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A Palace Tour

I start every trip to Miami at Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho. Versailles lives up to its name with its mirrored walls, court in eternal debate, and heavily bejeweled matrons .  The front entrance opens onto a long red carpet leading to the two, raucous dining rooms. There may be music playing at Versailles, but it’s impossible to hear over the sounds of politics, silverware, and full-blast air conditioning.  Recognition is key, and upon entering everyone immediately scans the room for familiar faces.   A quick table stop or two before being seated can whether you’re given the real menu or the tourist menu in English.

img_0282I rarely have Cuban food outside of Miami. Deceptively simple, it’s easy to get wrong.   Today, I arrived with a checklist of things I’ve been dreaming of from the moment I booked my flight – tortilla de platanos, croquetas de yucca,  ropa vieja, flan de queso.   Nevertheless,  once there,  I ordered to please my waitress.  Versailles boasts the boldest wait staff in the Miami and possibly the world.   They’re like a female army in tight green, polyester leisure suits trained by hypercritical,  but well-meaning Cuban grandmothers.  One raised eyebrow or sharp comment, will prompt you to cut down a croqueta order and cancel the fries, yet they seem genuinely disappointed if you don’t clean your plate and order dessert.  I had a media noche since it’s hard to find a cuban sandwich made with the traditional pan de agua outside of Miami.  It was heavy on the ham but still delicious.    The fried plantains were also fantastic, perfectly sweet without being oily. For dessert, I had  the brazo gitano, a rolled cake with dulce de leche filling and chocolate frosting.  My cake was a little dry, and I was soon begging my sister to share her flan with me.  Finally, even though it’s just a macchiato,  it tastes so much better when you can call it a cortadito and have it on a warm December day.

img_1084When I was little, I made no distinction between the plastic baroque of Versailles and the palaces of books and Disney movies.  Even as an adult, it never  disappoints.  Like going through the looking glass, it becomes as small or big as you need it to be on that day, at that moment.  I’ll  visit Versailles several times on my trip as I work my way down my list.  With each meal,  I settle into it’s rhythms and sounds till it’s time to go home again.

I Want to Eat My Christmas Tree

I’m not actually going to do it although my dog has already tried.  I debated the practicality of putting up a tree I can only enjoy for a couple of weeks before I return to Miami for Christmas.  I decided to be sensible and forgo it until the sweet Vermont hippie who sells trees at the end of my block offered me a little Charlie Browner as fat as it was tall.  It just had to come home with me.

It was few years before it occurred to me that I could put up my own tree.  Growing up, I’d always thought home would be my mother’s house in Miami until I started my own family.  Eventually I sent myself to school in New York and stayed there.  Still, the original concept I had as a child lingered, like an idea that only has its own word in a dead language.  With every passing year in my Cobble Hill apartment, it felt less temporary and more like home.  I stopped saving Christmas for a few days in Miami.

img_10451I only let myself buy ornaments after December 26th each year so I have a mix of overlooked but still very pretty decorations, like orphans from central casting.  The tree itself is so chubby that I had to bury a lot of the figures just inside the branches so they peek out.  I love everything about this tree.  I love the floating mandarin in the mushroom hat, I love the mouse in snow boots, I love the polish black and white glass balls, I love the dancer en pointe, I love the peacock…

My tree is sweet just to the point before it becomes saccharine.  So naturally, I now want to eat it.  But since that would hurt, I’m having people over to enjoy it with me instead.  Before everyone goes there separate ways for Christmas, I decided to have a few friends over for a buche de noel.  I’ve been dying to make one and it is the traditional time for it.  Not being french, it’s not my rule to break.

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