Charlotte Bistro added something extraordinary to Coral Gables when it appeared on Miracle Mile in 2009. Chef Elida Villaroel, a graduate of Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, employed a light touch and a delicate vision to create refined Venezuelan and French-inspired cuisine. And the mostly organic, locally sourced food tasted great too. We noted the restaurant's closure a couple of months ago but were heartened by the news that Villaroel planned to debut a different restaurant in the same space. That restaurant is Mesa, and it is now open for business.
"With Charlotte Bistro," Villaroel explains, "I had just arrived from Venezuela, and definitely paid [for it being] my first experience... Suddenly passion was overwhelmed by all the other problems surrounding a restaurant business. Mesa arrives with calm, with a confident mind, with a little more experience... and with the idea that changes are good."
Both restaurants "have the same ingredients but different approaches," the chef continues. "Charlotte Bistro was French with the twist of a Venezuelan girl. Mesa is that same Venezuelan girl with French technique and with homesick [nostalgia-inducing] plates and sweets."
Another difference between Mesa and Charlotte is that the chef (partnered with Adrian Orozco) is calling the shots. Business issues cropped up at the latter establishment, but Villaroel's talent for cooking was never in question. Her training grounds were studded with Michelin stars, including time spent working with Michel Bras at Laguiole in the South of France. When Charlotte opened, she told Short Order: "Going natural speaks beautifully to me. I don't work too much the food."
The new menu includes starters ($5 to $12) such as bay scallops with celeriac, cucuma, and herb salad, and cheese/charcuterie plates ($12 to $16). Also, a rich and silky beet soup ($7) that Villaroel prepares "with vegetable broth and the aroma of fennel and dill, raspberry vinegar and honey, with a drizzle of balsamic reduction. On top, a spoon of chive goat cheese... pea shoots and arugula."
Entrées ($18 to $25) include calamari stuffed with red-wine sofrito, chorizo, and mussels sauce ($19), and pork loin with a sauce culled from ginger, apple, and Vermouth Rosso ($22). These are great prices for the quality of setting and cuisine.
Rich, dark chocolate soup ($7) -- Charlotte's signature -- remains a dazzler with its coffee aroma, butter tuile, and coffee ice cream.
Mesa's lunch menu changes weekly, but midafternoon specials ($11.95) pair a main course such as mackerel with curry orzo and sautéed spinach, with soup of the day or house salad. A short, sweet wine list proffers choices like Annabella Chardonnay from Napa ($9/$27) and Rios de tinta Ribera de Duero from Spain ($9/$27).
The 1,800-square-foot, 42-seater has a revamped yet still-eclectically whimsical décor, with pop-art murals by local artist Andres Risquez, including one wall filled with female silhouettes surfing on lipstick tubes. There are small tables for dining, but most patrons choose to sit on an elongated, bench-like banquette that runs the entirety of the room. A terrace seats a dozen more along Miracle Mile.
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"Mesa is my vision of an old-fashioned kitchen, like my mother's or grandmother's, with genuine service and unforgettable cuisine." Chef Villaroel hopes the "dishes that are [her] own and that [she] grew up with will keep guests coming back."
If you never dined at Charlotte Bistro, this is another chance for a seat at the table -- or, if you will, at the Mesa. Those familiar with Villaroel's cuisine are no doubt thrilled she's cooking in the Gables once again.
264 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables