Mick's Picks: The freshest calamari I ever tasted came from this restaurant called Cristina's along the Costa del Sol in Spain where Lil' Mama and I spent our honeymoon. Along the surf out front of this shanty of a restaurant, the fisherman launched and beached their small craft amongst the pasty Russians and stout Germans burning in the Marbella sun. The fisherman hauled the day's catch up to the kitchen door for inspection from the chef and what looked good to him was what got served. The cooks rinsed the squid off, cleaned it up, roll cut it right there, and doused it with a quick hit of olive oil in the saute pan. Perhaps a dash of salt, a flash of pepper, and then the calamari was on its way to me with nothing more than a couple halves of lemons. It was the same temperature as the sea from which it came and soft as the sand. Since that buttery, smooth taste of calamari, Lil' Mama and I have shared a strong bias for all things Spanish. My serious infatuation with two of the greatest modern writers, Papa Hemingway and Carlos Ruis Zafon, doesn't help my case of Espanophilia either. I find it interesting that in a country which has experienced conquests and reconquista, the pinnacles and pitfalls of empire, the horror of civil war, and their economy's pending collapse, the Spaniards still find time to enjoy their siestas and strolls along La Rambla, their cafe culture and wine, their slow food and late dinners. Who needs the Euro when you have such a divine culinary heritage, right?
When we find ourselves dreaming about watching the sunset from the shores of Marbella, Miro Spanish Grille offers enough of a taste of Spain to get us our fix closer to home. Their location in Stonecrest Shopping Center near the Rea Road exit off I-485 is not far from our house and easy to access for those traveling from outside the Southside. If the weather is pleasant I recommend you sit outside on the patio and let the flamenco music slinking from the speakers help you slip into the mood with a glass of Rioja. During the summer, families and locals arrive in throngs, many with wine and coolers in tow, to gather around the pavilion fountains and listen and dance to live jazz or salsa bands. It is nice to see the community mingling and enjoying themselves outside plus the inside of Miro is charming but cramped. There is barely room for the serving traffic to squeeze by bar patrons and the small amount of seating fills the restaurant to capacity quickly. So if you are visiting Miro on a weekend and not arriving around 5:30, bring a bottle of wine to savor with the music while you wait for a table.
Empanadas much like Jamaican meat patties are a near perfect food. Minced up meat of your liking, toss in some chopped veggies, and a dash of spices packed up in a giant ravioli then fried to golden deliciousness. What is not to like? If you wanted, you could pack all the major food groups in this self-containing package which is both edible and delicious. Miro's take on the traditional Spanish turnover is a heaping spoonful of spicy beef with a side of fresh salsa for dipping. The crust is crispy without being greasy and stays out of the way of the savory meat inside. They are quite large so if you don't want to fill-up before your meal, seek out another appetizer such as the alchacofas pictured below.
Simple enough as a few artichoke hearts, a sprig of oregano, a couple ribbons of red onion, and a splash of tart vinaigrette to bind the flavors, this vegetarian-friendly starter tastes fresh and sets the stage for the big flavors to come with the entrees. If you love artichokes this is a great recipe to remember for a quick healthy snack or salad at home. Great flavor and quick prep on a small scale.
Lil' Mama loves chimichurri sauce and selected the Churassco de Cerdo. A deep green streak of chopped parsley, garlic, olive oil, oregano, and vinegar came served over a narrow plank of tender pork rubbed with smoky paprika and other spices. When sliced up, the juices of the meat flowed into the herbs and seasonings and soaked into the rice which created this flavor melange that keep my wife mostly silent as she listened to the music and savored our quiet meal together. Her plantains were soft and sweet as caramel without being overly-ripe or gooey and the black beans were cooked with the right balance of solids to sauciness. Nothing worse than overcooked or burnt beans that crust into a thick, nasty protein puddle.
I picked the traditional Catalan fish stew, Zarzuela de Mariscos, for my entree. The contents are similar to a French bouillabaisse but rather than using a base heavy in cream and stock, the Catalans prefer to simmer their shrimp, grouper, calamari, mussels, clams, and scallops in an aromatic broth of tomatoes, wine, saffron, and tastiness. A squeeze of fresh lemon was all I needed to finish the dish. The grouper was saturated with the broth that pooled in the calamari rings and scalloped shells. Each spoonful was loaded with the fruits of the sea. As I closed my eyes and took in the smell, I was reminded again of how the Spanish are amongst the true masters of using fresh ingredients to craft spectacular, simple meals. With each bite, I could almost hear the gulls and the Germans on that beach in Marbella. I should have never let the busboy take our bread basket so that I could have soaked up the last of the broth. I savored each bite and wanted more.
Unfortunately we didn't save room for the tres leches cake that seems obligatory at any self-respecting Spanish restaurant. But we know from past experiences at Miro and the much-missed Sole (now the Italian Pie on East Blvd.) that their take on the sugary, milk-drenched sponge cake is worth saving room and adding a couple extra sets to tomorrow's fitness routine.
If you are looking for a taste of Spain here in Charlotte, give Miro a chance. Just be sure to come early or take a clue from the Spaniards and relax with some wine and live music while you wait for a table. Here at Restaurant Traffic, we give Miro Spanish Grille the green light. You should too.