If you haven't yet made it through your holiday gift list, do the following two things immediately:
1. Finish reading this review.
2. Go shopping.
Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave, Bal Harbour; 305-865-2181
Open for lunch and dinner daily 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
More specifically, drive to Bal Harbour Shops and buy the damn gifts already! Why Bal Harbour? Partly because the bargain stores have long been emptied of their bargains, so while you're biting the bullet, you might as well show some class. But mostly because you can eat better here than at most other malls. Neiman Marcus's Zodiac restaurant, for instance, serves complimentary consommé and positively showstopping popovers with strawberry butter. Need a respite between Cartier and Saks? A cup of lightly fermented oolong brew at Lea's Tea Room & Café should provide a lift. Certainly there are few food-court eateries capable of captivating customers the way Carpaccio can, and this Christmas season premieres a promising newcomer right across the way from that Italian gold mine: La Goulue Christian Delouvrier. Which is a bistro, not a perfumery.
Some might call La Goulue's location jinxed. World-famous Petrossian Caviar launched in this spot and went belly-up faster than a dead sturgeon. So did the café opened by seemingly infallible restaurateur Dennis Max. Then the Mediterranean Elia folded here twice the second time while being helmed by heralded local chef Kris Wessel. All of these failed attempts brought big names to the table, as does La Goulue (pronounced goo-LOO), which has been one of New York City's quintessential Parisian bistros since 1972. And the new Goulue's chef/co-owner, Christian Delouvrier, contributes his own weighty reputation, from star-turning stints at the Big Apple's legendary Lespinasse, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, and Maurice at Le Parker Meridien. Up to this point it is working out splendidly, for the bustling bistro has been placing plenty of fannies in the seats during both lunch and dinner.
Through all of its incarnations, this space has always been attractive. An antique zinc bar, installed by Petrossian, looks right at home amid the accouterments of what is now a quaint brasserie setting: tin ceiling, mosaic-tile floor, wood, mirrors, tightly packed tables topped with white butcher paper, and open French doors leading to a breezy patio. The menu mimics that of a real bistro, too, although one with severely limited range. Diners are privy to the standard escargots, onion soup, steamed mussels, steak/frites, and duck à l'orange but little else. And the sparse selections are timid in scope. Where are the provincial Gascon specialties of chef Delouvrier's home region? Where is the confit, cassoulet, coq au vin, or pot au feu? Let us note with envy that New York's La Goulue serves entrées such as slow-braised Niman Ranch pork shank, and whole roasted brook trout with parsnips, pumpkin, and Riesling sauce. There is no such rustic cooking occurring down here.
Ambitiouslessness aside, what La Goulue does, it does decently enough. Two small triangles of tarte à l'oignon satisfied with their brittle-thin pizza crusts crowned by a rich mix of minced onions, bacon, and Gruyère cheese. A pair of extremely plump jumbo scallops came too lightly browned and a tad chewy, but the shortcomings were somewhat compensated for by an accompanying celery root rémoulade with lusty mustard dressing. A parmentier soup achieved a heartwarming harmony between its two main components, potato and leek.
Salads were fresh and crisp, although a small bowl of romaine lettuce hearts, naked except for a drizzle of vinaigrette, is pricey at $9, just as $13 likewise seems high for the classic and undeniably fetching combination of peppery frisée leaves laced with lardons of bacon and a runny poached egg.
The wine list is marked up more moderately and boasts at least a hundred labels from most of the relevant French regions with some compelling California choices planted here and there. A menu insert promotes a 1949 Pomerol Château Pétrus for $6490 and a 2000 Pomerol Le Pin for $4990, probably just to make that $75 bottle seem eminently reasonable. There are about a dozen by-the-glass options for $6 to $17. Want some savory French cheeses with your wine or maybe after your meal, in lieu of dessert? Sorry, no cheese tray served here. Sacrebleu!
How simple is the food at La Goulue? The only pasta offered is linguine with olive oil, Parmesan, and Gruyère cheese. True, you can get it with either chicken breast or shrimp tossed on top, but that's still pretty elemental although, admittedly, also very tasty, like macaroni and cheese for grownups. Rotisserie chicken, canard à l'orange, and grilled lamb tenderloin are the nonbeef meat entrées. The last wasn't grilled, but the three narrow loins of lamb were tenderly seared to a medium-rare, sided by ratatouille that was mostly composed of peppers and onions, with just a few mushy pieces of zucchini not an eggplant cube in sight.
Steak/frites comes two ways: grilled New York strip (no bargain at $35), and the traditional bistro cut, the hanger (onglet), a thick strip of meat that hangs between the rib and loin (for a more reasonable $22). Like the neighboring skirt steak, hangers possess grainy, chewy texture and deep, beefy flavor. Our steak, requested medium-rare, came a couple of shades redder than that, and the colorlessly sautéed "caramelized" shallots on top could also have been cooked longer. Still, the meat was indeed full-bodied in taste, and elevated further by a textbook béarnaise sauce tangy with tarragon.
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Accompanying frites didn't make it to the table with the meat, but once we pointed out the omission, it didn't take long for the crisp, homemade, assertively salted fries to come and conquer our fancy. It did take quite awhile, however, to get our dinner plates cleared, and on another visit, it took forever for the kitchen to kick out our entrées; the waiter avoided us during the delay and eventually brought the dishes without comment. Servers are convivial, and there is no shortage of workers on the floor, but the staff members surely need a good deal more polish if they are going to pass muster with the fussy Bal Harbour crowd.
Steak/frites is timeless, but that's not true for frumpy French seafood selections such as grilled shrimp with a dish of eggplant "caviar" on the side, or a log of blandly seared tuna with red and green peppers (the aforementioned ratatouille minus zucchini). The sprightliest fish dish brought seared salmon with asparagus in citrus mousseline sauce swirled with a sweet pea purée. Meaty mussels steamed in robust mustard/saffron broth pleased as well, but $20, or just two bucks less than the hanger steak, is a lot for mussels and French fries. And not to quibble, but it would be nice if now and then they'd serve some of Florida's fine local fish.
Desserts are the best things here. Chiat-Mei Yow (a cat's meow of a name), formerly pastry chef at the Setai, infuses all five categories of postdinner sweets with a sparklingly light sensibility. Naturally we tried one from each section (did I mention that la goulue means "the glutton"?). Bright and brilliant flavors define the homemade sorbets and ice creams, the former refreshingly derived from orange, pineapple, and pink grapefruit; the latter via strawberry, Tahitian vanilla, and a terrific teaming of prunes with Armagnac ("cognac with an attitude," as a Gascon might put it). A dark chocolate soufflé was airy and architecturally correct, lemon tartlet with brûllée topping was just luscious, and if there were such a thing as a pudding hall of fame, the sumptuously soft arabica coffee pot de crème would gain admittance on the first ballot.
Okay, let's shop.