Fugato is an intimate hideaway for elegant dining.
While most of the fine dining establishments of Coral Gables are clustered on Giralda, Ponce, and The Mile, with another covey in the Shops at Merrick Park, there are the occasional outliers. Fugato is one of those places, tucked just off the beaten path on Alcazar between Salzedo and Le Jeune. Take a date, and your stock will rise just by knowing that it’s there.
Because it is relatively small, with one wall painted a deep Tuscan red and a soundtrack that resonates somewhere between soft jazz and Bossa Nova, it is a romantic hideaway, visited by couples looking for the perfect spot. But it is also popular with families and locals. Fugato is a kind of hybrid, offering sophisticated cuisine at reasonable prices, which makes it somewhere to go for that special occasion – and at the same time a neighborhood haunt.
That fits in perfectly with its food, which owner Luis Buitron calls “fusion” cuisine. While the menu tilts to the Italian, it is permeated by French and Latin influences, especially from Buitron’s home country of Venezuela. Perfect example: the Burrata, with its creamy Italian cheese and tomatoes enhanced by prosciutto and tiny Venezuelan arepas stuffed with chorizo.
That’s just the beginning of the array of well-prepared dishes at Fugato, all designed by executive chef Pilar Mendez, Luis’ wife. She has been his partner not only in this endeavor, but in his previous incarnation as a partner in the Kendall restaurant Secreto. Under her watchful eye, and with the help of sous-chef Karla Olivares, the restaurant offers a short but excellent menu. We like such menus, which declare with confidence that endless choices are not necessary, only a discrete number done well.
The dinner menu presents five “cold” dishes, five “hot” dishes, six signature pasta plates and, six main courses – along with sides of pasta, potatoes, and risotto. For our cold dish, we chose the “rainbow” tiradito ($24), a traditional Peruvian dish of thinly sliced, well-chilled raw fish, drizzled with lemon and lime juices right before being served. Theirs is a mix of yellowfin tuna, corvina, and salmon, with avocado, red onion, and cilantro. Lovely, light, and citrusy.
For a hot dish, we tried the chèvre croquettes ($14), a variation on the Cuban classic, but in this case using goat cheese and pine nuts, served with homemade marinara and a strawberry-guava sauce. Let’s just say it takes the traditional dish up a couple of notches. Who knew the missing magical ingredient was guava? A sweet and creamy treat.
For our main dishes we tried the pappardelle fugato ($29), a richly textured fresh pasta event with mushrooms, tomato (fresh and sun-dried), spinach, smoked mozzarella, and shredded short ribs. An enormously satisfying combination with a kicker of truffle oil.
We also tried the fish of the day (MP), which happened to be grilled branzino on a sort of sundial array of mussels. The fish was fresh and flaky, grilled just right, with a crunchy edge to it, enhanced by a beurre blanc sauce straight out of Julia Child’s arsenal. We can only hope they return to this special again and again.
While Fugato is proud of its signature veal ossobuco ($48) – using a veal shank instead of ox tail – we were more impressed by the chicken Florentine ($26), a simple but delightful grilled chicken breast with mushrooms, spinach, parmesan, and a creamy mushroom sauce. If this were our neighborhood, we would return just for this comfort food.
Service here is prompt and friendly without being overbearing. Buitron is ever present, the restaurant small enough for him to oversee everything without being spread too thin. For him, Fugato is the culmination of a journey that began in 1980 when he immigrated from Venezuela and began as a bus boy at La Bussola. Since then, he’s worked diligently to bring his culinary dream to fruition at Fugato, and it shows. There is a sense of the sweet life here, reflected in the largest selection of items on the menu, the eight house-made desserts. We tried a lovely dessert of the day, vanilla bean ice cream in a dish of sliced strawberries and powdered sugar. But our favorite was the “bon bon” coffee, with layers of whipped cream, espresso, and condensed milk. Just the kick we needed to face the sultry evening outside.