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Miami will never be Paris, but Les Halles Miami allows us to pretend. A meal at the seven-month-old, 150-seat bistro was as effective as Prozac -- I skipped away from the Ponce de Leon Boulevard restaurant (where the Brazilian restaurant Vatapa had a short run) practically manic with delight. Along with partner and kitchen manager Jose Meirelles, owner Philippe Lajaunie, who opened a Les Halles in New York City and then cloned it in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta before venturing here, has at last brought chic, European flair to South Florida.
I should note, though, that my initial take on Les Halles wasn't a positive one. First there was the deli case of raw meats that greets clientele -- not the most appetizing sight. On top of that, we detected a daunting seafood smell. Furthermore, the bartender didn't know anything about the wine list (regional, mostly French) and gave us a taste of the house chardonnay in a rocks glass while we sat at the bar waiting for the rest of our party. Finally, the whistle-while-you-work yodel of the jaunty French tunes blaring from the sound system made us wonder if we hadn't wandered into EuroDisney by mistake.
Fortunately, this was another instance where we could throw out our first impressions. A complete redo of Vatapa's rain forest decor has rendered the space classy rather than cute; a molded tin ceiling and a green terrazzo floor are focal points, as are arches (imported from New York) more than 150 years old, milk-glass light fixtures, and a centerpiece chandelier that came from the Leona Helmsley manse (Lajaunie is something of a collector). A second story, similar to a balcony, affords seating that's more private than what you get in the long, narrow dining room, but I'm told this will soon be transformed into a cigar and martini lounge.
Our waiter -- a polite, good-humored man of the sort you rarely see in this town (or in Paris, for that matter) -- guided us through the meat-heavy menu, recommending soup as a first course: "We have four tonight; I don't know what got into the chef." After tasting the cold cucumber soup, we knew what had gotten into executive chef Martial Gaspar, who came down from the original Les Halles in Manhattan: talent. With a grind of fresh pepper, the creamy, mellow elixir was a perfect kickoff to what was to be a terrific meal.
A salad, frisee aux lardons, was equally refreshing, a heap of the pale, frilly lettuce coated with an understated vinaigrette. The highlight here was the presence of rectangles of thick-cut bacon, the lusty likes of which I haven't had since I last visited Chicago. As a garnish, two round toasts were lidded with Roquefort cheese, whose mild musk saluted the salt of the pork and the slight bitterness of the frisee.
More frisee accompanied a rich appetizer that could have sufficed as a light meal. Petatou de chevre was a molded, chunky composite of warm potatoes, portobello mushrooms, and tangy goat cheese in an earthy casserole that vied for best of show among the starters. Escargots, the principal competition for honors in that category, were succulent, placed two to the individual china wells that held them. A tasty bath of garlicky butter glistened over the tender mollusks, giving the diner the choice of sopping up leftovers with the French bread brought at the beginning of the meal or constructing a sumptuous sandwich.
Main courses, in bistro tradition, are simply but superbly prepared. Free-range chicken, half a rotisserie-roasted bird that featured a crisp golden skin, was juicy and delightful, its color echoed in the piles of fluffy, grease-free pommes frites curled alongside.
Pommes frites also partner all the steaks, which run the gamut from tartare to au poivre to grilled sirloin and skirt. Faced with all these options, we found ourselves once again following our waiter's recommendation. Onglet (hanger steak) is a European cut not often seen in these parts, a boneless piece of meat about the width of a skirt steak, taken from the flank of the steer. If our waiter's enthusiasm wasn't enough to convince us (the steak is so prized, he imparted, that most butchers save it for themselves), the meat itself was, meltingly tender, served medium-rare as ordered, and enhanced by a ramekin of red wine-butter sauce redolent with shallots.
Another much anticipated dish turned out to be one of the evening's rare disappointments. Moules marinieres, which general manager Parnell Delcham calls a Les Halles "signature piece," emitted the aroma we detected when we walked in. Though the mussels are from nearby Key Largo, these small blue shellfish mollusks were evidently on their way out. Too bad: The white wine marinade in which they were steamed countered some of the unpleasant fishiness, and the quantity -- about five dozen crammed into a pewter kettle and served that way, with pommes frites on the side -- would have made the dish a genuine bargain at $15.25. The season is getting a little long for eating shellfish from these parts, and even the server admitted they were better in the spring.
Cassoulet Touloussain, named for the city in the south of France, made up for the setback. Over the centuries this traditional bean casserole has inspired odes from poets -- Franc-Mohain even wrote a recipe for cassoulet in verse -- and Les Halles Miami's version, vibrantly flavored with a variety of meats, onions, and carrots, showed why. A stew similar to the Brazilian feijoada was rife with white beans fortified with hearty duck confit, buttery pork cut from the rib, and a whole peppery sausage. Steaming, with a delicate crust formed from the slow-cooking beans and flour-dipped meats, this cassoulet really was inspirational.
Sadly, desserts were not. The menu advises patrons to ask about "our homemade desserts," but we were left cold by the typical selection of tarte tatin (apple tart), mousse, and flan. I'd be remiss if I didn't laud the creme de caramel, which was silky smooth under a candied crust. But I'd love to see some light French pastries, even the standard ones -- cream puffs, napoleons, eclairs -- offered at the end of this filling meal. A selection of fresh fruits and cheeses might be another way to close.
One misconception about dining that I'm always battling is that a meal must be fancy in order to be worth the hassle of going out. Les Halles proves a fine point: The simplest meals are frequently as richly satisfying as the ornate ones, and you don't have to dress up for 'em.
Les Halles Miami
2415 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 461-1099. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight.
Frisee aux lardons