Au Pied de Cochon: Big-City Brasserie in Miami Beach
Miami isn't wanting for decent bistros. Even areas that have little to gush over gastronomically can boast good neighborhood French fare (Coconut Grove, South Miami, Key Biscayne). But what's been missing is a brassy brasserie with big-city ambition where one can clasp a café au lait and croissant at 7 in the morning, a croque-monsieur at noon, pig trotters at 7 in the evening, and imported cheeses with a bottle of Bordeaux in the wee hours. Au Pied de Cochon fills this niche nicely — one more piece in place in our cohering culinary jigsaw puzzle.
It's not just Pied's 24/7 nature that differentiates it from others around town; the ambiance, menu, and backstory speak a more fluent French. Beginning with the last: Sixty-two years ago, Clement Blanc, a butcher in Paris's Les Halles district who specialized in pork, opened the flagship Au Pied de Cochon mainly as a means of providing meals for his staff. Soon, Parisians of all stripes — workers, the art crowd, high society — descended upon the bustling and boisterous room. It became one of that city's iconic brasseries, drawing the likes of Salvador Dalí, Josephine Baker, Charles de Gaulle, and Jean-Paul Gaultier. In 2000, Au Pied opened in Mexico City, and four years later, another landed in Atlanta. The South Beach venue debuted this past May.
The restaurant is housed in a Henry Hohauser art deco building that has been given a makeover by South Florida architect Charles Benson — who also created the landscaped outdoor patio. The interior designer of the first Pied, Jean-Marc Catonné, has refashioned the 6,000-square-foot room with traditional French brasserie replications of the 1940s space — gilt-framed mirrors, brass chandeliers, red leather banquettes, and paintings that clumsily mimic the original art nouveau murals. Soigné details include Christofle flatware, Riedel stemware, Villeroy & Boch ceramic tableware, and soft, oversize cotton napkins. At the center of the room is a full-service bar across from a seafood display on ice, which features oysters, lobsters, stone and Dungeness crabs, jumbo shrimp, and more — each available in platters of various sizes.
My guests and I dined at Pied for all three meal periods, beginning at 7:30 Saturday morning, when I began by having breakfast alone — meaning I was the only patron in the whole restaurant. Soon after I took a seat outside, a waiter brought coffee upon request and then asked whether I'd like milk or cream. I waited only a few minutes while he went to fetch the dairy, but it would have made more sense to have asked first. A different waiter was soon substituted, and service was fine.
Breakfasters are brought a basket of croissants, pain au chocolate, brioche, and apple tarts — warm, fresh, delicious, and served with Vermont butter and a quintet of imported French jams. Eggs Benedict was cooked just right, each ovum letting loose a slow yellow stream of yolk over a slender slice of Canadian bacon and a thick, unsliced, untoasted English muffin — which worked better than it sounds. Béarnaise sauce, bronzed under the broiler, was salty and lacked tarragon/vinegar bite. A dry, crusty cylinder of hash browns on the side tasted as if it had been made hours earlier and reheated. Next to the potato, a half plum tomato, gratinéed with pistachio-green basil breading, was surprisingly scrumptious (these things almost never are).
The problem with Pied's lunch menu is that it's pretty much the same as the dinner menu. Many patrons will consider main courses such as glazed pork shank and sautéed veal kidneys to be unappealingly heavy for a humid afternoon. A few sandwiches are offered during the daytime, but even these are hearty affairs — especially the croque-monsieur. This classic French snack, at its most basic a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, is here translated to an inch-thick square of soft toast topped with two miserly slices of boiled ham, melted cheese, and a bulky blanket of béchamel. It's a bland, bready, salty chew, and at the same time too rich — more so if you order a madame version, which is capped with a fried egg (said to resemble a woman's hat).
A better choice would be quiche Lorraine, a round, modestly sized disk of sheer creamy pleasure dotted with ham and wrapped in a light pâte brisée crust. Also good was a white porcelain crock of French onion soup, sherry-laced and crowned with a thick cake of caramelized Gruyère cheese.
The sole burger option is a $25 Kobe rendition. If you are to pay this obscene amount of money for a hamburger (especially for lunch!), let it be cooked to perfection and garnished with flair. Or not. Beginning with the latter: lettuce, tomato, bun, and thin golden French fries as crisp and crackly as bird bones. The burger, which my guest ordered medium-rare, arrived monstrously well-done and so moisture-free one might assume it was freeze-dried as part of some dastardly molecular gastronomy experiment. Said guest refused to return it, insisting well-done was just fine. At meal's end, when the waiter inquired if everything was OK, I pointed out the desiccated half-puck that was left over, politely noting it was supposed to have been medium-rare. Because we hadn't complained earlier, there were no expectations of compensation — we were just letting them know for their own sake. Yet considering that just a dozen of the 90 indoor and 40 outdoor seats were occupied during peak lunch hours, it was surprising that no token gesture was proffered.
Lunch (and dinner) apps range from $9 to $29, entrées $24 to $38, and desserts, including a textbook crème brûlée, run $8 to $12. A three-course prix fixe with a glass of wine and coffee is offered each afternoon for $25 to $29. On the day we lunched, the special was trout, which is a terrific fish — but it doesn't curry wide enough favor among Americans to warrant making it the sole offering.
Pied grows livelier late at night, the crowd chatter filling in the acoustic blanks of lunchtime and early evening. Yet the formality of the vibe makes it seem dead compared to the rowdy and raucous ambiance of the Parisian venue. This place could use a bit more joie de vivre. The cuisine at dinner, though, is awake enough. Executive chef Didier Lailheugue, a protégé of Alain Ducasse's, orchestrates basic, authentic brasserie fare — none better than the restaurant's namesake pig trotters. Preparation begins with 24-hour marinating in saltwater (sel mariné), followed by slow-poaching for many more hours, a zingy mustard bread crumb coating, and a leisurely roast. There was a lot of meat around the bones, and it was drenched in moist flavor — but a little too salty, a recurring problem Pied needs to remedy. Topping the trotters was a small thatch of vinaigrette-dressed greens, and on the side a high pile of those spunky fries.
A trio of lamb chops arrived with the same greens, as well as the plum tomato gratin and a smooth pool of über-buttery polenta. The meat was unusually mellow, with the succulent, slow-roasted taste and texture of a prime rib of beef. Those looking for more gumption to their game might be disappointed, but meat lovers will otherwise rejoice — these chops are exceptional.
Starters succeeded as well. A rectangular tart featuring heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese touted neatly layered circles of each alternating upon fresh tomato-pasted puff pastry; a thin drizzle of basil purée snaked across the top. Also arranged in circles was tuna carpaccio, whose nearly transparent, overlapping slices of pale fish were speckled with cracked black pepper, ever-so-lightly sprinkled with curry powder, and barely drizzled with olive oil. Salad greens centered the mandala-like medley, but greasy little croutons were regrettably square pegs that didn't fit the whole.
The wine list offers some 500 French and domestic labels. Bottle prices go from $28 to $900, but the best values rest in the $70 to $140 range. Sommelier Kareem Zarwi can help you with selections, and the rest of the crew attends to needs in a timely fashion. Service, in fact, was pretty solid, if a little too stiff. The same can be said for Au Pied de Cochon in general.
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