In order to maintain my anonymity, I caution my guests about being obvious. Don't call me Jen, I warn them. Don't mention New Times. Don't be too enthusiastic about the food. Talk about something -- anything -- else.
I've yet to be found out in a restaurant while I'm working it. But there have been slipups. My name mentioned in front of the waiter. The weekly waved about. These aren't suspicious in themselves A judging by the name's popularity, plenty of women have folks who watched Love Story and then called their daughters Jennifer. And we do print a bunch of copies of this paper. What worries me in connection with these accidents are the dialogues about dishes that always seem to develop, especially if the fare is tasty.
Well-prepared food sparks verbal appreciation and a quest for knowledge about it, and therein lies the danger of discovery. Overhear one of these conversations and I'll have to get another wig and change the color of my contact lenses. The plus side, of course, is that the more irrepressible my guests and the more we chat about the subtleties of the hollandaise or the succulence of the steak, the more positive my critique of the restaurant tends to be. Tension about being identified -- always a possibility for which I am alert -- is easily abated by a fabulous meal.
At Andre Chauveron's Cafe, the table talk turned to junk food.
Appetizers inspired a discussion comparing the virtues of Fritos to Doritos. "Your favorite cereal?" one of my guests wanted to know, forking his main course. The topic over dessert: when you go to a vending machine for midafternoon sweets, your first, second, and third choices.
Chat about chips and candy is not what I expected to be inspired by restaurateur Andre Chauveron, the local legend who ran Cafe Chauveron, Bay Harbor Islands's last bastion of jacket-and-tie formality, for two decades before selling it in 1992 and starting the short-lived Cafe Tulipe in Bal Harbour the same year. Last year he attempted to manage a comeback eatery called La Dolce Vita on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami (where La Pelota Vasca now stands), but this one closed so fast it seemed it had never even opened. Andre Chauveron's Cafe, which is owned by Boston restaurateur Fred Durham and features chef Luc Tohman in the kitchen but bears Chauveron's name, might be headed for the same fate. Tucked in the corner of a Collins Avenue strip mall that houses Nando's, L'Aurora, and Treffpunkt Biergarten, his latest French endeavor is two months old yet seemingly not ready for business.
Though we were handed a wine list upon request, it wasn't until we tried to order that we were told hardly any of the vintages were in stock. House wine was offered A at six dollars a glass, which amounts to more than we would have spent on a decent bottle. The staff didn't know the menu, flubbing explanations of sauces and glibly recommending everything (including items that weren't available). They could also use some lessons in charm: Our server paused in the middle of taking our order when a busboy dropped something behind us. "Jesus Christ," he hissed between his teeth before writing down our request for escargots. The manager reached into his pocket to make change when it came time to pay the tab.
The monochromatic, off-white color scheme is sterile and grim, like a hospital cafeteria. Along with the cavernous room, the dim lighting, low ceilings, and banquet-style upright chairs lined up outside the restrooms as if for a crowd of wallflowers made us feel like the last ones at a wedding A we kept waiting for a second-rate band to tune up. (Instead we had to settle for an odd assortment of piped-in music.) On all fronts, this place cries out for warmth.
One of only two parties in the room, we went through baskets of toasted baguette slices, trying to kill the 30 minutes that elapsed between ordering and the appearance of our appetizers. Escargots looked promising, dark and meaty in a garlic-studded wine sauce. Sliced mushrooms accented the vibrant snails, which were served in a casserole dish without shells. But the baguette crouton they were perched on had been drenched in so much butter it was like eating popcorn at the movies -- despite the additional ingredients, the slimy lubricant was all we could taste.
French bread was also featured in a big crock of onion soup. Although the use of sweet and fragrant Vidalia onions was a welcome reinvention and the baked cheese topping -- a combination of Swiss and provolone -- was luxuriously rich, we were disappointed by the salty, bouillon-cube flavor of the stock, which became stronger and grainier as we got near the bottom.
For cheese lovers, the crisped blanket that anchored a seafood crepe to the plate was a better bet. Like a Newburg burrito, the tube encased a combination of shrimp, scallops, and sole (mostly sole) cloaked in a rich bechamel sauce. Some more shrimp and scallop would have plumped this up a bit.
Wonderfully fresh, salade de maison was a treat. Every kind of crunchy, nutty green imaginable tangled together on the plate, accented by ruby radicchio and tomatoes. A creamy dressing, properly sharp with vinegar, pepper, and garlic, was served in a small tureen on the side. Because I love vinaigrette, I can never pass up a salad in a French restaurant; Andre Chauveron didn't fail me here.
Main courses, though, need to repeat a grade.
Averaging about twenty bucks a plate, entrees were all served with the same soggy florets of broccoli and cauliflower, which only enhanced the bad-banquet-hall feel of the place. Starches varied between an overbroiled wedge of potato and a greasy scoop of tough white rice. Veal scaloppine with herbs was the best of the bunch, three soft, pounded medallions dredged and lightly pan-fried. These were buttery and supple but small, the herbs nonexistent.
Tricolor peppercorns were too much in evidence, drifting whole in a cream sauce over a sirloin steak. Flambeed, the medium-rare meat was juicy but a deceptively tender cut -- it yielded to the cutting edge of a fork but chewed like jerky. The quality of yellowtail snapper Louisanne was better, the white fish mild and flaky. The server's description, however, proved misleading: The fillet had been dipped in an egg batter and fried, a fact of which there had been no mention. It wasn't sauced as we expected but rather was topped with quartered artichoke hearts and white mushrooms. This was a tolerable dish, a little dry and tough as it cooled, but not bad.
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Frogs' legs were perfectly awful. The texture of the flesh was ideal, falling away from the fragile bones in delicate white hunks like lump crab meat. The sauce, composed of chopped tomato, oil, and garlic, was flavorful if on the spare side. And the serving size was large enough -- eight legs like whole chicken wings. But despite the server's assurances, the frogs simply weren't "Everglades fresh," as attested to by the swampy miasma rising from the plate. The resulting gaminess made them inedible.
The house special dessert, Grand Marnier or chocolate souffle, was ordered with our appetizers and entrees so as to correctly time its preparation. We waited twenty minutes anyway for a chocolate one . Served at the table, it smelled delicious ladled onto individual plates with a vanilla sauce, but it was to chocolate what fat-free cheese is to the real thing -- bland and unsatisfying -- and, at fourteen dollars, too expensive. The oldest coffee I've ever had in a restaurant didn't help to wash it down, either. Staid chocolate mousse and a cup of tea might have been the richer choice.
Clearly, my expectations of Andre Chauveron's Cafe were very high. I hope his distinguished track record and his wealth of experience can offset this poor showing; prices are too high for customers to forgive and forget here. Many Miamians have gotten used to eating some very fine meals in his restaurants, not to mention in this particular shopping center. But instilling cravings for junk food is not the way to introduce the next Cafe Chauveron.
Oh yeah -- about that dinner-table conversation: Salty, greasy Fritos may be good for a hangover, but Cool Ranch flavor Doritos are the better all-around finger-lickin' snack food. I'm partial to peanut butter Cap'n Crunch, minus milk, straight from the box. And my spare change frequently buys me a Tootsie Roll, a Milky Way, and, believe it or not, those coin-size lemon-filled sandwich cookies. Yup, I adore those empty calories.