I've been lax. It's taken me a year too long to publicly appreciate the Grand Cafe, the restaurant in the Grand Bay Hotel (the most luxe lodgings in the city). And the reason has been pique, pure and simple: I was offended by an article in last June's Wine Spectator that effusively praised executive chef Pascal Oudin as it simultaneously denigrated the efforts of his fellow New World chefs in Miami. Restaurant critic John Mariani wrote that "perhaps the New Florida Cuisine, with its insistence on using every fruit and vegetable grown in the state on one plate, became too extravagant and too predictable. It was clear that if the New Florida Cuisine was to evolve, it had to achieve more focus and refinement." Enter French-born Oudin, Mariani concluded, to clean up our hyperbolic act.
What I have belatedly realized is that the French-born Oudin, who took over in early 1994 after popular chef Katsuo Suki Sugiura left for a position in Hawaii, deserves the kudos. Like Robbin Haas (Bang), Mark Militello (Mark's Place and Mark's Las Olas), Allen Susser (Chef Allen's), and Norman Van Aken (the soon-to-open Norman's in Coral Gables) A Oudin cooked his way up, working at the Colonnade and Alexander hotels before heading the kitchen at the ill-fated Euro Disney. He's also had the ego-busting privilege of training under French chefs Alain Ducasse and Roger Verge. And all he's done lately is maneuver the Grand Cafe to a four-star rating in the 1995 Mobil Travel Guide.
His creations, which combine the Mediterranean, Asian, and Caribbean elements we've come to expect from the New World movement, are simpler than most, dependent upon intricate but nearly invisible French technique. Like many classically trained chefs, his forte is sauces which highlight rather than mask fresh fish and meats. A flaky and tender appetizer of Chilean salmon, for instance, deftly steamed in a heady vinaigrette made from Spanish sherry and served with grilled "pencil" asparagus, marred only by a crisp though somewhat greasy potato curl that served as garnish.
When Oudin fails to utilize his particular talent for updating traditional recipes, the results tend to fall flat. A case in point was "chilled home-smoked salmon Bavarian," which we sampled compliments of the house. (Owing to a a service mixup, the Bavarian was brought instead of the Chilean we'd ordered.) Freckled with capers, the smoked fish was dry around the edges and unimaginatively presented with white toast points, an undressed pile of leaf lettuce, and a tiny dollop of cräme fraŒche. Roasted tomato dressing and a garnish of ikra (Russian for caviar), both of which had been promised in the menu description, were missing. Better than the Bavarian salmon was an amuse-gueule, nuggets of turkey combined with shredded cabbage and carrots and wrapped in crisp, spring roll-like dough. This freebie also easily eclipsed the white and whole-grain rolls that, although frequently offered by a roving server, were stale.
An intriguing dish of spinach risotto was a rich, earthy meld of swirling flavors. Green as pine needles and just as fragrant, the mixture was doctored with creamy mascarpone cheese and pungent porcini mushrooms, and topped with a handful of fried "chips" of artichoke hearts. A salad proved equally good, a double handful of organic field greens dusted with Brazil nuts and tossed with a just-salty, just-tangy herb vinaigrette. Sections of ruby grapefruit, so red and juicy they were nearly indistinguishable from the tomatoes, were surprisingly sweet, jazzing up the plate with a Florida feel.
Local products were displayed to their best advantage in a main course of Indian River softshell crab, two large crabs that had been tempura-battered and fried, then placed atop a mound of springy buckwheat linguine. A stir-fry of snow peas and carrots with an oyster sauce completed the plate, which featured great textural contrast and a satisfying seafood flair.
Braised black grouper didn't fare as well. Overlapping fried potato thins as greasy as storebought chips encased a fillet that was dry and chewy in some places, raw in others. Candied tomato slices and "wilted" Vidalia onions, sweet and sharp, provided some much-needed spark, but a tamarind-and-veal-juice sauce was too-powerful competition.
