French Fare at Le P'tit Paris in Coconut Grove
Le Bouchon du Grove has long been one of Coconut Grove's best restaurants: The French fare is solid, prices are reasonable, and a boisterous ambiance beckons. So upon hearing of a second bistro with the same owners, I expected something special. Yet like so many movie sequels, Le P'tit Paris boasts the same producers and themes, and some of the appealing qualities of the original — but it isn't nearly as good.
Le P'tit is smaller, prettier, and more contemporary than Bouchon. A long counter lines the length of the rectangular room's left side, behind which wines are poured and cappuccinos steamed. The color scheme is red and chocolate brown, with exposed brick lending rustic notes. There are some 20 seats inside, but the action clusters around the outdoor tables, which are shaded by bright red umbrellas and stretch along both sides of the prime corner location (smack across the street from the popular Green Street Café).
Viewed through a wide lens, the food is good; narrow the focus, and enough blemishes appear to warrant a downgrade to decent. Take the butter — away from the table, please. A slab of it served on a dish to accompany slices of baguette tasted more like refrigerator odor than anything resembling dairy. Or consider the hard, brittle, overly darkened crust of a strawberry tart dessert. An old restaurant rule of thumb is that first and last impressions count most.
To be fair, there were some better-than-good moments along the way: custardy quiche Lorraine with a buttery crust and quiet infusion of Gruyère cheese (even if flimsy squares of boiled ham replaced traditional bacon); a dozen textbook-tender escargots (even if there was no discernible brandy in the "cognac and garlic sauce," which tasted like the usual melted garlic butter); and penne carbonara properly coated, not drowned, in an egg-enriched Parmesan cream sauce exuberantly smoky from luscious nubs of bacon (even if fettuccine is a preferable cut). And no ifs about it — the homemade French fries are terrific.
A starter of crab cakes takes us into "passable" territory. The trio of moderately sized patties possessed a savory Old Bay-style New England taste and were flavorfully flecked with tidbits of celery, onions, and peppers, but they were much more filler than crab. An aioli on the side was so garlic-intense as to be useless.
It takes 10 to 15 minutes for P'tit's "country roasted chicken" to cook, and 10 minutes for the fillet of sole, while skirt steak requires seven to 15 minutes on the grill. These calculations don't derive from a smuggled-in stopwatch; each entree's cooking time is designated, in parentheses, on the menu. Considering that all meals are brought to the table simultaneously, I can't figure out why we need to know this.
The chicken came crisp-skinned, lightly herbed, and relatively moist. A generous serving of sautéed sole (not seared, as the menu promised) also passed muster in a thin white wine/shallot sauce. Shallots likewise graced a lengthy, juicy strip of skirt steak, but the meat was marred by the sort of charred flavor that results from grease fires on the grill. Diners get to choose one of five sides to accompany their main course: the aforementioned fries; green beans; mashed potatoes; creamed spinach; and Provençal tomatoes, two baked halves capped by dry, gratinéed bread crumbs.
There are seven entrées in all. At the top of the scale in price and prestige are lobster tail — grilled or thermidor-style ($28.95) — and fillet of beef Rossini (with foie gras, $26). The others — mussels, grilled tuna steak, and the aforementioned three — are all under $23. A quartet of pastas runs $12 to $14 and encompasses penne with salmon, penne with seafood, chicken Alfredo, and that sumptuous carbonara.
P'tit proffers a short wine list of six whites and nine reds. The selection is mostly midrange labels, but only one bottle of each color goes for less than $40 — surprising for this sort of casual neighborhood place. The spread of nine bottled beers is more impressive.
Desserts are presented on a platter for perusal — napoleon, cheesecake, chocolate fondant, and so forth. All are familiar and most are brought in from a bakery where they presumably cost less than $8. Chocolate mousse is prepared on premises, but we didn't grab it on our first visit; when we returned, P'tit was out of not only mousse but also every dessert except tiramisu. This was understandable fairly late on a Sunday night — after, as our waiter put it, "we got slammed for lunch with 380 covers." Plus P'tit opened just a few months ago, and it takes some time to get a feel for estimating proper stock quantities. Besides, the tiramisu had been freshly made on-site and proved to be especially light and airy.
The staff here couldn't be friendlier, but servers could be a little faster in getting the check to the table. On a couple of visits, we noticed service severely slackening as the meal went on. Buspeople should wipe down the glass tabletops from time to time too.
If P'tit were the only French bistro in the Grove, I'd suggest soaking in its pleasant outdoor-café ambiance and appreciating the food for what it is. But Bouchon, as well as George's (opened by the former Bouchon chef) are but a short stroll away and offer more bang for your increasingly precious buck. Or to put it another way: Better to watch The Matrix a second time than to sit through The Matrix Reloaded.
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