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Those who wish to sample genuine French hospitality need not suffer the expense of an expedition to the new theme park, however - it's right in the heart of Coconut Grove at Brasserie Le Coze, owned by brother-and-sister restaurateurs Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze. Gilbert manages the upscale fish restaurant in New York called Le Bernardin, one of the nation's loveliest and finest ichtheological adventures; soeur Maguy operates this one in Miami.
Rather than shield itself from hoi polloi outside, Le Coze is set up bistro-style, with open French doors and tables spilling out onto a terrace facing the foot traffic on Florida Avenue. The rooms constitute a tasteful study in contrasts: all dark wood and white tile, black leather and white linens, sturdy mirrored columns and delicate crystal lamps. The handpainted floral wall tiles lend beauty and color to an otherwise masculine motif. It's not exactly the Passage des Petites-Ecuries or the Rive Gauche yet - in fact, the milieu in and around CocoWalk may have far more in common with EuroDisney than enclaves of Parisian brasseries - but Le Coze offers a spacious, open-air environment in which to enjoy our tropical paradise, along with some very fine food.
My most recent visit was for a late lunch. While more steaks, veal stew, and generally heartier fare are offered for dinner, the luncheon menu is an object lesson in thrifty economy - but this is heavier lunch food than most around town. If you're ravenous at noon, you can get a duck confit cassoulet ($16) or a skirt steak marinated with soy, ginger, thyme, and served with pomme frites ($16), with portion and price about the same at dinner as at lunch. A few items cost a buck more at night than at midday, but there's no wholesale tinkering going on. While this means lunchtime bargains are rare at Le Coze - main courses begin at $9.50 for a chicken and avocado salad and top out at $17.50 for fillet of cod - it also means that prices on identical dishes are not hiked sky-high at night, as is true at many places around town. On the other hand, if you're planning to mosey over to Le Coze for dinner and nosh on an appetizer, disabuse yourself of the notion. Le Coze has a minimum dinner charge per person of $15.
As you might expect, the wine list features a preponderance of French vintages, but the card is not particularly ostentatious for a French restaurant and wine buffs will be pleased that the restaurant lists the year for each bottle. A 1990 Muscadet Gadais, a Val de Loire vintage, is offered for $20, and there are several American Chardonnays, plus a Beaujolais, a Californian Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Bourgogne Blanc, available for $25 or less. Only a few of the approximately 40 wines cost more than $50, but most are between $30 and $50 a bottle.
Equal attention is paid to seafoods and meat dishes here, and as befits a restaurant so close to water, raw bar items abound: local oysters or little neck clams are available at lunch, and at dinner, there are Bluepoint or Louisiana oysters. But the piece de resistance for raw bar fans is a platter of oysters, clams, shrimp, and stone crabs, all for $24. Fish vies with the aforementioned meat dishes in the appetizer and entree departments, with snapper, salmon, grouper, swordfish, codfish, and tuna among the offerings.
While service is cordial enough at Brasserie Le Coze, the menu descriptions could stand some improvement. Asssuming that a dish called "Assorted Appetizer Plate" might contain small samples of the seven items on the list, I ordered it. While the lunchtime starters include house pate, gazpacho, a crab-and-seaweed salad, and an endive Roquefort salad as well as the aforementioned local oysters and clams, I received none of those. Perhaps a better name for the dish I received would be chef's surprise assortment, since it consisted of meats - mostly charcutiere-style items: smoky ham slices, pate de foie, and chorizo, to name the more recognizable. The meats were tasty and more than took the edge off my appetite, since I ate them with the constantly replenished loaves of warm French bread and a glass of the house white, described by my waiter simply as a "dry French Chardonnay." It was a pleasant beginning altogether, but the restaurant should explain such dishes more thoroughly on the menu. It might also inform diners - either verbally or in writing - of the names and prices of the house wines. When I asked my waiter what the pate was made from, he replied "a mix of things." Persons paying this much for lunch - my tab came to around $50 - do not want a lot of surprises or vague answers to questions.
Additional mysteries on the entree list include "Seafood Pasta," void of description in both the fish and pasta departments. A couple of items on the menu are served a la nage, but there is no definition of the term anywhere. (A la nage, by the way, is a hot preparation.)
My way of dealing with such menu omissions, particularly since my waiter was extremely busy, was to take the path of least resistance. I ordered a main course that was described as "grouper with basil-perfumed olive oil ($17)." The preparation was lovely to behold: a Rubenesque wedge of fish, golden in color, surrounded by buttery zucchini and topped with minced basil and flecks of bright red tomatoes. The fish, which had been coated in a light egg batter and sauteed, seemed resistant to the fork when I tried to break off my first piece, but melted in the mouth.
Succumbing again to curiosity, I ordered a dessert called by my waiter "raspberry soup." I had in mind some berry-and-sour-cream version of a Hungarian cold cherry soup, but soup, in this case, was a misnomer. The berries, though not very sweet, rested in a shallow pool of mulled, cinnamon-scented red wine, which benefited them greatly. Other desserts offered at Le Coze are greater extravaganzas than my choice - a flourless chocolate cake with a dollop of homemade vanilla ice cream ($6.50), for example, and the ever-present creme brulee ($5) - but I found the berries a refreshing finish to a lunch about ten times larger than my usual repast. This is also one of the few restaurants in America that makes its own caramel ice cream - a dessert that is unusual in these parts, but the equivalent of apple pie in la belle France.
Brasserie originally meant brewery, but has come to mean a saloon, restaurant, or cafe where beer and other drinks are served along with a limited menu of food. Because of their bohemian ambiance and inexpensive offerings, brasseries were gathering places for journalists and artists. It is said that Nadar, Baudelaire, Courbet, and Manet all discoursed at the same brasserie in the Rue des Martyrs. While I doubt whether my fellow diners with their portable phones perched beside them are scribes or artists, I do know there are artists at Brasserie Le Coze. In the kitchen. Culinary artists. And, oh yes, the French waiters are not arrogant.