Unmitigated Gaul

"On a bush they are beautiful, unless you are the gardener who planted the bush. They are beautiful on plates, too, each one in its own little dent, shell full of hot green butter like a magic cup." Aside from M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote so lyrically in praise of snails, most Americans have an aversion to eating "slugs with shells," as I've frequently heard them described. And it's true that in appearance they are not very appetizing. But get past it! Done proficiently, escargot can be a supple, exquisite treat.

I swallowed my first snails in Paris and remember being surprised at the texture, an appealing slight chewiness like conch or a firm sea scallop. Like Fisher, I also admired the hot green butter, a color resulting from the minced mix of garlic, shallots, and parsley that foliated the feast. French bread absorbed the precious fluids anointing each shell A tempting, tempting. We could have made a meal from bread and snails alone, as the French do (Fisher reports she once watched a woman eat seven dozen before turning purplish-red).

In France snails have always been the food of the people; shops that specialize in nothing but the crunchy creatures exude their unique cooked fragrance for blocks around. Some individuals breed snails A "blooded stock" A for their own use or to sell to restaurants. Others, in springtime, head outdoors for ritual snail hunts. Fisher suggests a popular way to farm snails: allow their death by starvation. A cruel execution, she implies, but necessary when it comes time to remove the animal intact from its fragile sarcophagus, clean it, prepare it in a white wine stock flavored with shallots, and return it to its home for service at the table.

Formerly reserved for only the finest of French restaurants and the wealthiest of patrons, escargot has finally hit the American mainstream. Especially in Miami, as it has become a more international city, the inclusion of escargot on the appetizer list has ceased to be an oddity. Though we're frequently disappointed by flavorless, rubbery, and obviously canned preparations, my husband and I order it whenever we find it on a menu. The two times this dish has been memorable for us in Miami have been in French restaurants: served in a boule bun and a red wine sauce at Cafe Tulipe at the Shoppes at Bal Harbour, and served in a faithful, fantastic garlic-shallot butter at Cafe Europa, Coconut Grove's sixteen-year-old French tradition.

More accurately, Coconut Grove's fifteen-year-three-month-old tradition, if one considers the recent months Cafe Europa was forced to close its doors. Hurricane Andrew nearly destroyed this family business, which Bernard and Maria Lapo own outright (unusual for restaurateurs, a circumstance that speaks of tremendous success in the field). In sixteen years, they say, they never filed a claim with their insurance company, though they regularly responded with payments. The Lapos ended up twice victimized, first by Andrew then by an overburdened insurance company that was unable to make good on its policy. So far at least, they have not received a single payment on their claim. Like many small-business owners, they were forced to restore their livelihood with loan money rather than the money that was rightfully theirs in case of disaster.

Nevertheless, nine months in gestation, Cafe Europa has finally experienced a rebirth. It opened on Mother's Day to a sell-out crowd, a perfect gift for Maria Lapo (her children are employed by the restaurant). She and husband Bernard, restaurateurs for nearly 40 years, took the opportunity to redecorate, replacing a dated Valentine's Day look of red and white with the gentle pinks and greens that reflect the city's dawns and sunsets. The interior blends a stunning bar with a dining room, done in the soft pink-and-gaslit glow of a prewar Paris. Simple elegance. A large covered terrace outside countrifies the look with fresh floral tablecloths, though the recent addition of air-conditioning (cooling the night somewhat effectively, too) and the arrival of diners in resort wear and even jeans renders this more suburban than provincial.

Chef Bernard also seized the moment to update his menu. Previously French and Italian, the list of appetizers and entrees now reflects a greater range of the French gourmet. A limited selection of pasta remains, including the linguini "Maria," named for his Italian wife (Bernard himself is French). Prepared with shrimp, scallops, shiitake mushrooms, and snow peas, this generous pasta was scented with Pernod. The heady taste of Pernod's anise can easily overwhelm many foods, but this essentially French liquor is handled here with admirable restraint.

Another dish richly guided by the spirits (of alcohol) is the authentic coq au vin. I've always been fond of this classically French dish, for practically Bacchanalian reasons. An old recipe calls for the browning of butter, onions, garlic, morels, and bouquet garni, or bundles of herbs. In this mixture, the chicken is sauteed then flamed with brandy. A pint of red wine is added and cooked off; the chicken then removed. Next A my favorite part A the sauce is thickened (but not cooked, as it may curdle) with the blood of the chicken, the chicken liver, and more brandy. You may be wondering: where are the cauldrons and broomsticks? Don't worry. I have been told many times A most significantly but not solely by my mother, one of the finest chefs I know A that blood makes the best gravy. Organs such as the liver or heart are the foundation for any poultry gravy she's ever made, and if you're ever at my house for Thanksgiving, you'll find I follow this advice. Although a rarity these days, even for old-line chefs such as Lapo, who makes his own stocks (a time-consuming practice), Bernard Lapo's preparation of coq au vin is nonetheless delectable. He does use carrots, which sweeten the sauce, and an alcoholic's share of Burgundy. The actual chicken is of the stewed variety, falling in juicy hunks off the bone.

The plates, where appropriate, arrive garnished with thin medallions of potato and fresh vegetables; for every entree, aside from the pastas, a choice of salad or soup du jour (an inspired chicken-and-spinach was featured on a recent evening)is offered. The salad is a bland little affair. The soups, though, are exceptional, most notably the French onion gratinee, a hearty brown broth spiked with port wine and a buoyant lid of bread chunks and cheese. Lapo's strengths of soups and sauces more than make up for a mediocrity like the slightly tough roast loin of pork with ginger sauce, or an outright mistake like the grilled chicken breast with Key lime essence, a char-grilled sour note in the otherwise lovely symphony of our meal. The lime, too pronounced for my taste, coated the dry breast a bit bitterly. Most certainly this dish is a nod to the New World, but better left behind by a chef whose true talents are classic.

Our waiter, attentive for ten minutes and absent for thirty, nonetheless charmed us when I asked for the best dish on the menu. "Madame," he said, "in a good restaurant, there are no 'best' choices, only different ones." After tasting the cassoulet Toulousain, made with navy beans, confit of duck, and garlic sausage, I disagree. Even in the better restaurants, there are stellar moments, and this was one. A cassoulet (a stew of beans) typically cooks in earthenware for hours with goose, pork, mutton, or duck. The traditional version of Toulouse calls for confit de canard, or preserved duck, and sausage. Cafe Europa's honest re-creation provided a plethora of pleasures, the smooth navy beans an excellent contrast to the spicy sausage and duck, a game bird that holds up well against the garlic. Unfortunate but true, this dish, like the others, filled us beyond the possibility of sampling dessert.

The Lapos hope their changes in decor and menu, coupled with an aggressive advertising campaign, will boost their status, though they naturally expect the summer slowdown. Daughter Yvonne Perez, who works as a manager in the restaurant, says the regular clientele has been supportive all along, stopping to inquire about their progress during the rebuilding process, dining frequently now that they're finally serving again. When I asked her how she felt about reopening just in time for the 1993 hurricane season, she replied, "We hadn't really thought about it like that. We're scared, very worried. But it won't happen again." Chances are it won't. And chances are Cafe Europa will thrive.

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