Daniel Boulud has achieved the sort of fame that has him often introduced as "a man who needs no introduction." But those unfamiliar with the illustrious 56-year-old chef should know that he trained under Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc, and Michel Guérard; that he made his mark as executive chef at Le Cirque before opening his now-landmark Daniel in New York in 1993; that he is known for masterfully melding modern French cuisine with seasonal American ingredients; and that besides New York's Daniel, the Lyon native also operates Café Boulud in NYC and Palm Beach; restaurants in London, Vancouver, and Beijing; and DB Bistro Moderne in New York, Singapore, Vancouver — and, since this past November, off the lobby of the JW Marriott Marquis in downtown Miami.
This is not the first time a famous French chef with the initials DB has tried taking his successful New York game to Miami. The first, David Bouley, transplanted his French-American menu — with sushi — to Evolution in the Ritz-Carlton South Beach. It didn't take root. But DB Bistro Moderne appears to be doing much better, thanks at least in part to location: The downtown office crowd provides a claque of clientele for lunch and happy hour. Presumably word of mouth about the exquisite fare is bringing them in for dinner.
Dining at DB is a classy experience from start to finish. There was no bumbling around at the host stand; we announced ourselves at the podium and were immediately taken to our seats. Service, too, was professional. Excepting a few minor miscues by the busperson (like reaching across a diner's face to pour water), the staff was smooth, polished, and extremely well informed about the cuisine — which is orchestrated by executive chef Jarrod Verbiak, who has worked with Boulud for nearly a decade. Sommelier John Mayfield entertains an encyclopedic knowledge of the wines, which compose a 30-plus-page list (a blend of classic French and contemporary boutique).
We sat in each of the two dining rooms during our visits. One is larger than the other, but both are lofty with 18-foot ceilings, simple yet sophisticated, and classic but sleek. An outdoor patio offers vistas of the Miami River.
Once seated, diners are brought fresh country and sourdough breads with softened butter — something to nibble on while they await complimentary cheese gougères. The latter are steamy, eggy popovers pinched with cayenne. This might seem like a lot to precede a meal, but it can take some time to choose among the menu's numerous appetizer options.
One way to begin is fresh shellfish (oysters, crabs, stone crabs, lobster, shrimp) plated in petite ($35), grand ($65), and royal ($95) portions. Another is with an "assiette," or assortment plate of regional bar snacks. Provençale, Lyonnaise, and Basque are the choices; we picked the last, which featured a few lush slices of Serrano ham, two slices of Ossau-Iraty (sheep's milk cheese from the Pyrenees), marinated olives, thin snippets of grilled octopus with piquillo peppers, and moist, tender flakes of bacalao braised with tomatoes.
Although we skipped the terrine-laden assiette Lyonnaise, we sampled the chef's charcuterie skills via an à la carte starter of pâté de campagne – a coarse, fresh, pork-dominant slice crusted with peppery, pastrami-like seasonings ("French four spice"). Served with dabs of tarragon mustard and a hazelnut-studded rémoulade of crisp, julienned celery root, it was the best rendition I've had in years.
There are soups, salads, and a host of other appetizers to consider as well. Chunks of succulently poached lobster are tossed with avocado, fresh hearts of palm, red and yellow peppers, green beans, grapefruit, and an astonishingly bright (in color and taste) pesto dressing. It was delectable yet in retrospect proved to be one of the few items not sharply distinctive from other versions around town. More to the point: Many of the dishes served here aren't available elsewhere in any form.
For example, vichyssoise de lettue, which wowed with a chilled potato base greened and lightened with puréed romaine lettuce and crème fraîche. The velvety velouté contained bits of tomato confit and green olives, and a floating crouton capped with smoked paprika cream enriched and enlivened.
Pastas plus a few other dishes are offered in both appetizer and main course portions. We tried seared sea scallops in the former format, which boasted two bivalves as big as golf balls. Lightly cooked through, they possessed a characteristically firm texture that nonetheless melted like foie gras upon hitting the tongue. A potent ocean flavor permeated the scallops, which come plated with a plump mussel, a shrimp, a nugget of octopus, tomatoes, zucchini, Niçoise olives, and pearls of fregola pasta swelling with saffron and seafood broth.
We also went with the smaller version of ricotta cavatelli. It was beautifully plated, as is all the cuisine here. The twirls of pasta were perfect — meaty and tender yet firm to the bite. Disks of homemade fennel-flecked sausage, sautéed rapini greens, grape tomatoes, pine nuts, and wispy crisps of elephant garlic are woven through; a pale green dab of sheep's milk ricotta with broccoli rabe pesto crowns it.
Entrées sampled were not as universally impressive. But bread-crusted pompano was different from most breaded fish; the coating is very thinly sliced bread crisply pan-fried with butter. Plus pompano is a treat by itself: finely textured, mildly fatty white flesh with delicately sweet flavor. Fresh wedges of artichokes, fingerling potatoes, and tomato confit surrounded the fish in an intoxicating parsley velouté.
Rather than the classic stew, DB's beef bourguignon is a single slab of flatiron steak braised with red wine to a fork-flaking softness. A length of braised celery stalk and creamy celery root purée share the plate, along with a baby carrot, but I missed the sloppy pleasure of the real deal; this might be one dish not suited to refinement.
Duck confit arrived as a hefty leg with crisp skin and dark, rich, full-flavored meat. "Pommes Lyonnaise" translated to just a few sautéed potato slices on top of the meat; spinach below was sautéed with mushroom-studded sauce forestiére. This is a solid plate of food, but one you could find similarly plated at a less heralded bistro.
We skipped the DB burger of sirloin beef, short ribs, and foie gras on a Parmesan bun, which is about as famous as DB himself — for the $32 price as much as for the decadent flavors. I had it many years ago in New York, and as you might imagine, it was very tasty.
Pastry chef Jerome Maure's desserts are not the traditional tarte tatin, soufflé, or crème brûlée, but composed plates of petite, sometimes scintillating components. Lemon gratin, for instance, boasts a creamy lemon curd atop a pistachio-pine nut biscuit, with Granny Smith apple confit and yogurt sorbet alongside. Chocolate coupes glacées bring Jameson ice cream atop a dark, dense chocolate mousse (the menu calls it "sorbet") topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings; small, warm, oven-fresh oatmeal raisin cookies come alongside — tasty, but really just a boozy sundae.
Best bet might be a table-sharing basket of warm, lemon-infused madeleines dusted with powdered sugar, or a selection of fromage such as Brie de Meaux, Roaring Forties Blue, and Humboldt Fog goat cheese: a genteel end to an elegant dinner.