There’s been a change in ownership, a change in staff, and most important, a change in the kitchen.
In short, when a neighborhood restaurant like Coconut Grove’s La Gamba makes changes this deep, it amounts to an entirely different restaurant.
Gone is Barcelona chef Agusti Comabella, who apprenticed for a time under Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, considered one of the world’s greats. Gone is the owner who attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and her son who managed it.
And gone, too, unfortunately, is the no se que that made this quiet Grove restaurant special over the last two years.
That’s not to say this small, neighborhood spot isn’t still producing tasty Spanish cuisine. It is. And it continues to do so with large portions at prices that won’t make you break out Spanish four-letter words. But what felt like a destination dining spot for exceptional Catalan cuisine feels more like a home-style restaurant where the dishes and atmosphere are missing the feel of an elevated experience.
It may have been that the staff was painting the large planters that separate its outside seating from the street while diners were trying to eat. Or that they were filling those planters with dirt and watering them during our meal so that the scent of fresh earth was all we could taste for the first bites of an otherwise gently prepared Spanish potato omelet. Or that we had to keep signaling for water to be refilled.
Exceptional restaurants can create a letdown when the service is so distracted — and one that is just OK makes it worse.
Fortunately, neither of my dining experiences were without bright spots. For those who want to indulge in tapas, a separate section of the menu is dedicated to small plates, and there were some solid dishes among them.
The chorizos al brandy featured about two dozen cocktail-sized sausages in a salty and rich sauce, perfect for eating with crusty bread. We had heard for years about the croquetas, six to an order, and the servers recommended ones made with oxtail. The croquetas themselves were crisp, delicately fried and creamy, as a Spanish croqueta should be. Though some depth was lacking, a rich dipping sauce balanced the flavor.
The patatas bravas with aioli and homemade hot sauce were crisp on the outside and tender inside. On another visit, a special of octopus tentacles cut into wafer-thin disks and served artistically to resemble a plate of scales was chewy and bland despite a lemon and olive oil drizzle.
If the service can be informal, we benefited from that informality when we asked about the paella and fideuà, dishes that are usually available for two people at a minimum. But on separate visits, the waiters allowed us to order one portion that was more than enough for two to share tapas-style with leftovers to take home.
The Paella Marinera (there are three varieties) was loaded with seafood, with shrimp, squid, mussels and clams. It tasted of the sea, the rice al dente, the base seasoning traditional and correct.
On another night, the fideuà negra, flavored and tinted with squid ink, was flavorful and beautifully presented with crisp calamari strips, rings of baby squid, clams, mussels and four large lobster claws whose one major flaw was a large piece of cartilage. The actual pasta (a fideuà is similar to a paella save for fideus pasta where the rice should be) was overcooked, however, and soupy; a traditional fideuà is browned in the pan and absorbs most of the liquid. Oh, and it left your tongue, teeth and lips black — as if you’d been slipped a piece of trick gum.
We were promised that the way to end this meal was with the restaurant’s signature dessert, a tarta de manchego, a sort of personal-sized cheesecake made with manchego cheese, drizzled with a berry coulis. At best, it was odd. The chocolate mousse with large shards of sal rosa pink sea salt was forgettable.
If you’re in the Grove and hankering for strictly Spanish food, La Gamba will scratch the itch — but not for long. A manager said the restaurant may be changing entirely in another six months to an “exciting new concept.” It better be. Because there are simply too many other good restaurants in the Grove these days not to keep driving past this one.
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If you go
Place: La Gamba
Address: 3437 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove
Rating: ☆ ☆ (OK)
Contact: 786-464-0908; LaGambaRestaurant.com
Hours: Noon-11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Prices: Tapas, $9-$15; appetizers, $12-$19; entrees, $24-$32; paellas and fideuà, $20-$75 per person
FYI: Limited wine list focuses on Spanish bottles. Off-street metered parking.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)