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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.
Also delicious were spinach-and-pine-nut pies made with strudel pastry, and hot, wonderful, crisp-on-the-outside,smooth-inside French fries, both of which were served as accompaniments to the main dish but may be ordered separately. Other side dishes include salads, cheeses, broiled tomatoes, and fettuccine with tomato and basil, at prices ranging from $3.50 for the potatoes to $8.95 for the pasta. Don't be tempted, however, to go to Cassis Bistro and order just the fries and spinach pie - the restaurant requires a $15 minimum per person.
My dining companion chose the Cornish hen, and I was anxious to see what the French chef would do with this non-French bird, which is a crossbreed of Cornish gamecocks and Plymouth Rock hens. Served whole, the plump bird was surrounded by a ring of alternating zucchini strips and green pepper slivers. The juices were sealed inside by a crust made from Dijon mustard mixed with a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar and an overall sprinkling of mustard seeds. The experience was a far cry from that which my dining companion had some time ago when he had attempted to prepare his own, supermarket-bought hen and complained incessantly thereafter that there hadn't been two bites of meat on the bird's bones.
Desserts are typical for a bistro - custard, tiramisu, profiteroles, chocolate mousse, meringue with fruit sauce, fresh strawberries, and assorted ice creams and sherbets - but thoughtful nuances abound. The custard, for example, is spiked with anise, and the tiramisu features coconut as well as chocolate. Too full to endure anything very rich, we shared raspberry sorbet ($5). The icy fruit blend was incredibly refreshing, and was bursting with the sweet berries.
As an alternative to the souffles found at most of Miami's French restaurants, the Cassis chef, if given 24 hours' notice, will prepare the tour de force dessert of Genoise, a baked Alaska flambe with Grand Marnier, brandy, egg whites, and ice cream. For those who prefer to sip their desserts, the restaurant also offers five liqueur-spiked coffees, concoctions worthy of the ancient alchemists who accidentally invented the liqueur. (Try the Monte-Carlo, a libation of grappa, dark Sambuca, coffee, and whipped cream.) For those who prefer to toast after-dinner with something simpler, Cassis Bistro features 36 rare brandies, aged bourbons, grappas (including Cristal grappa for two at $39), eau de vies, and liqueurs.
While it's difficult for a restaurant to distinguish itself on crowded South Beach without some sort of gimmick, Cassis Bistro is relying on the old-fashioned virtues of kitchen skills and excellent service. This restaurant's only gimmick - a mixed bag of customers - has come to them. Call it classy classlessness. Even the dozen or so Harley-Davidsons parked outside on the night we visited, in pastel hues of blue and pink and lavender, made a stretch limo parked nearby look commonplace. Leave it to the French to bring us together under one restaurant roof.