the most romantic settings in South Florida. French doors and big picture windows overlook Ponce de Leon Boulevard. Bebel Gilberto whispers sexy bossa nova tunes from discreet speakers. Images of glistening pink crustaceans on the front of the poster-size menu promise sea-based delights.
But if you drive past and think the place appears dark and empty, you would be correct The 28-room boutique hotel has long struggled to offer a dining option equal to its elegant location. The streak, unfortunately, remains unbroken.
It’s not that Vivaldino’s dishes aren’t pretty. Big white bowls of steaming pasta and risotto arrive with aplomb, delivered by a waiter in a black vest, red tie and long white apron. A seafood ceviche sampler, with diced shrimp, scallops, calamari and white fish in a pepper-spiked citrus marinade, is a respectable starter, as is the sashimi-thin sole tiradito, marinated in lemon and yellow hot peppers.
The lomo saltado, Peru’s Asian-influenced stir-fry of beef tenderloin with onions and tomatoes served over rice and french fries, meets the beloved staple’s standards.
As the first American extension of a Lima-based restaurant chain, Vivaldino, which opened late last year, gets the fundamentals right. Stray beyond that at your peril.
Risotto iqueño, tinted an alarmingly bright green by a mash of asparagus and artichoke, was garnished with a lovely mix of sautéed squid rings and shrimp, but the dish was mushy and topped with powdered Parmesan cheese. (Isn’t there a rule that only restaurants with red-checkered tablecloths and straw-wrapped chianti bottles can get away with that?)
Overly sweet sauces ill-served two other entrees. The champagne-shallot reduction pooled at the bottom of a corvina dish topped with crab meat and shrimp was so cloying we wondered if a cup of sugar had accidentally fallen in the pot. And a sugary marsala sauce made sirloin steak strips atop fettuccine seem more like dessert. That was just as well, it turned out, because the sweets — New York-style cheesecake, apple pie, chocolate cake — don’t try very hard.
Although Vivaldino was nearly empty both times we came for dinner, the staff — our erstwhile waiter, a young woman on a cellphone behind the bar and a waitress in a black mini skirt bent on blowing out all the candles — were too busy to be bothered with questions about the menu. A wine list never materialized, and our glasses of house red almost didn’t, either. The menu’s whited-out, handwritten-in prices seemed as unprofessional as the service.
Feeling hurried out before the 10 p.m. closing on both occasions, we barely made it to our parking meter on one trip before our waiter sprinted past us, ripping off his tie and jumping into his car. Behind us, the restaurant suddenly went dark.
Despite their fetching surroundings, Vivaldino‘s staffers seem to want to be somewhere else. And so, of course, may diners.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.