By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
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By Dana De Greff
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By Zachary Fagenson
Health experts advise that establishing a solid relationship with your physician is vital to maintaining your health. So I treat my doctor to dinner.
Young, good-looking, and possessed of a dry sense of humor, Dr. B is an excellent date, and I'm not just saying that because he writes me prescriptions for Zantac (the restaurant critic's antacid of choice). When he was taking down my medical history at our first consultation, I discovered something wonderful about him A he's a gourmet. A restaurant-lovin' fool. And (the biggest compliment I can bestow on anyone) a good eater.
Since that momentous meeting, I've had appointments with him by phone (he calls me from the Rascal House while chowing down on a pastrami sandwich) as well as in his office, where we spend most of the visit discussing our latest finds on Miami's ever-evolving restaurant front. As far as doctoring goes, I've never been in better health. In return, I occasionally diagnose a problem of his, such as his insatiable craving for fine French food, which had been brought on by the departure of his favorite haunt, Didier's, from its locale (now occupied by the Austrian eatery Mozart Stube) on Alcazar Avenue in Coral Gables. I also prescribe the treatment: Dinner at the restaurant's larger Ponce de Leon Boulevard reincarnation.
The successful but sometimes lonely Dr. B, who tells me he is actively seeking a wife, felt an immediate affinity for the new Didier's. Dressed like a bride, the restaurant's white stucco ceiling and walls, virginal eyelet draperies over latticed windows, and crisp, bleached linens exude a certain sweet charm, reflecting the management's welcoming attitude and overcoming any loss of intimacy brought on by an increase of 70 seats. Indeed, a family atmosphere pervades, thanks to the three brothers Collognette who run the place -- namesake Didier, host Olivier, and Thierry, whose country cooking has earned him a deserved reputation as one of Miami's most respected chefs.
Our server was friendly, bringing us each a small plate of crudites complemented by a pungent gorgonzola dip, even before bread and water. He described the evening's specials so enthusiastically that we were disappointed when he later informed us that the kitchen had run out of one entree, the loin of venison. He also uncorked a Clos du Bois merlot (the wine list omits vintages; we were presented with a 1991) but didn't pour, leaving it instead on the table to breathe and hustling back to admonish us when we took matters into our own hands.
We shared the snails appetizer, a half-dozen supple mollusks served in individual clay pots. The curled escargots, in bubbling golden butter and potent garlic, were sealed in their compartments with flat rounds of toasted bread. Crab cake with mustard sauce, another hot hors d'oeuvre, was dense with crab meat but overdone and dry with breadcrumbs, shrunken and nearly burnt. A swirl of sticky, honey-darkened dijon mustard was tangy but added scant moisture. A third appetizer, a scoop of warm Long Island duck salad, was hardly better: The multicolored bed of pale endive spears, leafy chopped romaine, and whole radicchio leaves, was fresh and beautiful; the duck was delicate and not at all stringy. But the dressing was flat, making the dish taste of oil and egg, lacking punch.
Pasta at Didier's can be ordered as a large appetizer portion or as a main course. Tempted by more enticing entrees, we sampled angel hair pasta with spinach, wild mushrooms, and pancetta as a first plate. Swirled together and nicely coated with a rich cream sauce, the thin strands of pasta drew just enough musk from the sauteed vegetables and smoky-salty flavor from the ham to offset the sweetness of the cream. The slivers of pancetta, however, were fatty and gristled, the unpleasant chewiness marring what was otherwise a surprisingly tasty dish.
A mound of squid-ink fettuccine alfredo, centered on the plate of sea scallops I ordered as a main course, was unexpected, not having been included in the menu description. The wide, al dente noodles were an odd but well-prepared accompaniment to the outer ring of meaty scallops, which had been touched with sherry but seared just a little too long. A decidedly mediocre flash-fried comfit of leek embraced the shellfish in untidy arms, dominating the dish with its onion-family flavor.
In contrast to the slightly overdone scallops, the swordfish steak, a seasonal special, was a stunning example of good fish cookery. Juicy and fragrant fresh California figs, the cut and colors of which resembled tiny slices of watermelon and the taste of which reminded us of kiwis, garnished a matchless piece of fish. Some of the kitchen's best attention had been directed here, the fish flaking deliciously to the fork. A semicircle of zucchini, carrots, and snow peas added more hues reminiscent of this green growing season, turning the plate into a palette.
Thierry Collongette isn't merely a summer artist; he's also capable of preparing fabulous meats often associated with the spring and winter. Rack of lamb, for instance, may have been our second choice to the venison, but it placed first on our table. Four double chops were encrusted with herbs and a touch of flour and roasted to medium-rare rightness, the centers pink and shiny with juice, the edges browned to an appealing crust. Served with the steamed vegetables and an oozing, creamy, scalloped potato side dish, this plate was almost unfathomably generous.
Likewise, a grilled veal chop, nearly three inches thick and perfectly cooked, was a filling masterpiece. Flambeed with Calvados, the chop was presented with sliced pommes reinettes and topped with chopped chives and sauteed mushrooms. The sweet, meaty apples, combined with the sharp and pungent apple brandy, were a wonderful complement to the succulent veal. In contrast to such richness, the seafood and pasta dishes -- even the expertly prepared swordfish -- paled.
Dessert, however, was competition. A fabulous apple tarte tatin was an open-face delight, featuring cinnamon-scented halves of fruit layered over smooth caramel and a soft, barely resistant pastry crust. Not having had enough cholesterol for one evening, Dr. B ordered his all-time favorite, strawberries in sabayon, a simple sauce composed of eggs, sugar, and wine he likes to make at home (he cooks, he cleans; he's a Jewish doctor up for grabs). The fat ruby berries were an appropriate contrast to the shell-white veil of sabayon, a finale that, we all agreed, would indeed be tasteful at his (eventual) wedding.