'Miami Latin' flavors at Playa Azul
Omi's Playa Azul restaurant started as Omi's Kitchen and Elegant Catering before moving across Hogtown, from the Tower Square Shopping Center to the Sun Center -- in the daily hustle and bustle of downtown.
Except Omi's is unlike any other downtown dining establishment; in fact, it is unlike anywhere else in Gainesville. This is about as close to the Latin cuisine Miami-natives and anyone else with a love of authentic Latin food are accustomed to.
Omi Risco herself not only oversees the restaurant, but caters multiple events each week with her "Elegant Catering" service, which has always consisted of an ethnic-fusion menu.
My first trip recently to the small space with covered plaza seating and a very nice bar area with a few large TVs followed very belatedly after the initial opening on Labor Day weekend. Nevertheless, the menu, staff, and service were still in fluctuation. I was even presented with a temporary menu, which didn't have all of the same items as a previous one they had used, so it seemed that the restaurant was using the 6 months since opening to experiment with which Cuban, Mexican and Latin flavors/dishes worked — and sold — the best.
I did appreciate each dish being presented in its original language with an explanation in English beside it, which added authenticity.
Originally I had my heart set on ordering the Tabla Campecina, $12, an ethnic plate of chorizo, serrano ham, and manchego cheese. As if that didn't sound tantalizing enough, the addition of olives, tomato, and garlic spread sent it over the edge. However, the kitchen was apparently out of chorizo. Luckily, this menu item will be on the new menu and in my next order.
The two appetizers I ordered are on the current menu and will also be on the new menu, which the restaurant manager allowed us see. The first appetizer, Berenjenas Fritas, $7, was four very sizeable, fried eggplant slices presented on a beautiful dish that was also a slice -- a slice from a log. The eggplant was well-breaded, and cheese sauce, the beset part, was spread generously on top. Tostones, $7 (fried plantains) were ordinary, but perhaps I am not a fan. The spicy mojo dip that accompanied them was tasty, though.
One thing the new menu will have the current one didn't that I want to try is the Pulpo a la Gallega, steamed octopus. Although the Ropa Vieja looked tempting and I had heard great things about this slow cooked beef brisket dish in a red wine sauce, the restaurant manager claimed the paella was a newer addition and a must-try addition. The Paella Mixta (image at top) $25, was the option available, but the new menu will have three renditions of the classic Spanish dish.
As the name implies, it was certainly a mix of ingredients: Chorizo is also usually in the dish, but as mentioned, Omi's was out of chorizo this visit. Nevertheless, dark meat chicken was thrown into this hearty rice dish alongside shrimp, scallops, mussels, squid, and clams. It was enough to split between two people, and all the flavors melded together as if it had been cooking for some time. I am not a fan of dark meat chicken, but the seafood was prepared well.
The most memorable aspect of the meal besides delicious white wine the manager selected was the flan. If previous reviews haven't revealed yet, I have a second stomach and a sweet spot in my heart for dessert any time of the day. This was a great sweet custard dessert: Omi's rendition is soft and very sweet; the creamy texture is offset by strawberries and blackberries, which also provided an enjoyable tart contrast. This was the one plate of the night I completely cleaned.
While there are certainly some kinks to work out, Omi's has her hands full with a well-established catering service and a restaurant that is gaining in popularity. Certain nights you can catch some live jazz music (previously on Friday night but switched to Thursday), and different specials pop up sporadically. Your best bet to keep up with Omi's happenings and which dishes are on the menu is via Facebook. I found it interesting that the lunch dishes on the kitchen menu were listed separately as American, Cuban, and Mexican.
I am looking forward to ordering from the new menu, as there will be both a salmon appetizer and entrée and an octopus dish. I can appreciate that presentation was a key factor in the meal experience, a component that I feel is essential to food's appeal to the senses. Although I will certainly return to Omi's Playa Azul, this meal didn't blow me away. However, the manager claimed they make the best mojitos in town, so I may need to put that to the test next time.
The Pluses and Minuses of Omi's Playa Azul:
Omi's Playa Azul (+) Indicators: Owner well-established, good quality ingredients, pretty good value for quantity of food, friendly manager/staff
Omi's Playa Azul (-) Indicators: Downtown parking, out of some items, still have kinks to work out, inconsistent menu
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- Phone Number: 352 215-1363
- Address: 101 SE 2nd place
- Urban GLOB Location: Downtown
- Web Site: Omi's Playa Azul
- Latitude: 29.64932
- Longitude: -82.32358