On the other hand, a tart juniper berry reduction contributed a beautiful counterpoint to a hearty New York strip steak, blending admirably with the meat juices released by the steak knife. Inches thick, the grilled beef was wonderfully charred on the outside, as red as a Florida sunset inside. A melange of dark wild mushrooms spiked with pine nuts and fried Italian parsley tumbled over the top; rich scalloped potatoes soothed the challenged palate.
Any lulled senses were awakened sharply with the coming of dessert, a dark chocolate tart with a center of praline ganache; underneath, a fine white chocolate sauce provided velvety emphasis. Oudin, who designed the dessert list as well as the dinner menu, brings Florida into the patisserie with delicacies such as passionfruit coulis and white-and-dark chocolate napoleon with banana/white chocolate mousse.
Hotel dining can be intimidating, especially in the deluxe Grand Bay, where the wine list is so long that it has a table of contents, and so complete that it includes a Palmer merlot ($30), one of the unlikely Long Island vintages that's been getting some rather unwarranted attention lately. The restaurant is on the second floor, which means that after the valet parks your car, you must walk through the lobby to the elevators, and deliver a statement of purpose to the front desk. The two-tiered mirrored and carpeted dining room, awash with elaborate flower sprays, also can be construed as stuffy, hardly the heady romantic atmosphere one might expect from a New World-type restaurant. And courses are served with correct utensils (imagine, a fish fork for the grouper, a serrated knife for the steak!). Yet the fine appointments are in keeping with Oudin's classical style, which trims tropical excess and replaces it with measured European technique. This is not to say, of course, that Oudin is better or worse than any of the other excellent New World chefs in the restaurant industry, where competition is a given. He is, simply, where he should be A in the mix.
I've been drinking my morning coffee at Aurora (1205 Seventeenth St., Miami Beach), our first Seattle-style beans bar. Polished wood counters and art exhibitions are attractive, but the sun rises for me on 1) the shakers of cinnamon and cocoa at the milk-and-sugar stations, 2) the homemade mini bundt cakes, and 3) the spillproof sip tops on the disposable paper cups. The coffee drinks are as sleek and stylish as the place itself A the requisite lattes, espressos, and mochas A but don't be intimidated if the proper way to order these beverages is a mystery. Table tents, pamphlets, and a shockingly pleasant staff (they must have come from Seattle, too) explain the short and tall and long and skinny and single and double of it all.
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As coffee becomes something of a cliche, however, I find myself turning to tea A and so, apparently, do many others. High-tech "tea bars" specializing in exotic imported blends as well as fruit and herbal varieties, are purportedly the newest trend destined to come our way. If you can't wait, you might want to check out Nancy Lones's Little Bistro, a trailer-size restaurant parked at 8075 SW 67th Ave. in South Miami. Afternoon tea is served every weekday from 3:00 to 5:00. Pastries are made on the premises. Or if you prefer sherry with your scones, try the Grand Bay Hotel's brand-new "Sherry A Done to a Tea" service. Monday through Saturday from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m., Grand Cafe chef Pascal Oudin pairs Gonzalez Byass sherries with tropically twisted scones and tea cakes such as sweet potato cupcakes with blood orange marmalade and spicy gingerbread with guava cream cheese.
Still another hot beverage trend awaits us in the evenings. It seems restaurants are finally tuning in to the fact that those of us who stuff ourselves during the meal can't tolerate a filling coffee-and-pastry course. The solution is a combination of drink and dessert A i.e., hot chocolate made the way it should be with melted candy or cocoa and heavy cream. Hardly a new concept to Parisians, who like their spoons to stand up straight in their chocolate cups, but folks in the States are suddenly embracing the rich gourmet treat as if one sip were an instant return to childhood. South Florida restaurateurs may want to hang onto their pastry chefs, though. A laughable two days of 40-degree weather certainly won't ensure the success of the hot chocolate trend in subtropica.
Suggestions? Write me at New Times, P.O. Box 011591, Miami