Most folks will have to head north on Biscayne Boulevard to arrive at Plein Sud, whose translation "far south" apparently references France. This is, after all, a new 50-seat French bistro (formerly inhabited by Luba Café and Café Bella Donna) plunked down in a small, obscure strip mall next door to a much more noticeable Kinko's. It's easy to pull into the latter's parking lot thinking it leads to Plein Sud. Take it from me, it does not.
Instead of location, location, location, owners Veronique Gillet and Caroline Poussardin are banking on the mantra of ambiance, ambiance, ambiance. Tables on terra-cotta floors are topped with white linens, fresh flowers, votive candles in sand-filled globes, embroidered white cotton napkins in rustic wire holders, and small green boards with nightly specials chalked in. A few outdoor tables spill through open doors onto a quaint little patio (one without much of a view); eclectic music meanders from "La Bamba" to Buddha Bar. Brushed fire-colored walls flaunt dark wooden wine racks and accents, and are adorned with framed illustrations of other bistros situated on quaint, Kinko-less cobblestone corners in France.
Chef Ludovic Boron's menu is keenly composed, a wide array of ingredients and cooking methods encapsulated within a limited framework of items. Take the three soups (or at least one, please): cold, decidedly spicy vegetarian gazpacho; a smooth, pale purée of green pea with two ample grilled shrimp; and classic French onion, Gruyre crust crisp and bronzed, a mild broth imbued with subtle sherry zest. A trio of seafood-based salads likewise exhibits latitude -- grilled tuna steak Niçoise; smoked salmon with oranges and Boston lettuce; moistly poached and chilled half a Maine lobster tail mounded atop a julienne of celery rémoulade. Another salad centers on grilled poultry livers (with raspberry wine reduction), not something seen every day, even in our local bistros.
We aimed for a loftier liver, two hefty half-inch-thick planks of pink pressed foie gras terrine, the goose liver gussied up with a thin film of fat and eminently spreadable upon puffy toast. A side of "mesclun" turned out to be sprightly baby spinach leaves, halved cherry tomatoes, and a gutsy splatter of truffle oil. Too rich and filling for one person to start with, this plate is better shared -- and when you split the $13.95, it's quite a bargain. No such deals to be found on the short, mainly French wine list, but most bottles are priced below $40.
Other appetizers include seared sea scallops with pepper mango, phyllo tart stuffed with goat cheese and caramelized green apple, and tuna tartar with lime sauce and chives. A separate listing, categorized as "country classics," encompasses escargots in garlic butter or with melted brie, a charcuterie plate with cold cuts and homemade pâté, and Lyonnaise sausage with German-style potato salad. Even the cheese plate displays enviable range, replete with brie, Roquefort, goat, Morbier, and Tome de Savoie.
Entrées are less than $20, excepting nightly specials and the menu's whoppingly opulent 32-ounce, $35.95 cowboy steak with béarnaise sauce. You can spend half that and get a rib eye with Roquefort sauce and tangle of crisp, skinny homemade fries; or beef stew Bourguignonne in lusty red-wine sauce. We didn't dabble in duck breast with pepper-port reduction, but the couple ensconced close by simply raved about it.
I didn't exhibit quite as much enthusiasm with a special of blanquette de veau. The traditional cream-based veal stew (its name derived from the "blanc" color), spooned from a sizable metal casserole dish, was generously stocked with soft squares of veal, and one could easily be seduced by the inclusion of truffles' sister fungus, the smoky and earthy morel. But the white sauce was watery and blandly seasoned, white rice on the side buttery yet devoid of even salt. A monkfish main course comes in the same "cassolette," poached pieces of the sweet, firmly textured fish bobbing with baby carrots, broccoli, and leeks in another thin white broth, this one also shyly seasoned but infused with assertive cooking juices accumulated from the monkfish. French cooking relies on subtlety rather than bold, racy spicing, but the food here could use more salt, pepper, and fresh herbs (besides parsley).
A weighty pork chop, cut into thick wedges with part of the meat left on the bone, displayed the full-flavored bistro fare we were looking for. Alongside the meat were baby carrots, asparagus, a vegetable mousse, and brown "charcuterie" sauce heightened with vinegar and speckled with slices of cornichons.
Our waiter pushed profiteroles for dessert, and was so convincing we took up his suggestion. Minutes later we were apologetically informed that there were no more profiteroles to be proffered. Chocolate "mikado" proved to be more than an able substitute, a long, narrow rectangle of sturdy chocolate mousse with crisp hazelnut wafer underneath and shiny fudge icing on top. A strawberry, two fillets of fresh orange, and a drizzle of clear lavender honey made for deft and delicate accompaniments. Apple tart brought a warm round of puff pastry covered by caramelized, lightly glazed apples and a scoop of vanilla ice cream that slowly melted and melded into the center. Not bad, but it would have been nice to see a tart or pie with homemade crust among the compact collection of postdinner treats.
Plein Sud's service is consistently friendly, though some waiters are clearly more polished than others. The food isn't always quick at coming from the kitchen, and on one occasion we waited way too long for the check. A few diners around us seemed impatient at similar delays, but I hardly noticed, absorbed as I was in looking out the doors at the soft glow upon the parking lot pavement and thinking of how it was emanating from the same big white moon that was casting its magical illumination upon some romantic couple pausing to kiss along the Seine. As we exited Plein Sud, the big white Kinko's sign snapped me back to South Florida.
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