Otentic in South Beach offers crepes and homemade French fare at good prices
Otentic is a clean, bright, contemporary bistro that looks out of place on this fast-food stretch of Washington Avenue. Almost everything at Otentic is slow: the cooking of food, the movement of workers, seemingly time itself. Yet after you finish off a small flute of complimentary Sauternes, and spread soft butter on wedges of baguette, you're likely to feel blissfully ensconced within the space — which will seem very far from the street scene outside. Maybe even an ocean's distance away.
A pink-and-white checker pattern is subtly woven into the fabric of the simple 18-seater's décor. It is imprinted, often no larger than the size of a postage stamp, onto the nine bistro tables, the white walls, the menu. A counter partially runs up the left side of the space; behind it, workers pour wine, flip crêpes, and prepare café au lait. It's a cheery room and not very French for a French-owned crêperie/bistro. The staff is French too, as is much of the clientele. Yet this is self-billed not as a "French food restaurant" but rather a "fresh food restaurant." French, in fact, is mentioned only three times on the menu — preceding the words pickles, bread, and fries. C'est la vie.
I'm not certain, but it's quite possible the term laissez-faire was initially coined to describe laid-back waitstaffs like this one. They are on the ball at times and then drop the ball at other times — usually toward the latter part of the meal. It's undeniably a personable, caring crew; owner Aurelien Rouvier is always on hand, and chef Jean Mountain, from Paris, will often bring plates to the table himself. Their staff's English isn't so hot, but that only adds an otentic touch.
The selection of beers is about equal to that of wines, but the brews wear more interesting labels — particularly "Otentico beers," which translates to a trio of slightly less familiar European selections. The wine list, besides being concise, is disappointingly uninspiring. Then again, the place is just 3 months old, and it's not a bad idea to grow your wine stock slowly.
Of the three appetizers and two salads offered, our favorite by far was tart of the day — quiche Lorraine or a vegetable quiche flecked with a ratatouille of eggplant, peppers, and onions. Either way, the cream-and-egg-based filling is deliciously custard-like, the crust a flaky but faithful marriage of butter and flour.
Zesty grain mustard dressing sparks a cylinder of diced avocado (a day away from being properly ripe) topped by a layer of diced shrimp tails. A whole poached shrimp is enshrined like a statue upon the base, and a toss of field greens dressed in balsamic vinaigrette sits on the side; a Dijon and/or shallot French-style dressing would have been preferred. Reduced balsamic syrup also gets drizzled around some of the plates and at times comes dangerously close to touching the food.
Salmon tartare was just plain weird. For one thing, the coarse niblets of fish were marinated ceviche-style — the sharp lime tang clashing with, not smoothed by, whipped cream on top. The taste of salmon sans cream wasn't bad, but tartare it ain't. Three croutons on the side were too hard.
As stated, quiche is the best of the official starters, but there are other ways to begin a meal here. One is by way of a cheese platter (Comté, Brie, blue, and goat, served with dried apricots, baguette, and butter); a cold-cut platter (chorizo, white ham, Serrano ham, mortadella, salami, cornichons, baguette, and butter); or a combo of the two.
Another absolute beginner is via the specialty of the house: crêpes. The chef pours batter onto one of those crêpe makers that resembles a turntable, smoothing it out with a mini wooden rake. They come out perfect every time. There are five savory fillings to choose from, including one with "prosciutto, fresh cream, and grated cheese" that arrived without any discernible cream — and the slices of ham sliced too thickly. Better was the chicken rendition, tenderly seared nuggets in a Parmesan-flecked cream sauce. The one with bacon, sautéed potatoes, Brie, and cream sounds good too.
Crêpes are to come with "choice of salad, tomatoes, cheese, eggs, mozzarella, and potatoes and onions." One time, we went with the last, which brought freshly fried triangular cuts of potatoes — delicious even without said onions. Another time, we asked if the salad came with the tomatoes, eggs, and so forth, and were told it did. It didn't, but the greens were dotted with tomatoes and corn kernels.
It wouldn't be a terrible idea to have a crêpe for your main course, but there are a half-dozen entrées to likewise fill that bill. A tilapia fillet came gorgeously roasted, retaining all the moisture this inherently unexceptional fish can muster. A shot glass on the side was filled with a bright, gazpacho-like purée of tomatoes, olives, yellow bell peppers, cilantro, and lime that awakened the sleepy tilapia flavor. Tarragon-perfumed brown sauce, culled from rich chicken stock, glazed with herbal gusto a chicken leg, thigh, and part of a breast. Farmer steak was good too — a tastily seasoned sliver of New York strip seared to juicy medium-rare and served with a side of either peppercorn or blue cheese sauce. Our main complaint is that there wasn't enough to this slender slab of meat, although the price is just $10.95. All main courses come with choice of side.
Choose the ratatouille, a terrific take on the traditional mix of eggplant, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, and, in this case, a sweet, heavy dose of roasted peppers. A sauté of green beans and seared red onions was delicious as well; French fries are fresh and cleanly cooked, just like the potatoes served with the crêpes except cut into vaguely rectangular shapes.
One of my dinner guests was surprised at the lack of patrons in the restaurant. If this place were located in New York or San Francisco, he said, you'd have to wait for a table. It's not because the cuisine is of astonishing quality; it's simply fresh, homemade, and flavorful. The point was rather that Otentico should be more crowded because of its genuine value: Starters are $7 or $8, those rather extensive cheese/meat platters go for $10, entrées run $10 to $15 (for filet mignon), crêpes cost $7, and sweet crêpes are $5.50.
The last are luscious, whether they are smeared with honey, sugar, jam, cream, chocolate mousse, or the one I'm partial to, Nutella. Other house-made desserts include roasted pineapple with raspberry sorbet, molten chocolate cake, and vanilla crème brûlée. For the discount price of $6.15, you can nab a sampler of all three, along with vanilla ice cream and choice of coffee or tea. Another delectable deal: Breakfast, beginning at 9 a.m., brings a crêpe, mini fruit salad, fresh orange juice, baguette, honey, jam, butter, and coffee, hot cocoa, or tea. That's $7.40. It bears repeating: Otentico represents great value. So tell your friends about this sweet little restaurant. We spoke with the owners, and they say it's OK to mention it's French.
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