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French doors of mahogany and glass front the big, bistroish 150-seat Orsini, the restaurant's tables, chairs, and sizable bar crafted from the same dark wood. Rose-shaped milk glass chandeliers hang on decoratively tiled walls, as do large mirrors and hundreds of old photos of famous and semifamous people; the floor is one of those classic restaurant types composed of tiny white tiles. The charming Parisian café look was first put together by Maguy Le Coze for his eponymous brasserie that once occupied this prime piece of Coconut Grove real estate. News Café took the space over for a while, and now new owners Ignacio Arcaya and Daniel Deublebeiss are using the lovely, lavish room as a backdrop for their "Old World cuisine with a new spin."
Too bad the spin is so extreme that the defining lines of continental cooking are blurred beyond recognition. The menu does contain its fair share of European elements, but it's also very eclectic, offering as it does Peking-style duck, chicken cordon bleu, pierogi, blintzes, Kobe beef (in the form of faux Philadelphia cheese steaks), veal cutlets "Vienna style" (served with tomato risotto, of course), and Thai spiced pizza with chicken, hearts of palm, soy glass noodles, caramelized bananas, Gouda cheese, and peanut sauce. Old World? As Chuck Berry might have put it, "Roll over Escoffier, and tell Taillevent the news."
Can't say whether the Thai chicken pizza was as unappetizing as it sounds -- they were out. I could have braved a sweet corn pizza with sour cream, Italian salami, pickled pearl onions, and French Brie instead, but chose the safer three-pepper-crusted sirloin beef pie. Six skinny strips of meat, one per slice, were neatly lined up and surrounded by tomatoes, red peppers, and artichoke hearts atop mozzarella cheese and a thin, crisp, very pale crust -- all in all a sparse, passionless, mediocre $19 pizza.
Give Orsini credit for its refusal to fall back on formulaic menu items. Fried calamari and crabcakes are nowhere to be found among the half-dozen appetizers, and even somewhat familiar items like tuna tartare are unconventionally dressed, here appearing as tartare niçoise, a flat patty of freshly minced yellowfin mixed with a brunoise of pepper and cucumber bound together by a ponzu mayonnaise. Sort of a hybrid between tartare and tuna-fish salad, the taste was light and refreshing, the niçoise-mimicking accompaniments nice to look at but skimpy to eat -- a hard-boiled quail egg (you know how big those are), a quenelle of olive and sun-dried tomato tapenade, and "green bean salad," two green beans cut into six half-inch snippets with a dab of ponzu mayonnaise. The tartare, though, was generous, and with two slices of toasted brioche provided plenty of heft for a starter.
The most focused example of new Old World cuisine comes via a pair of delicate, handsomely browned blintzes filled with a thin lining of melted, mellow fontina cheese. A delicious garlic and herb-infused ragout of wild mushrooms centered the plate in savory support of the nutty fontina.
Of the trio of pastas offered, only spaghetti with lobster tail meat in tomato brandy sauce qualifies as something you might be served in Italy. Pierogi with farmer cheese, sour cream, and caramelized onions are, as you know, an Eastern European favorite, and "open-face lasagna with frikadeller meat balls, sweet paprika sauce and porcini mushrooms" finds its origins in hell. Well, maybe it wasn't that bad, but this is one of those culinary concepts that looks good on paper, lends itself to interesting presentation, and is eminently workable in the kitchen, but ends up being less than delectable to eat. Two sheets of pasta sandwiched seven red but dry little balls of beef and pork; there were no porcini mushrooms, and the "paprika sauce" was an intense porcini gravy. Porcini is like perfume -- excessive use yields exactly the opposite of the desired effect.
The trio of seafood dishes offered are seared jumbo shrimp, black pepper-crusted salmon, and a terrific "ragout" of pacific halibut, succulent morsels of the mild fish bathed in a rich champagne sauce replete with enough cream and butter to send Julia Child into a swoon. A julienne of carrot and turnip, sweet pearl onions, and buttery cubes of roast potatoes enhanced the halibut in simple, unobtrusive manner.
A petite filet of black angus beef was likewise a hit at our table. A Gorgonzola crust atop the meat will likely be deemed too overpowering to all but the staunchest blue cheese lovers, though it matched up squarely with the accompanying sauce, a sweet and mildly acidic red wine-carrot reduction.
"Pont-Neuf potatoes," a term usually implying thick French fries, are here big roasted wedges of tastily herbed and seasoned potatoes.
"Curried and slow-braised chicken breast" was piquantly spiced and neatly placed on a pretty pool of coconutty red curry sauce enlivened with tamarind, lemongrass, and snips of Kaffir lime leaves; a small mold of basmati rice on the side was barely warmed through. Though a flavorful rendition, it was too sterile for this sort of cuisine -- it would have been better had they used legs and thighs, actually slow-braised the bird in the sauce, and then plumped it over some steamy hot rice. People may nowadays "eat with their eyes," but they still taste with their mouths.
On one visit to Orsini we sat on the outdoor terrace under red umbrellas, the inside of the restaurant being taken up by a large table of cigar smokers. Service had been unsteady the first time, downright awful on this occasion. The waiters were friendly enough, but their modus operandi was chaotic, even relative to a new operation. Sometimes we went without water refills, sometimes without silverware, once without being brought a basket of Orsini's excellent grain bread. The waiters were unfamiliar with the menu, tardy at clearing plates, not particularly well-versed in English -- only a sharp-eyed manager providing consistent backup saved the evening from being a service disaster.
Next door to Orsini is a 30-seat patisserie/boutique offering up salads, sandwiches, weekend brunches, chocolates, truffles, newspapers, cigars, and a large array of scrumptious breads and pastries created by talented pastry chef Georges Berger (formerly of Biga). A dessert that aptly showcases his flair is the flourless Calebaud chocolate cake with molten center, double cream vanilla ice cream in sweet little tuiles, and a buttery blood orange sauce; noticeably better than the dozens of others I've sampled in recent months.
You'll need to be patient in regard to Mr. Berger's creations, as they are prepared á la carte and can take quite a bit of time to appear. Once we waited twenty minutes for a tarte tatin with Granny Smith ice cream that proved to be a dramatic letdown. The plate was barely occupied by two silver dollar-size discs of pie dough with a thick drizzling of caramel sauce and nary an apple slice; altogether it was the size of a cookie. Worse, the ice cream was vanilla. Even worse: After I pointed out to the waiter that the ice cream was vanilla, he went inside to consult and came back with the menu, pointing out that the phrase "Granny Smith ice cream" referred to those apples used in the tarte. Worse still: A short time later the owner came out, explaining that yes, it should have been apple ice cream, but they were in the process of implementing new summer menus. While he conceded that the waiter should have told us they were lacking various menu items, he seemed to think it was funny that I even cared that the ice cream was not what it was supposed to be.
I wasn't laughing along, and would really not have been laughing had I been a regular paying customer who just shelled out a hundred dollars for two appetizers, two main courses, and one shared, disappointing dessert (not including bottled water, wine, or tip).
The food at Orsini is sometimes rebellious with a cause, sometimes without, but is at its best when not rebellious at all. Let's hope the new menu omits the fake lasagna and faux tatin, and in general slows down the blurring "spin" so the kitchen's strengths in continental cooking can be more readily appreciated.