By Valeria Nekhim
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He said: I hate little frou-frou plates of stuff, with a drizzle of this and a spit of that all around it. I like a big hunk of meat. With a bone!
She said: B-o-r-i-n-g.
Honestly I do not believe women are from Venus and men are from Mars. Yet it's true that two of the chief trends in the restaurant world are almost stereotypically feminine/masculine opposites: elegant grazing menus of varied "small plates," and meat-and-potatoes steakhouses. My normally sensitive male dining buddy had just come out on the side of the culinary cavemen. I hoped that dinner at Palme d'Or might bring him back in touch with his kinder, gentler side.
1200 Anastasia Ave.
Coral Gables, FL 33134
Region: South Dade
Once an Italian restaurant (Il Ristorante), the Biltmore Hotel's top-end eatery transformed into French La Palme d'Or in 1997. When chef Philippe Ruiz, veteran of several Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Switzerland, came aboard in 1999, the formal "La" was dropped from the name to reflect Ruiz's more modern style: still French but nouvelle cuisine, with a slight tropical accent. A year later portions were slimmed down to match the name.
These days the menu consists of 28 appetizer-size selections, helpfully listed in order of flavor intensity. Diners assemble their own meals of three, four, or five plates (priced at $33, $44, and $55, though a few dishes featuring caviar or foie gras carry a $5 supplement). If that seems like too much work, there are also five preassembled four- or five-course themed menus for $44 or $60.
Additionally, as is common in upscale restaurants in France, there were generous freebies -- a luxurious, caviar-garnished amuse-bouche as a starter; and a tray of mini pastries and cookies at meal's end.
He said: What is this? Why is it so -- small? What's this stuff inside, poofy scrambled eggs?
She said: I had something similar in Paris, at this Michelin three-star, L'Arpege. The chef went semivegetarian and had to get ingenious to keep his rating. One invention was this sort of layered egg with maple-syrup foam. Lots of chefs do variations now. This one's more savory, not sweet. It's small because it's a quail egg.
He said: I don't even know how you can see it. There's something wrong with the light here. When you're paying this much, you want to look good.
She said: That's so overdramatic. Lots of places, especially on South Beach, are much darker. In fact I carry a Mini Maglite in my bag when I do reviews.
He said (squinting at his food): That's a good idea. You should tell people to bring a flashlight. And a magnifying glass. Ouch! Hey, have you noticed that this table hits me every time I say something bad?
A matchbook under the wobbly leg fixed the problem fine. Admittedly, though, it felt strange crawling around Palme d'Or's floor, despite the fact we'd been seated inconspicuously in a corner -- unfortunately without a view of the Biltmore's lake-size pool. The dining room was a good deal more formal than most of Miami's cutting-edge restaurants: crystal chandeliers, banquettes, impeccable white linens. But thanks to the makeover from Italian to French (gilt-framed hunt scenes and carpeting out, cherry wood flooring and leather chairs in) the feel wasn't pretentiously Parisian stuffy.
The food was about as far from old-fashioned French as one can get, except for the flawlessly classic technique displayed in nearly every inventive dish. The parade of plates began with Maine lobster cappuccino, served in a clear glass to display the item's layering of dark broth and frothy crme fraiche head, and sevruga caviar spoons.
He said: This soup is tasty. I like the surprise.
She said: Yes, tastes like a super-intense lobster bisque, looks like a cup of coffee. It's that Ferran Adrià, new-Spanish, screw-with-your-head thing, you know?
He said: No.
She said: Well, diners are visually manipulated to expect one taste or texture, and then get the opposite. With this faux cappuccino the surprise tastes terrific for a change, instead of just weird.
He said: Well, I don't know who Ferran Adrià is, but I'm always happy to offer an opinion about something I know nothing about. The mashed potato stuff with the caviar is really good, too.
She said: Since the Soviet Union fell apart, it's hard to find quality sevruga like this, because of the black market. Each egg is individual, and firm, and pops so distinctly in your mouth.
He said: Caviar should always be like this. They should start shooting the black-marketeers again.
She said: It's the red meat talking. Get a grip. Anyway a plain spoon would be all the accompaniment I'd need. But lots of serious caviar lovers eat it on steamed baby potato halves. This mousseline treatment is a much better idea, and I've never had them so airy.
He said: It's like a cross between mashed potatoes and whipped cream.
Next came a baby lobster cake (so named for its diminutive size) and asparagus beignet. Both arrived with salads -- the shellfish dish with fennel sliced paper-thin, the asparagus with tender microgreens -- making them fairly substantial servings.
She said: Wow, along with the patty there are whole pieces of lobster. There must be half a lobster on this plate. It's not half a cow, but you can't complain about the quantity. It's complex, too -- basil and fennel, like in Nice, plus a spicy Basque piment d'Espelettetouch.
He said: I like that the swirls of different stuff on the plate aren't just for decoration. All together it's like a little taste of France.
She said: The beignet preparation is a surprise too. They're normally just deep-fried fritters. I love them but they're hardly subtle. Here the chef just dipped the bottom ends in the batter, so the crunchy green tops cut the grease.
He said: Is there cheese in the batter?
She said: Parmesan, I think. That's unusual also, but not overwhelming. This mustard sauce balances the cheese. It's tangy.
He said: And fluffy, but good fluffy.
More plates arrived: poached chicken dumplings and pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras on toasted brioche.
She said: Another pleasant surprise. These dumplings are ethereal, more like quenelles than something grandma made for Sunday dinner.
He said: But this stuff with them does taste like a holiday. What is it? Sweet potatoes?
She said: The menu said chestnut foam. It's more creamy than frothy, but it's worlds lighter than that hideously expensive imported French chestnut purée in cans. You're not eating the foie gras. Too much food for you, big guy?
He said (fretfully): No. There's something wrong with it.
She said: Pass it over. The staff's being awfully nice about all our sharing, aren't they? Oops. You're right. It's way overcooked.
It wasn't even vaguely pink; it was gray, the butteriness long gone. But this single misstep was redeemed by the final courses: Dover sole "goujonette" with celery root purée and black truffle sauce, and braised seven-hour beef.
She said: The beef sure tastes long-cooked. It's melt-in-your-mouth rich, like a confit but with red meat instead of duck.
He said: The sauce is, what's that word reviewers always use? Right: bold. The meat isn't a hunk like I expected, more like ropa vieja, and there isn't a lot of it. But it's hearty.
She said: The fish is like grouper fingers, but much more delicate. And you know how truffle sauce always just means a bunch of truffle oil splashed in? This has actual slices of truffle.
He said: The fish is very cute. I'd come back here, but next time I'd get a window table to see the pool. And I'd bring --
She interrupts: -- a magnifying glass?
He said: No. It was plenty of food for the money. I was going to say: a bathing suit.