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"Without the freedom to criticize, there is no worthy praise." Beaumarchais
The Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne
Consistently good cuisine, congenial atmosphere and impeccable service. While the menu is undeniably French, drawn from Chef Daniel Boulud's family recipes, regional specialties and haute cuisine, the categories La Tradition, La Saison, Le Potager and Le Voyage share the best of world cuisines.
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Torches glow in the darkness, and flames from an open fire pit cast dancing shadows on the sand. Just a few yards beyond is the ocean.
Young couples and singles, families with children, and older adults in casual dress create a comfortable mix of guests in the cozy, thatched-roof palapa that is the main dining space for Cantina Beach at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Key Biscayne. Other diners sit at outdoor umbrella tables or on high stools in front of a granite-topped counter facing the surf. On the other side of the dining area is the cool, iridescent hotel pool.
Cantina Beach has the casual ambiance of a poolside bar and restaurant -- which it is -- yet it goes far beyond the expected in terms of cuisine, wine and liquor. Talented Chef Lupe Sanchez’s menu has the sophistication and subtlety of fine Mexican fare – far, far beyond tacos stuffed with ground beef. “I’ve tried to keep the best of traditional Mexican cuisine, and pair it with a beautiful presentation,” he said.
Sanchez learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen in Mexico, where the family prepared meals using a wood oven. He joined Ritz Carlton at the age of 18, and when the Ritz Carlton in Key Biscayne was built, he came to open Cantina Beach.
Colorful orange, turquoise, and green runners dress the hard-surface tables in the open-air palapa. Cushions on the wicker chairs are the same hues, while throw pillows of tangerine and lime add a softer accent. Live guitar music, which is kept low enough for easy conversation, creates a romantic background.
In addition to a thoughtfully chosen wine list, Cantina specializes in premium tequilas, and even employs a tequilier (much like a wine sommelier, except that his or her expertise is the classic Mexican spirit). Tiberio Lobo-Nava’s goal is to let diners know that there’s much more to tequila than margaritas or salt and lime, and to help them explore the complexities of over 40 different tequilas, ranging from white to golden.
Cantina offers more than. As he mingles with guests, Lobo-Nava will share his knowledge of the blue agave distilled spirit, and recommends particular varieties to pair with culinary selections.
Tequila, we learn, is distilled from the roasted center of the blue agave plant, which is not, as is commonly thought, a cactus: it is a succulent that belongs to the lily family. We also learn that there are three categories of tequila – blanco, or silver, which is bottled immediately after the distillation process, reposado, or rested, kept in oak casks for two months to a year, and añejo, or aged, held in white oak casks for more than a year. For novices who want to experiment, Cantina offers a series of tequila tasting flights.
We begin with guacamole ($14) prepared tableside. Our server puts warm avocado and freshly-squeezed lime juice into a stone bowl, adds green pepper, red onions, and cilantro, and mashes the ingredients by hand. Made-on-the-premises fried tortilla chips are perfect for dipping in the very, very fresh-tasting mix.
A flight of ceviches ($14) offers a sampling of tender shrimp, chunky grouper, and chewy octopus, marinated in fresh lime juice and accented with crunchy, full-flavored tomatoes and mild goat cheese. The dish is a very nice combination of textures, and tastes as fresh as if the seafood had been pulled from the water minutes before.
Crispy, made-on-the-premises tacos are filled with deliciously spicy, tender chicken ($10). Fresh tomatoes, avocado, and micro greens cool the heat, and a soft black bean paste provides a nice foil for the meat and crunchy wrappers.
Other appetizers include tortilla soup ($8) and Caribbean lobster quesadilla served with mango dipping sauce ($18),
Grilled fillet of grouper ($26) was firm, fresh and flaky, the meaty flavor and texture of the fish beautifully accented with a lightly sautéed medley of fresh garlic, tomatoes, and peppers, and served with fragrant cilantro rice. Flavorful grilled skirt steak ($15) was cooked to order, then sliced thin and garnished with very fresh red and green peppers sautéed to crisp-tenderness. The accompanying soft tortillas served as wraps.
Slow-cooked pork ($18) was a special of the evening, and our overall favorite dish. Marinated in sour orange juice overnight and simmered for 12 hours, the meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The fragrant marinade permeated every bite, lending a wonderful spiciness without a lot of heat.
The catch of the day was red snapper wrapped in corn husk to seal in moisture, then lightly grilled and served with tomatoes, onions, olives and capers. The combination of mild, yet full-flavored fish with the fresh accent of crisp-tender vegetables and pungent bite of olives and capers was delicious.
Other entrees include braised shrimp ($28); grilled sea bass ($28); churraco steak ($26); and grilled chicken ($19).
Tequila Key lime pie ($8) was light and refreshing, and just tart enough. Molten chocolate cake ($8) was fresh and moist, though not remarkable. Other desserts are coconut ice cream lollipops with rum caramel sauce ($8); and tres leches vanilla cake ($8).
Cantina Beach offers a setting and ambiance that are worth a visit in themselves. Having the ocean so close to the seating area is indeed a treat, and the dramatic use of live flames for night lighting creates a romantic, almost exotic feel. Food is fresh and flavorful, made with high quality ingredients, and allows a diner to explore Mexican cuisine that is sophisticated without being pretentious. The addition of fine tequilas and an opportunity to learn more about them adds to the experience.