By Bill Citara
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By Valeria Nekhim
By Hannah Sentenac
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By Carla Torres
Though I hadn't thought much about eminent domain since I learned about it in the sixth grade, the term took on new life for me when the decade-old Gourmet Diner fell victim in the fall of last year. The 40-seat North Miami Beach fixture was leveled to make way for the widening of Biscayne Boulevard, a road-construction nightmare that has forced several other notable eateries (among them Hiro Japanese Restaurant and Biscayne Wine Merchants & Bistro) to relocate. Reluctant to abandon his loyal clientele, Belgian-born diner owner Jean-Pierre Lejeune undertook some contracting of his own; he dug in almost directly across the street.
Reopened in late April, the new stainless steel and chrome structure, as bright as a vintage Thunderbird, has lost something in the way of local color -- the boxcar-shape, wooden original had that weathered, salt-eaten South Florida look, and its position next to the railroad tracks made for charmingly authentic plate rattlings and breaks in the conversation whenever a train rumbled past. An increase of 50 seats necessitated other compromises: Though fish-of-the-day specials are still chalked up, the traditional blackboard menus have been abandoned in favor of printed lists sheathed like scholarly reports; plastic uprights on the tables advertise a select group of wines sold by the half-bottle. And the old three-person waitstaff, which buzzed around the kitchen pass-through like moons around a planet, yelling for their orders, has grown into a larger crew that is far less dependable. On one visit a busboy actually attempted to set down our main courses on top of our appetizers; when we finally persuaded him to take away the dirty plates first, he held out his hand so we could load him up.
Okay, so it's a diner. But what a diner! The potatoes are scalloped, the coffee is cappuccino, and the desserts are huge slices of custard tart topped with fresh, ripe kiwi and strawberries. Their motto: "Just bon cuisine." And, considering what you're getting, it's reasonably cheap; the wine list -- Chateauneuf-du-Pape in a diner? You bet! -- is especially egalitarian. In spite of the hopscotch across the road, the "French-roots" fare has lost nothing in the transition. (A word to the wise, however: Visit the cash machine before sitting down for your meal; the Gourmet Diner doesn't accept checks or credit cards.)
Several appetizers were noteworthy for their size as well as their preparation. A jumbo steamed artichoke ($5.95) was served chilled, a fine vinaigrette, pink and sharp from red wine vinegar, appropriately countering the gently assertive flavor of the leaves. The heart, dense and meaty underneath, was a more-than-adequate reward for the patience the vegetable demands. Another gigantic serving, a salad of sliced mushrooms and tender squid, was piled so high atop a bed of lettuce that four people couldn't finish it. Dressed in mayonnaise with chopped garlic and a touch of mustard, the main ingredients were rich and potent, similar in their resilient texture, despite the fact that the mushrooms seemed slightly oxidized.
Snails ($4.95) were equally enticing, prepared traditionally with strong accents of garlic, melted butter, and a powerful dose of white wine. Garnished with chopped parsley, the serving of six was hot and fragrant, among Miami's best. After the snails were consumed, crisp baguette slices proved perfect for dipping into the remaining sauce.
The bread also provided a nice accompaniment to a brimming bowl of the soup of the day, a thick and sweet green-pea puree. Aromatic bay leaves made their presence felt, small pieces of the crushed herb dotting the smooth mixture. Not ideally suited to this treatment, the bay leaves might have been a more successful addition had they been strained out.
But it seemed that a plethora of bay leaves was the order of the day. An outstanding loin of lamb ($11.95), a six-inch-long fillet, was pungently encrusted with bay leaves and served delectably rare, au jus. The accompanying spinach souffle was appealing, though a second side dish of scalloped potatoes layered with oil and garlic was greasy and too heavily spiced -- more crushed bay leaves.
A crisp half of roast duck was by all appearances plain, but the meat had a wonderful gamy flavor that needed no other emphasis. Though the skin was too salty, the bird, served with the spinach souffle and firm, just-sugary-enough caramelized apples, was of premium quality; like the lamb, it exhibited veteran chef Thomas Rodriguez's exemplary handling.
Paired with a scoop of unremarkable white rice, the seafood au gratin contained shredded crab, medium-size shrimp, and tender scallops. The delicate shrimp were perfectly done, not at all dry and nicely bathed in a mild sauce that had a beautiful creamy balance, just hinting at the cheese. Noticeably oven-hot, the casserole was memorable for its mellow swirl of complementary flavors.
A bowl of fusilli -- mushy twists of noodle, colored orange by a sparkless, oily tomato sauce and garnished with a few broccoli tops -- proved to be the evening's only failure. Memories of the many wonderfully prepared pasta dishes at the diner's old location made this most recent experience doubly disappointing.
We were also disappointed, in a way, by dessert: The house-made custard fruit tart was sold out. Though a piece of chocolate cake, layered with fine white and chocolate mousse ($4.25) and banded by a shell of fudgy icing, was itself a treat, the shortage was a bittersweet reminder of the days when you had to reserve your favorite dessert before you ordered your entree. The more things change, the more they stay the same.