Mall Adjusted

In my hometown, as in many others, malls constituted the main teenage hangout. Weekend afternoons, our relieved parents would commit us to the Livingston Mall, where we'd smoke secret cigarettes, try on tight, tacky clothes, and take out our worst zit-induced angst on each other. During the trespasses of puberty, afternoons spent lurking in Sam Goody and Hermann's Sporting Goods always seemed a viable -- if temporary -- cure.

And the mall was the place where junk food not permitted at home could be consumed in peace, and in massive quantities. On any Sunday afternoon, after a family breakfast and before a family dinner, I could easily ingest a Big Mac, a Quarter Pounder, large fries, and a chocolate shake. Early adolescence didn't make me into a human adult, it made me into an eating machine.

That appetite never really abated. I still love to eat, and I still love malls. And for some reason, food courts still bring out the hunger pangs, just as Victoria's Secret and Benetton can set my Amex card aquiver.

In recent years, of course, malls have embraced far more than food courts, fast chicken, and burgers. These days just about any mall can serve as a viable location for a culinarily ambitious eatery; even a strip center shadowed by a K mart might house a five-star dining establishment. In some cases, however, upscale shopping means upscale dining. And a monied setting like Bal Harbour, would seem to demand nothing less than Andre Chauveron's latest venture, Cafe Tulipe.

Chauveron and his partner, first-time restaurateur Charlotte Klein, opened Cafe Tulipe on the ground floor of the exclusive Shops of Bal Harbour last August. Like the mall itself, Tulipe is indoor/outdoor, and features 200-plus seats. The cuisine, an innovative mixture of French, American, and Italian, is as far from two all-beef patties as Bal Harbour is from Mall of the Americas.

For Bal Harbour to harbor an upscale cafe is not unprecedented; the flourishing Coco's Sidewalk Cafe, across the walkway from Cafe Tulipe, celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. What is surprising is Klein's and Chauveron's approach. Cafe Tulipe easily could have flowered into a mock Cafe Chauveron (North Miami's oldest and, some still insist, finest French eatery). But Andre Chauveron, who sold his rights to that bistro two years ago, was searching for something less haughty, more contemporary, this time around.

Doubtless the kitchen staff was seeking the same thing. A trio of chefs, Douglas Zitz, Sean McGuirk, and Paul Bradley, followed their boss when he departed from Cafe Chauveron, seizing the opportunity to escape from classic (some would say "tired") French cuisine. Now, not only cräme gets caramel; onion soup is caramelized as well, topped with herbed croutons, and Gruyäre and Parmesan cheeses. And escargot are served with wild mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and a lively red-wine sauce in a warm, fresh roll that the uncivilized (i.e. not French) may want to tear apart with their fingers and stuff in their mouths. My advice? Down a bottle of beaujolais with it.

Another major difference between the past and the present philosophy of Chauveron is that the influences aren't all French. Italy, too, is a significant presence at Tulipe. Wolfgang Puck-size pizzas, for example, are offered in American (mozzarella cheese) and French (goat cheese) versions, as well as la margherita (onion, mushroom, and tomato), and a foglie di spinaci (fresh spinach, tomato, olive oil, and ricotta) all paying homage to the (God)fatherland.

The owners are also interested in keeping prices relatively low. In this neighborhood, ten to twenty dollars is reasonable for an entree. Top dollar ($21) entitles you a rack of lamb, traditionally herb-crusted. At the economical end, ten bucks buys ravioli stuffed with ricotta and encased in fresh eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and basil.

Notwithstanding the exclusive address, evidently the price range is attracting a mixed clientele. Klein says the restaurant has seen a variety, from the blue-jeaned to the business-suited to the Hawaiian-shirted; the Sheraton across the street contributes a steady supply of customers, and of course the mall itself is a terrific draw. The challenge will be to attract a crowd after the shops have bedded down for the night, which means anywhere between 5:00 and 9:00 p.m. depending upon the day of the week.

The cafe's informal elegance may abet that endeavor. Tulipe's double-tiered dining room, accented in dark wood and white linen, complements the tradewinds charm of the bistro's outdoor arrangement. The bar, a separate room, is as intimate as a paneled library in a brownstone; I half expected the bartender to pull down Dickens instead of Dewar's. Service is prompt and courteous, though on the night I visited, I couldn't help but notice that all the waiters were male. (Klein assures me that women do work there, too.)

Ambiance, however, must be backed up by a capable kitchen. And here is where Chauveron and his chefs excel. From the duck sausage starter to the apricot profiterole finisher, the cuisine is made on the premises and made well. I devoured the baked polenta with veal, shrimp, wild mushrooms, roasted red peppers, tomato coulis, and mascarpone cream without remorse. With this appetizer alone, the former Chauveron chefs may win groupies. But be warned: Despite a variety of influences, this food is rich, as the proverbial haute cuisine tends to be.

Main courses, particularly the pan-seared red snapper in a tomato-leek butter, are substantial ventures in flavor. This fillet was quickly crisped, then embraced by the substantial sauce. The osso buco was a trifle disappointing A all bone and little shank. The tender veal was aromatic and juicy, however, and the saffron risotto accompaniment more than compensated. Other meat and poultry dishes sound enticing: I was tempted by the duck breast stuffed with spinach, roasted peppers, herbs, a port wine sauce, white beans, and red cabbage. But I've mouthed so much duck lately that I've begun to feel like a golden retriever.

In the end, it's the little touches that count. I chose the iced tea, flavored with a heady passionfruit, so at odds with the stern interior yet so in keeping with the patio wicker. My husband enjoyed the complete clearing of the table after each course, even down to the unused silverware. In fact, he found great humor in the moment when, after our waiter laid out new place settings for us, the busboy once again cleared them. "It wasn't too long ago that mall food meant eating a burger with our hands," he said. "How is it that we're on our third set of forks?


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