March 14, 2013

Spa-like Latin fusion in a cozy Coral Way house

Casabe 305 Bistro chef-owner Diego Texera doesn’t just want you to enjoy his food. He wants you to feel good and sleep well after you’ve eaten it, too.

Casabe 305 Bistro chef-owner Diego Texera doesn’t just want you to enjoy his food. He wants you to feel good and sleep well after you’ve eaten it, too.

Texera, who studied and ran a center for macrobiotics in his native Venezuela, cooks healthy Latin fusion dishes that radiate spa-like simplicity.

Crunchy asparagus spears and grilled peppers are the vegetables of choice. Quinoa and couscous are paired with seafood. Even the mofongo gets a healthy makeover, with a base of yuca instead of mashed plantains, and large grilled shrimp replacing pork cracklings.

His Latin-Caribbean “lite” comfort food is served amid a collection of mismatched floral wallpaper, tables and chairs in a cozy, 1-year-old restaurant that occupies a charming, 1930s house on Coral Way.

There are nine tables in the wood-floored dining room, with a small, L-shaped bar at its center. White bookshelves stocked with organic rice, sea salt and jars of tamarind sauce and miso line the quiet, conversation-friendly space. The front yard is a wide, bricked patio with outdoor seating, encircled by sea grapes and palms and lit by twinkling strings of big bulbs.

One-page typed, seasonal menus on clipboards offer a tour of Venezuela’s tropical and Andean traditions, with a vibrant mix of European, Asian, African and Native American influences. A complimentary welcome is extended via the namesake casabe, a crispy, indigenous flat bread made from cassava (yuca), which is served warm with a refreshing cilantro butter.

Ceviches and tostones are offered as starters, with the most sublime being the tostones “Yucatecos” that combines crispy tostones and tart shrimp ceviche with chunky guacamole. Traditional Venezuelan tequeños are served with the fried cheese sticks standing in a glass, jazzed up with a chipotle guava dipping sauce.

While there is a macrobiotic platter of soup of the day, brown rice and sautéed veggies, there are plenty of main courses for protein lovers. A flavorful grass-fed New York strip steak is topped with a pat of Gorgonzola butter and accompanied by truffle-salted rustic fries. Medallions of succulent duck magret are delightfully paired with a tangy hoisin sauce on a bed of jasmine rice.

Our favorite entrée, a rich, buttery Chilean sea bass that floated on the tongue like a cloud, came with a creamy side of truffled mashed potatoes.

“I want my food to be gourmet, but healthy to digest, as well,” says Texera, who operated a restaurant in Choroni, a colonial fishing village three hours from Caracas, before arriving in Miami 2 1/2 years ago. “I try to use a maximum of five ingredients per recipe. I want to evoke simple food from the time of your grandmother. Food should be about feeling well, sleeping well, living well.”

Casabe’s plates appear sparse, in keeping with the macrobiotic mindset that discourages overeating. And it’s true, you do leave feeling comfortably satiated, not overstuffed. Unfortunately, prices are not commensurately smaller, which is less easy to digest.

A young, unpolished staff is careless and clueless at times, and the décor could use more attention. (Time to ditch the dead poinsettia adorning one bookshelf.) The dining room lights flicker every time the air conditioner kicks in, adding unnecessary drama.

Nothing, however, can dampen our delight with dainty desserts that rise above the boring Miami norm. The salty, Venezuelan cheesecake and a rich chocolate mousse cake both shine. The chocolate chupito for two — small glasses of thick, dark liquid topped with whipped cream — is like a sweet kiss on a night that does indeed end with sound sleep.

Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.

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