Chic and Ye Shall Find

Probably the first thing that comes to mind when you hear "cassis" is black currant, which is what the word means in French. Or perhaps the term conjures images of that lovely liqueur from Dijon, Creme de Cassis. But located on the western end of France's Cote d'Azur is the picturesque fishing village of the same name as the berry and the cordial. As popular a tourist spot as South Beach, the little hamlet called Cassis is renowned for its bistros, particularly for the distinctively delicious fish soup and white wines served in them.

Now South Beach has its own Cassis Bistro and, like the little village on the Riviera, this three-month-old establishment draws a clientele that is both outrageously rich and richly outrageous. On the night we visited, for example, a chic party of four seated nearby schmoozed and name-dropped with manager-owner Francois Latapie, former maitre d' of New York's Le Cirque. Moments later a group of black-leather-clad motorcyclists trooped past us on the way to their table, greeting us as they did so.

The atmosphere of this Washington Avenue restaurant, which was once a drugstore, captures perfectly the French expression "beaute negligee," or neglected beauty. The room is huge and squarish, with mottled, antique-yellow walls, granite-gray floors, and high, grid-work ceilings. Sweeping expanses of floor-to-ceiling windows are swagged with ecru canvas, and a breakfront bar on one side of the room looks right out of the gaslight era.

Immediately upon being seated we were presented with the requisite French bread, along with some unusually salty butter. To counteract the saltiness, I ordered a glass of rose de cassis ($4.50). Actually a blush, this vintage was much bolder and sweeter than any California blush, an impression that was reinforced as I enjoyed my second glass later during the meal. The restaurant features different wines by the glass each week, and on our visit these included, in addition to the rose de cassis, a Latour Chardonnay, a white zinfandel Karly, ($4.50 per glass, or a bottle of the Karly for $15), a split of the sparkling wine Chandonnoir ($6.50), a bottle of Brut du Bistro ($19), and a bottle of Schramsberg blanc de blanc for $35.

In addition to seven bottles of champagne, Cassis Bistro offers more than two-dozen red and white wines. Prices start at $15 and top out at $129 for a Pauillac Chateau Mouton Rothchild, with a dozen or so labels in between priced at $30. Most of the wines are French, of course, and the list is designed to marry well with the dishes at the restaurant. No years are given on the otherwise painstakingly hand-calligraphied list.

Appetizers on this occasion were not out of the ordinary: carpaccio, marinated salmon, a garlic-grilled shrimp salad, grilled vegetables, the house salad, roasted goat cheese, an onion soup, and the soup-of-the-day, which on this occasion was vichyssoise. Prices range from $5.50 for the soup to $10.50 for the grilled vegetables, this last of which was something of a shock since some of the other selections - particularly a plate of prosciutto, house pate, and mountain cheese at only $6.95 - contain more expensive (and more interesting) ingredients.

On such a warm evening I had no problem deciding how to start my meal. I ordered the vichyssoise, a cool, pureed potato mixture served with a confetti of chives atop. This version had a subtle nip rather than a bite to it, and a superb taste and texture. When I called Monsieur Latapie later, he explained that the extraordinary color and flavor was imparted by the leeks, of which the chef used the green part as well as the standard white. "We're not that classic," he explained. "We like to experiment."

When it comes to main dishes and sides, this restaurant does have a flair for improvisation. The menu on the night we visited leaned toward meats, but four seafood dishes were also available: a bouillabaisse of grouper, shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, and snapper ($19.95), black linguine with shrimp and scallops ($14.50), fillet of yellowtail with shiitake mushrooms and baked in parchment paper ($l6.95), and grilled tuna served with a ratatouille and black olive puree ($16.95).

We skipped over the de rigueur veal chop ($21.95) and sauteed or grilled black angus steak ($19.95), pausing to linger over a mixed grill ($18.95) and sweetbreads in hot mustard sauce ($16.50). While the menu changes every week to ten days, one can depend on a few Argentine favorites such as these last two, perhaps because Monsieur Latapie's business partner, Fabian Seijas, is a native of that beef-loving part of the world.

I finally chose a skirt steak, which arrived in a classic Bordelaise sauce replete with finely chopped shallots and smartly seasoned with a pinch of freshly ground pepper, a hint of lemon juice, and creamy butter. I imagined that a long and tedious process of macerating, larding, barding, basting, or combination of techniques had rendered so tender a skirt steak, but Monsieur Latapie explained to me that the chef carefully removes all the fat and musculature from the meat, then keeps it under 30-degree refrigeration for three days. After this aging process, he grills the beef, sealing in the juices, said Latapie, and the sauce - which is slow-cooked for several hours - is added after the meat is cooked.

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