A café, bistro, and brasserie are different from one another. In France that is. Here in the States we tend to blur any distinctions, choosing one term over another mostly by phonetics. An informal French restaurant opening in Okeechobee, for example, will likely go with Okeechobee Café rather than the more-of-a-mouthful Okeechobee Brasserie. (Of course the wisest name for an informal French restaurant in Okeechobee would be Joe's Diner, but that's another story.) The populace of Lyon calls its small restaurants bouchon (for no apparent reason other than to make things even more confusing for Americans), a place where the workers and middle class feed on meals generally composed of prized Lyonnaise products like eggs, onions, potatoes, sausages -- and a jug of Beaujolais on every table. This takes us to Le Bouchon du Grove, which you now know means "the café, bistro, and brasserielike French restaurant in the Grove."
If France, as some suggest, exists mainly so the world can maintain an attitudinal counterbalance to rampant American commercialism, its role couldn't be illustrated more vividly than in the contrast between rambunctious CocoWalk and the woody Old World ambiance of Le Bouchon, which sits just one block away. French doors (what else would they have?) open wide onto Main Highway, wooden tables spilling onto that street as well as into a pedestrian alley on the restaurant's right side. The 45 seats are tucked so close together that one can clearly savor the aromas emanating from dishes served to those nearby. French soccer jerseys, flags, and other paraphernalia are crammed just as closely upon the walls, along with obligatory old-time posters for pastis and other French beverages. Le Bouchon appears to have occupied the premises for more than its seven years.
Fans whirl overhead as the room reverberates with robust conversations among locals and regulars who consistently pack the place -- if you plan on dining here, be sure to make reservations. The clientele appears to be an international mix, but the waiters, busers, and owners speak with thick French accents, and all have a knack for coming by to check on things at just the proper moments. Chef Georges Eric Farge works the room in only slightly less animated fashion than Monty Hall did on Let's Make a Deal, his antics adding to what is a rapidly pulsed, relaxingly paced, thoroughly charming dining environment.
Le Bouchon du Grove
3430 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove
305-448-6060. Open for breakfast and lunch Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., brunch Saturday and Sunday, 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5:00 to 11:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 5:00 till midnight.
The hearty fare isn't very bouchonesque, meaning just a few dishes derive from Lyon, one of France's most appealing gastronomic regions. Most notable of these is a faultlessly prepared gratinée lyonnaise (which most know as French onion soup), thick Gruyère crust and sweetly caramelized onions mingling in a mellow beef broth. La salade lyonnaise was less successful. Great combo of ingredients -- a pile of field greens topped with two meaty disks of pancetta, sautéed potato slices, croutons, and a poached egg -- but poorly executed, the tired greens zestlessly dressed in mostly fruity olive oil, the croutons and potatoes nothing to send a postcard home about either. On another visit the mesclun was sprightlier, this time tossed with succulent and savorily spiced nuggets of Maine lobster tail and strips of artichoke heart in a light, still too biteless cognac vinaigrette.
Appetizers are referred to on the menu as "entrées" -- evidently the French are sticklers for accuracy. These include a tall cone of fresh and smoked salmon tartare in shallot-lime dressing; escargot in garlic parsley butter; and a moist, scrumptious homemade pâté de Campagne encircled by niçoise olives, cornichons, and sweet-onion confit. You'll want to help yourself to freshly sliced baguettes that sit in a basket on the table, and should also consider one of the affordably priced wines -- particularly good picks exist among the Burgundies.
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A dozen main courses are divided into three categories: fish, meat, and specialties. Salmon, snapper, tuna, and Chilean sea bass constitute the seafood selections, most roasted or pan seared and served with simple accompaniments -- the sea bass, for instance, with artichokes and tomato confit, the snapper with fresh herbs and ratatouille. Two of the house specialties also come from the sea: a humongous heap of steamed mussels, and a "papillotte" of what was supposed to be clams, mussels, sea bass, grouper, and snapper; salmon and tuna were substituted for the last two ingredients. Because of timing logistics, the thin cut of tuna was way overcooked, but the rest of the components, which also included boiled potato slices, were softly simmered and steeped in an abundance of bouillabaisse broth aromatic with saffron and thyme. The souplike nature of the dish necessitates that it be steamed in aluminum foil rather than the proper but more porous parchment paper.
Another Le Bouchon specialty is duck confit, the leg and thigh cooked slowly in fat until the skin crisps and the interior turns meltingly tender. Accompanying pommes Sarladaises is translated on the menu as "sautéed potatoes," but the sarladaise process is a bit more involved; after cooking in duck fat, the potatoes are sprinkled with chopped parsley and garlic, then covered and left to sweat. Their lack of crunch, in other words, is intentional.
Beef stew was first-rate, large cubes of slowly cooked, melt-in-your-mouth meat in a deep beef stock-and-tomato-based sauce around a nest of homemade fettuccine brightly yellowed with yolks. Equally praiseworthy is chicken fricassee, three pieces of farm-raised bird, on the bone and intensely flavorful in opulent red wine vinegar sauce; a buttery pine-nut polenta complements the chicken in a comforting way. Roasted rack of lamb, ordered by the person seated to my right, appeared so appetizing atop pistou-imbued white beans that I already know what I'll order the next time.
A generous wedge of warm tarte Tatin pooled in cream proved a wise dessert choice, the sweet, plump apples barely contained by a thin, buttery crust. A just-as-yummy raspberry tart, also prepared on the premises, features crust, custard and fruit harmonizing sweetly in sync, like Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, and, um ... well, you know what I'm trying to say.