French Seafood Satisfies
Whelks and periwinkles are just two reasons to love Maison d'Azur, the sizzling new seafood brasserie at the Anglers Resort. The former are conchlike in texture, the "winkles" teeny and sweet, yet while de rigueur on seafood platters in France, these spiral-shell sea snails rarely crawl onto stateside menus. Their presence here exemplifies Maison's main enticement: Mediterranean seafood flown in daily and prepared with exquisite expertise.
The restaurant impresses in many more ways — make that in every single way, excepting the bread. At best, the Parker House-style dinner rolls were soft and innocuous; at worst, older buns were microwaved so that rigor mortis of the dough set in while I was eating them (and let it also be noted that on consecutive visits, I bit into olive pits hidden in an accompanying tapenade).
All else is very much alive at the Anglers Resort, which in the Thirties was one of South Beach's first Mediterranean revival hotels. The renovated property, pish-poshed with aplomb by local designer Wallace Tutt, re-premiered just more than a month ago. The boutique resort/condominium now flaunts four buildings accessed by trellised passageways and laced with lush gardens, one of which hosts an outdoor dining area. The main indoor room echoes a timeless, romantic brasserie, with wood floors, arched windows, champagne-color banquettes, and linen-draped tables each set with a candle and rose. Maison takes its name and cue from the Côte d'Azur, and it is so understatedly chic that it's easy to imagine the Riviera coast twinkling below. South Beach is as close to St. Tropez as America gets, so the fit feels natural — even if Washington Avenue isn't much to look at.
The cuisine also approximates that of the French Med. Executive chef Didier Balluais orchestrates a brilliantly simple menu conceptualized by corporate chef Gwenaël Le Pape and the Fortier Group, a restaurant team with two other ethnically distinct entries in the trendy upscale dining market (including Loft in New York). Cocktails are one of Fortier's fortes, so Maison is an ideal spot for an exotic elixir.
It is even more well suited for partaking of pristine seafood such as Dover sole, John Dory, and Tasmanian ocean trout, each grilled and served with lemon and one of seven side sauces. No need to fret over unfamiliarity with the fish, for the staff is well versed in the fare. On one occasion, our waiter headed to the kitchen to check when the sardines had been delivered, and returned with news that they arrived that morning from Bretajne, a town close to Brittany, "with population around 180,000." I wanted to further inquire whether sardines were the village's main export, but my wife insisted we already had enough information. The same server suggested sauce vierge as a fitting accompaniment, and she was right. The lemony tang, with capers, tomatoes, and herbs, proved a vibrant foil for the assertive fish flavor of the five butterflied sardines. The same sauce likewise made a fine suitor for rouget (red mullet), another small species with high fat content. The sweet, nutty white fillets were presented like the sardines — butterflied, grilled, confidently herbed, and utterly delicious.
Caviar aficionados also have good reason to visit Maison. The big three crack open at $195 and pop at $450 (per ounce). Deluxe shellfish platters plied with prawns, crab legs, oysters, champagne/caviar shooters, and so forth, will also peel Ben Franklins from the wallet. Individual samplings are more affordable — whelks, periwinkles, and a half-dozen littleneck clams are $14 or less. Those with the dough should go with sweetly saline langoustines imported from Brittany (six for $65).
The budget-conscious needn't despair. Regular menu offerings are closer to earth, with salads and starters such as tuna tartare, smoked salmon, and duck spring rolls running $13 to $17. A few dollars more will deliver a plump lump crabcake effusively spiced with Old Bay and pooled in a coulis of roasted red pepper; or a chilled cylinder of sliced lobster meat, smoothed with avocado and bathed in sweet rhubarb dressing balanced by a bed of pungent watercress.
I didn't try the bouillabaisse this time around, but sampled soupe de poisson Marseillaise, a showstopping fish chowder with a saffron/tomato/herb base thickened with puréed rice. Alongside the soup were croutons with a ramekin of grated Gruyère, and another of riveting, rust-color rouille, a saffron aioli fired up with hot chilies. Catch this one.
Most fish dishes range from $32 to $39, but the rarities cost much more: John Dory is $68, Dover sole $72, turbot (for two) $95. Main plate options also include seared chicken breast, fusilli with smoked and fresh salmon, and steamed mussels with French fries, each for less than $24. Between the price extremes is a trio of pan-seared diver scallops big as Ping-Pong balls and bursting with sweetness against a rich, butter-laden backdrop of stewed leeks and champagne sauce spotted with salmon caviar.
Le steak frites brought prime strip loin, aged 45 days, deftly seasoned, and grilled to juicy perfection; accompanying béarnaise sauce was seductively sharpened with vinegar, tarragon, and cayenne. That said, a humbler hangar steak would have been preferable — not only because there is already upscale filet Perigourdin and Kobe filet ($65 per ounce) on the menu, nor solely because it is acknowledged as the cut to use for an authentic steak frites, but also because hangar is one of the most flavorful meats in existence. The frites, incidentally, were fresh and crisp.
Sampled sides were sensational, from a flawless truffled mac and cheese, to an exhilarating dollop of gratin potatoes permeated with Gruyère and Parmesan, to ratatouille, which during its brief, decades-ago revival in American restaurants, devolved into a disheartening mush of tomato-sopped vegetables. The rendition here features eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, red peppers, onions, and herbs melded together in seamless, scrumptious fashion. It testifies to why the dish became a French legend.
The staff here already ranks among the best in South Beach, if not Miami-Dade — pleasant, professional, knowledgeable, accommodating, detail-oriented, and on-the-goddamn-ball. Alert managers posted about oversee the operation and ensure that service is smoother than Maurice Chevalier's crooning. I'm not sure we heard any Chevalier while eating here, but Édith Piaf, along with an undulating, upbeat mix of world tunes, was spun by DJ Bruno Saläun (from St. Tropez). The sound gets a little louder as the evening progresses, but speakers are situated such that the music never overwhelms conversation — and in fact contributes more to the dining experience than at any other restaurant I can think of.
Great wines add to the fun. Master sommelier Andrew Bell has assembled more than 75 arresting vintages and champagnes that are unique to the area, marked up reasonably (relative to South Beach), and all available by the glass. Bell amicably aids with selections without overselling, and concise tasting notes on the menu lend further assistance.
Desserts? Divine. Those with a yen for dramatics, as well as oranges, will savor the tableside flaming of classic crêpes suzette. Tarte Tatin, too, is prepared in a customary caramelized manner and then capped with vanilla ice cream, while a napoleon ditches convention with red berries and a daring dash of mint syrup. All are alluring, but the cream of the crop is crème brûlée, an impossibly soft custard gilded with a glistening sheath of bronzed sugar. By comparison, other versions around town resemble something whipped up from Jell-O pudding mix. A petite taste of sparkling lemon granita on the side played off the brûlée like diamonds against velvet.
Another captivating closer brought a tall, narrow frappe glass layered with lightly lavendered ice cream, "homemade Nutella," and brandy-boosted whipped cream. You might want to linger by capping dessert with a cup of hot cocoa, a French press pot of coffee, or an after-dinner cocktail, for as gastronomically haute-over-heels as Maison is, it's equally hot as a late-night haunt. Appealing to foodies and frolickers alike, this house will easily be the coming season's most sought-after address. And deservedly so.
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