I wasn't surprised in the health-conscious Eighties when rich, fattening French cuisine fell out of fashion. Nor am I shocked that with today's retro fascination with steak and potatoes, French restaurants are popping up all over subtropica. Yet the successes of two new eateries A Brasserie L'Entrecote in Coconut Grove and L'Entrecte de Paris on South Beach -- surprises me, and not merely because their names are similar.
Though the two establishments are unconnected in the business sense, both are traditional renditions of the classic bistro, featuring prix fixe menus and brusque, efficient service. They even offer some of the same dishes A mesclun salad with vinaigrette, tarte aux citrons and, of course, the sliced sirloin (l'entrecete in French) from which they derive their names. That said, these places are far from twins.
Coconut Grove lost one of its bastions of civilized dining when Brasserie Le Coze co-owner Gilbert Le Coze died last year and his sister Maguy sold the restaurant. With its polished French fare and service, the stylish brasserie was a laudable offshoot of the pair's highly regarded Le Bernardin in New York City, and its abrupt darkening seemed to allow the garish lights of nearby CocoWalk and Planet Hollywood to shine that much brighter.
Walking past the site on Florida Avenue now, you wouldn't know anything had changed. Brasserie L'Entrecote proprietor Giacomo Passera has kept the elegance A white table linens, wall sconces, tiled floor A intact. Well-heeled diners grace the patio in twos and fours, relaxing on green-and-white wicker chairs. Those unwilling to brave the curious glances of pedestrians can sit in the 170-seat, ebony-and-gold dining room or commune at the bar. A pretty terrace decorated with verdigris-and-wicker furniture is yet another option.
Given the prix fixe menu, where to sit is probably a more difficult decision than what to eat. For $23 plus tax and tip, patrons are served a three-course meal -- soup du jour or salad, an entree, and dessert. A pleasing variety of French and California wines and/or coffee cost extra.
The night we visited, three successive busboys brought hot French rolls, salted butter, and ice water. The epitome of bistro policy, this facilitates a quick-change multicourse meal. Too bad the grim-faced waiter, who didn't take our order for fifteen minutes, negated that first impression. Though he transformed into a model of efficiency as the meal progressed, his expression remained surly.
A tangle of frisee, radicchio, and red oak leaf lettuce was a fresh beginning. Tossed with a smooth vinaigrette, the bitter greens and reds were topped with chopped, buttery walnuts. Soup du jour, a lidded crock of gazpacho, was the other first-course option. The cool tomato base, a puree, was blended with cucumber, onion, and aromatic celery. Though an obviously Spanish invasion upon what amounted to fairly rigid bistro fare, the gazpacho was a truly fine rendition.
The menu lists only three main course options (including the namesake steak); two additional dishes are offered as blackboard specials. One was duck a l'orange, a passable version coated with a sweet, almost cloying clove-spiked sauce. The somewhat odd portion A two legs plus one meaty thigh, no breast -- was made odder still by the fact that the legs were of different textures, one dry and tough to separate from the bone, the other rare and pliant. Shreds of orange peel in the sauce and a handful of candied baby carrots, though a bit undercooked, attested to the kitchen's painstaking efforts. The duck's wonderfully crunchy skin provided further evidence of expertise.
A swordfish steak garnished with green peppercorn sauce was the other blackboard entree. Studded with whole peppercorns the size of capers and draped with a light, pastel pink cream sauce, the succulent fish was served alone on the plate, with a side dish of pommes frites.
Le colombo de supràme de poulet, a regular menu entry, was another satisfying main course. Boneless chicken breast meat had been pounded slightly, seasoned and lightly pan-fried, and sauced with an intense mushroom stock. The dozen or so skin-on supremes were nicely textured and juicy, with an exterior crunch. A side serving of fabulous gratin de pommes a la dauphinoise -- thinly sliced potatoes wafting nutmeg and oozing Gruyure -- almost overshadowed the dish.
We had assumed the combo of matchstick-cut French fries and aged Angus strip steak would be the centerpiece of the meal, and it was. The medium-rare steak, sliced and doused in a slightly too salt-heavy cream sauce eventually tempered by the released meat juices, was of prime quality, each bite redolent with smoky grill flavors. Our only difficulty lay with the cutlery -- the steak knives were as dull as cardboard. While this cut required minimal effort, a serrated knife would eliminate the need for elbow grease.
Dessert is a lengthy selection of French pastries, easily twice the number of entrees. Though we didn't appreciate a too-hard pear that had been poached and submerged in spicy red wine, a mouth-puckering lemon tart more than compensated. Topped with fresh spearmint ice cream, a velvety bittersweet chocolate tart was also fantastic, while a napoleonlike mille feuilles, layered with custard, was a slippery but tasty affair.
With the closing of Brasserie Le Coze and the glut of glitzy commercial restaurants, the Grove lost an element of its French appeal. Brasserie L'Entrecote's upscale bistro style is bringing back a good deal of it.
One doesn't dine at South Beach's L'Entrecte de Paris. One eats dinner. The owners (23-year-old Susana Nouel, a former model, and her 27-year-old husband Pedro Infante, an ex-hotel manager) claim there's a great deal of difference. They say their aim is to run a place where young people like themselves can have a meal whose price doesn't match their monthly rent. Sure enough, the two-course dinner at L'Entrecete de Paris sets you back a mere $14, the equivalent of two drinks just about anywhere else. Or valet parking.
Most likely as a consequence of the bargain pricing, the menu is extremely limited, and offers a choice between two entrees: sirloin or salmon. Infante, who estimates that a third of the food in restaurants goes to waste via spoilage, says he'd rather serve one dish and have it be "the best one in town at the best price" than prepare a multitude of mediocrity and wind up throwing it out. In Paris, where l'entrecete is as common as hamburgers are in America, he'd have a ton of competition. Not so on lower Washington Avenue.
Inside the restaurant, 30-odd seats are crammed together under framed turn-of-the-century advertising posters; outside, a few dozen additional chairs provide a good vantage point for keeping tabs on the doormen at Bar None, the club that replaced the restaurant Four One One. The proximity to Bar None has drawn just the sort of crowd Nouel and Infante hoped for: young, hip, and living on credit.
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Rather than choosing between options for each course, customers decide on a set menu A a formule. Formule entrecete started with a fresh mixed-greens salad piled so high it dripped off the plate. Walnut pieces were a wonderful contrast to the bitter qualities of the lettuce and the exuberant vinaigrette. The next course, steak, was brushed with a mustard-based sauce and served on a metal platter along with a pile of fragrant pommes frites. Medium-rare, the meat was supple and resilient, an exacting preparation.
Formule saumon also began with a salad, the same swirl of red and green, this time drifted with a smattering of plump white mushrooms. Slices of soft French bread were a pleasant counterpart, ideal for mopping up extra dressing and, later, for sweeping up the last bits of the sour-cream-and-dill sauce that covered the salmon fillet. Mild, flaky fish was accompanied by mushy, boiled white potatoes, the meal's only flaw.
Wine, dessert, tax, and tip are all additional, but we couldn't pass up kir royales any more than we could let an apple tart escape our attention. Rich, moist, and dense, the tart was a filling end to a perfectly proportioned meal.
Infante freely admits L'Entrecete de Paris is a borrowed idea, straight from Paris, where his wife was born and where he lived for the past three years. Gourmet fast food, he calls it. The customers always know what to expect. True enough. But this ain't no Burger King drive-through.