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In just the past year, if the food media are to be believed, Miami's dining scene has gone from being the very picture of promising adolescence — about to finally grow up — to going to Hell in a hand basket. Suddenly it's a place that is, according to some sour grapes slung by one chef whose high-profile (and high-priced) restaurant recently folded, basically incapable of being anything more than an outpost of the Fast-Food Nation. The list of upscale eateries that have disappeared in recent months is dishearteningly long and growing. It suffices to say it's been a bad year for fine dining restaurants in this town.
But for low-rent yet high quality — and sometimes highly creative — "neighborhood jewel" eateries, it has been bad here forever. Miami's most discouraging dearth isn't world-class fine-dining spots, but their spawning grounds: little hole-in-the-wall joints with delightful finds inside.
Côte Gourmet, which opened about six months ago with no hoopla, is such a find. And it does take some finding. The waaay-off-the-tourist-track eatery is located inside a Miami Shores office building, and both the charming sidewalk café and the street entrance pictured on the take-out menu's cover are wishful thinking. Frankly, entering, as diners must, through the main door of the Shoreview Building (more wishful thinking: no shore, no view) seems less like the prelude to a great little dining experience and more like an acid flashback to hundreds of generic workplace cafeteria lunches.
Don't let the lack of a fancy façade fool you. A more accurate indicator of the tiny spot's quality and caring attitude is the bread basket, filled with crusty baguette slices and delectable olive bread. Wondering which bakery was responsible for the shockingly good loaves (and breakfast croissants, served all day), we asked and found that all breads and pastries — including a lovely, light-crusted fresh strawberry/whipped cream tart — are housemade by owner Caroline Poussardin and her parents, who, before moving to the States a dozen years ago, ran restaurants in Aix-en-Provençe.
Homemade bread isn't something expected of a luncheonette, but similar civilized niceties abound. For instance, sandwiches (on white or wheat baguette) come wrapped and tied with stylish striped ribbons. The two we tried (juicy mustard/mayo-dressed roast beef with avocado, greens, genuinely ripe tomato, and onion; and a custom-concocted Provençal special of ratatouille with sunny-side-up eggs) would have been exceptionally tasty unadorned, but the presentation transformed these simple sandwiches into an elegant repast.
Solid French technique was especially evident in Côte's pea soup (available daily, along with a changing special soup). Described as split pea, the velvety purée tasted more like lettuce-lightened potage Saint-Germain — satisfyingly rich yet subtle, unlike America's standard one-dimensional ham-laden soup. Sweet and savory crêpes, both types made with Brittany's signature buckwheat batter, are also unusually well crafted. A crêpe Normande, stuffed with barely wilted fresh spinach plus Brie (and topped with more of the cheese) was particularly tasty, but the nutty flavor and airiness of the pancakes' slightly fermented batter made even a basic butter/sugar model delectable.
Scrawled on the blackboard menu are several specials and substantial entrées, including a fresh Scottish salmon fillet doused with a beautifully balanced tangy/creamy lemon sauce and generously garnished with four shrimp plus three veggies (green beans, carrots, and diced potatoes). Also recommended: the Tunisian-style brik, two crunchy phyllo triangles filled with tuna, onion, tomato, buttery smashed potatoes, and capers; a side salad of vinaigrette-dressed mesclun was an unexpected bonus.
So was a complimentary portion of silky chocolate mousse that the genial Poussardin (who also works at Michy's) served us one Friday. "We're not open tomorrow," she explained. "Why waste it?" A similarly neighborly generosity of spirit was demonstrated when one friend's dish arrived covered with cheese unmentioned on the menu — and unwanted. A replacement order came immediately, with apologies, and the check came with no charge for either dish.
Structural expansion and expanded hours are planned for September, and they are much needed already. Though Côte Gourmet's rep is based entirely on word of mouth, it is regularly packed to the gills, even in this alleged culinary disaster year. Perhaps the problem isn't so much that diners' tastes need to grow, but that high-profile chef/restaurateurs' egos need to shrink.