Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Local romantics nursed broken hearts when Restaurant St. Michel, the 90-seat Coral Gables establishment often cited for its scintillating atmosphere and sexy food, caught fire this past June. Though most of the flames were confined to the kitchen, damage from smoke and water forced the gorgeously renovated Hotel St. Michel and its dining room to close for repairs. And while the hotel won't reopen until May, the eatery, a favorite among the city's more intimately acquainted since 1975, did so in early November to room-filling crowds.

Purists will be pleased that the elegant, high-ceilinged restaurant, located at the corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Alcazar Avenue, looks much the same: frosted glass chandeliers, polished wood floor interrupted with an Oriental-style carpet runner, brocade chairs. The lighting is dimmed to a mellow gold, the plate-glass windows mute the night sky, and outside, vines twirl free-form around the iron frames of awnings as if flames had never been a threat to their way of life.

Best of all, executive chef Curtis Whitticar is back in sizzling action. A Johnson & Wales grad and a seven-year St. Michel veteran, Whitticar received positive notice for his New American cuisine from the New York Times last year. Though he's occasionally grouped with New World notables such as Allen Susser and Norman Van Aken (with whom he trained at Mira in Key West), his restrained French-rooted fare is far more reminiscent of the Grand Cafe's Pascal Oudin. And after gorging on Whitticar's escargots and steamed mussels, his roast duckling and his grilled rack of lamb, we wondered why his name isn't bandied about this town more often.

Dark and meaty, served out of their shells with toast points, the snails were fabulous. They had been sauteed in olive oil with just the right touch of garlic; a spike of lime juice added a refreshing but subtle citrus tinge to the sauce. Mussels -- about a dozen that had been steamed in garlic and white wine -- were a good appetizer match for the potent escargots. The plump shellfish, served in a bowl, were outstandingly tender, but it was the sauce that really shone A with sweet cream butter. Crusty French rolls were ideal for absorbing this addictive liquid.

Two triangular wedges of pate maison proved no less satisfying. The chef's selection of the day, a duck foie gras with port wine, was a smooth, mild preparation, perfect for spreading on the accompanying garlic croutons. Arranged on a mache salad that included fresh sweet Belgian endive, the pate was traditionally matched with sharp little cornichons and an intriguing caramelized onion "jam" cradled in a radicchio shell.

Though a fresh corn veloute -- a soup thickened by rubbing its ingredients through a sieve -- sounded the right note for countering the richness of the other appetizers, the result was disappointing. The broth, a generous stock rife with kernels of yellow corn, fire-roasted poblano peppers, and bits of grilled chicken, had an immediate curry flavor that disguised the promise of fresh cilantro, and was ruined by a startling overdose of salt. We found this to be inedible.

A sesame-seed-encrusted loin of tuna, sliced and arranged around a centerpiece of cellophane noodles and stir-fried vegetables, was likewise too salty, hardly requiring the soy sauce and wasabi served on the side. Cooked to a pinkish medium, the pieces of tuna were tender, and the vegetables -- asparagus, zucchini, and peppers -- crisp and brightly colored. The clear chewy noodles were too slippery with sesame oil, however, masking the more delicate flavors of the green and red produce.

Under the heading "Light Fares," angel hair pasta disproved that claim quickly enough -- the plethora of freshly shelled Maine lobster and cut asparagus hidden in the twirls of ultra-thin pasta was gratifying. Accented with a slight anise scent, the buttery lobster was awash in a wonderful sun-dried tomato-green peppercorn beurre blanc. Light, definitely not. But delicious.

Subjecting the St. Michel to my favorite test, we ordered Long Island duckling. Not a lover of the classic … l'orange, I was astonished by the depth and clarity of this orange sauce, which was dotted with bits of caramelized rind. The fragrant concoction was puddled beneath a sliced breast and a leg-and-thigh, the skin on all parts nicely browned and crisp, the meat moist and musky. A wild rice mixture and steamed asparagus, broccoli, and zucchini were pleasant accents, though hardly noticeable next to the duck.

We were tempted by the wild game of the day -- venison the night we visited -- but decided instead on the tamer rack of Australian spring lamb. The rack comprised two double-cut chops, coated with a touch of horseradish and roasted garlic. A deep medium-rare red, the flesh was supple and juicy, enhanced by fresh thyme and a pungent pinot noir reduction. A griddled mashed potato pancake, absorbing the assorted juices from the lamb, was a fabulous partner. More asparagus -- the evening's common garnish A freshened up the plate.

Portions are big enough to challenge the sweetest of tooths, so we regretfully declined ordering individual (though not tiny) chocolate Grand Marnier souffles and instead split a piece of chocolate pound cake with Jack Daniel's ice cream and candied pecans. Big mistake. A round of the puffy souffles went to the next table, where they were oohed and aahed over while we worked on a crumbly slice of cake garnished with a flavor of ice cream I'd rather drink with ginger ale.

The St. Michel's prices are as classy as the address, but the wine list is somewhat of a consolation. A not unfairly priced mix of the better French and California vintages, the list also yields a special wine of the month -- a 1993 Montpelier St. Helena chardonnay, priced at $26 the night of our visit, dry and vibrant enough to withstand the butter-and-garlic-laden mussels, escargots, and lobster.

If you're still mooning over lost love-friendly restaurants, stop your fussing. Some stars shine more brightly after they burn out. And in time for Valentine's Day, the unmistakable Restaurant St. Michel is just warming up.

Side Dish
The long-whispered rumor can finally be shouted from Art Deco rooftops: Yuca, the noted Nuevo Cubano establishment in Coral Gables, celebrated the grand opening of its South Beach location January 25. Under the experienced ownership of Efrain Veiga and the direction of talented executive chef Guillermo Veloso, the 300-square-foot mezzanine kitchen is producing such Yuca classics as yuca stuffed with wild mushroom picadillo, braised oxtail with fiery "La Mancha" red wine sauce, and plantain-coated dolphin with tamarind tartar sauce, as well as new dishes -- roasted lamb loin rolled in toasted pumpkin seeds, for instance, and honey-grilled salmon over black bean pasta.

Unfortunately, not only has the fare successfully traversed municipalities, the attitude made the trip, too. We called the 501 Lincoln Rd. location on a recent weekend evening to say we were running a little late on our reservation and would be at the restaurant in a few short minutes.

"You'll have to wait for a table," the maitre d' replied.
"How long?"
"I can't say. Maybe an hour."
Yuca lesson number one: Be prompt.
For reservations and information, call 532-9822.


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