Filling Me Softly

Not since the short-lived but intriguing Clowns has an area restaurant so wholeheartedly followed its own muse. While the cuisine at the defunct Clowns leaned ever so slightly toward the Caribbean islands, Brasserie Coral Gables turns subtly toward South America, particularly in its European traditions. But like its quirky predecessor in the Gables, the three-month-old restaurant defies simple description.

It's a place where the usual vies with the unusual - there's something for everyone, whether you crave the pedestrian pleasure of fresh tuna salad on a flaky croissant or are adventurous enough to try a board of bottargo, sun-dried roe with fresh cream. But what makes the Brasserie stand out among the Restaurant Row crowd is its fastidious attention to detail - freshness of ingredients, carefully selected condiments, presentations as aesthetically exciting as they are appetizing. Breads are baked on the premises, and the chef spices up the butter by whipping in a few pine nuts, some grated garlic, or whatever strikes her fancy on a particular day.

The restaurant's self description - "soft dining" - is suitable. An emphasis on a wide variety of lighter, luncheon-type offerings makes the Brasserie conducive to leisurely grazing, although one or two hot entrees is available too. "Soft" describes the ambiance, as well, with its peach terra-cotta walls and lacy, floral-print linens. But besides being elegant, this little bistro is homey, with its garlands of chilis and garlic, copper pots, and huge baskets bursting with dried eucalyptus and earthy wild flowers. Despite the feminine touches, you'll feel more like you're dining in a favorite aunt's home than in a tea room, because the food, whether simple or exotic, has substance, and the service runs like a well-oiled machine.

The mix of ordinary and extraordinary pervades each culinary category: Among the salad platters ($5.50) there's a healthful toss of shredded broiled chicken, steamed broccoli, and pasta; an intriguing combination of black linguine, white roasted peppers, and provolone cheese; and a chunky seafood salad, heavy on the squid. Dressings are preservative-free, made from balsamic vinegars and olive oils displayed in handsome glass jars on a counter that separates the kitchen from the dining area.

On my first lunchtime visit here, the three soups offered were a puree of vegetable, a seafood chowder, and the soup of the day, which was chicken-barley. As befits a brasserie, there's a sprinkling of hearty sandwiches, all of which are assembled from a variety of breads (pumpernickel, onion flats, bialies, poppy and sesame rolls), fresh salads, and lean cold cuts. Boards - meats, cheeses, and seafoods served on wooden butcher blocks, accompanied by warm, delicious South American corn bread - cost $6.50 apiece, and among the more creative options are a dill-cured gravlax with honey-mustard dressing, and the aforementioned bottargo.

The Brasserie also features daily specials, and repeated visits have taught me that these are nearly always some type of fowl or veal preparation, though once in a while beef is included. On one occasion, my dining companion and I feasted on wonderful, slow-roasted lamb that reminded us of some we'd had at an open-air taverna in the countryside near Athens, where the whole lamb was spit-barbecued over hot coals. More recently I found myself tempted to try a roast veal breast, but finally settled on a boneless Cornish hen stuffed with whole wheat grain, lentils, and vegetables ($7.50).

Bronzed by a glaze of its own juices and wine, the tender, meaty bird was as colorful as it was flavorful. When I cut into it, a pilaf-texture melange of grain, lentils, onions, celery, and delicate seasonings was released. The closest thing to this glorious dish that I have ever eaten was a homemade codorniz con trigo (the literal translation is quail and wheat, but the seeds of the grain cook and taste like barley), a dish touted by Peruvian-American chef and cookbook author Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. The nutty flavor and texture of the wheat is a marvelous complement to poultry, and convinces me that South Americans have much to teach us about cooking - especially when it comes to game meats, poultry, and native American foodstuffs. South American cuisine is quite sophisticated, drawing as it does on the culinary traditions of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the west coast of Africa, and the Brasserie typifies that rich cultural legacy.

Wines are personally selected by the chef to enhance the day's menu, so a list per se is not available. The waiters are happy, however, to show guests the bottles, and a glass of a Field Stone Chardonnay or a Casa Defra Merlot, for examples, are $4 each. Desserts also change from day to day, but usually seem to focus on the tried and true; the last time I visited, the desserts were chocolate cake, key lime pie, and an apple tart. But if the apple tart is any indication, the chef lends a gourmet twist to these "ordinary" creations. The tart was actually a thick pastry that tasted like soft sour-cream cookies, filled with smooth custard and finished with a top layer of apple slices, and made even sweeter by generous dollops of freshly whipped cream - scrumptious. Along with it, I enjoyed a cup of strong, full-bodied Colombian coffee.

A successful follow-up to a satisfying meal is the crowning touch, something those behind the scenes at the Brasserie obviously have down pat. Here, every detail is attended to, from the perfectly shaped whipped-cream garnish on the apple tart to the final, bittersweet dregs of Colombian brew.

There are no clowns running this operation.

160 Giralda Ave, Coral Gables, 529-9545; Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., and Saturday from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.


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