Restaurant News & Reviews

Chef Willy says ‘here I am, Miami’ with Aki-e

Chef Willy’s croquetas at Aki-e are nice way to start. Eggplant croquetas are plump and golden with a velvety and remarkably greaseless filling.
Chef Willy’s croquetas at Aki-e are nice way to start. Eggplant croquetas are plump and golden with a velvety and remarkably greaseless filling. Instagram

He is known as Chef Willy, and although born in the Dominican Republic, he calls Miami home.

At 51 years old, the perpetually smiling William Hernandez has honed his skills in local kitchens, including Casa Rolandi, Giacosa, Caffe Vialetto and Caramelo. He has also done stints in New York, Gainesville, North Carolina and the D.R. But Miami is where his heart is, and his kids and grandkids, too.

So it makes sense that here is where he would stake out his first, very own, very personal and quirky restaurant on Southwest 57th Avenue that was the Old San Juan restaurant.

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As the name attempts to convey, he is happy to be back. Aki-e, pronounced like the Spanish aquí and a shortened eh. “Here it is.“

The cozy 40-seater is fancified with white tablecloths and oil paintings of exotic landscapes. The décor, with crushed velvet, royal blue curtains and faux wood floor, has a do-it-yourself feel. And, although it seems like the dining room aspires to a fine-dining vibe, a flat-panel TV loops The Food Network and the lights cast an odd, bright hue.

Old-school waiters in black are attentive and pleasant in both English and Spanish. They are easily understood even when the dining room gets loud with a boisterous party at a table for 12 a few feet away. Some good baffling would help.

The menu and website promise modern Mediterranean cuisine. And while I wouldn’t call the offerings remotely modern, there are lots of nods to Mediterranean flavors, including Caesar salad, beef carpaccio, fried calamari, stuffed mushrooms, ravioli, pastas and risottos.

It’s true most aren’t particularly authentic but rather more of a mash-up of flavors. As Chef Willy explains, “I take Italian ingredients and kick them up a couple of notches just makng them more interesting.” Some Dominican touches like mashed yautia, malanga and oxtail dumplings with quail eggs and cilantro aioli find their way onto plates, though I would like to see even more.

Sure, a fettucine carbonara is made with cream instead of egg yolk and dishes are occasionally weighted down with extraneous flourishes, but the results are flavorful and delicious

A humble wine list includes some 40 bottles or so priced mostly between $24 and $40, with a few reserves reaching $90.

While we look over the menu, we nibble generic, warm and crusty baguettes with a chunky hummus dip.

We start with a round of eggplant croquetas, plump and golden with a velvety and remarkably greaseless filling. A sweet tomato confit adds a nice tang.

Salads, like all the dishes we tried, are well composed if a little overwrought. Crisp romaine with bacon, feta cheese and a ginger dressing is only slightly marred by out-of-season, shipped-in mangoes that are as tasteless as raw potatoes.

Every night also brings specials, and they are always recommended. An often available seabass in a mild ginger sauce the color of butter and just as silken charms our table.

Other seafood is uniformly fresh, including littleneck hard-shell clams served over a massive bowl of al dente-enough spaghetti in a breathy broth of garlic and oil specked with piquant pepperoncino. Clean and light.

It’s the stylistic opposite of the ravioli with Portobello mushrooms in a sauce redolent with truffle oil. Another rich dish is fettuccine with a buttery oxtail ragu dotted with peas.

Risottos, a specialty of Hernandez, come in many colors. A standard includes tender shrimp and hunks of succulent white fish in a smooth and creamy Arborio rice cooked longer than in a true Italian kitchen but a worthwhile indulgence.

Steaks, too, are recommendable if a bit retro razzle-dazzley. The filet mignon, a buttery cut that still maintains a bit of minerally flair, was cooked to an accurate medium and draped in sweet melted Cipollini onions amid dark, sweet purple cabernet sauce. The addition of military cut carrots adds a flash of color and crunch.

Desserts are as comfortable as the place itself. A tasty, individual guava and cheese flan is served slightly mangled but with pretty squiggles of flowers decorating the plate, while dulce de leche-drenched slices of bread pudding with sweet whipped cream get a whimsical dusting of cocoa sugar revealing the outlines of knife and fork. Both are satisfying and homey just like aqui.

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If you go

Place: AKI-´E

Rating: ** ½

Address: 1200 SW 57th Ave., Miami

Contact: 786-717-7009;

Hours: 11:30 a.m-3 p.m. and 5:30- 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30-11 p.m. Friday; 5:30-11 p.m. Saturday and 12:30 – 7 p.m. Sunday ; closed Monday.

Prices: Lunch entrees $14-$18; dinner starters and salads $10-$15; pasta and risottos $18-$28; entrees $24-$36; dessert $6-$10

FYI: Wine and beer only; Corkage $15; Reservations accepted ; AX, DS, MC, VS.

What the stars mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)