Sour Notes

When I was in college, one of my roommates wanted to throw a dinner party for some elite international friends, including her boyfriend, the son of a Saudi Arabian oil magnate, and a Jordanian prince. Only problem was, she couldn't cook very well, and she didn't trust herself not to ruin the main course. What's the recipe, Parker asked me, for planning a foolproof meal?

Cooking a meal is like conducting a love affair, I told her. Despite your best intentions, there's no guarantee that nothing will get burned.

Well, she conceded, it's not that she wanted to impress these privileged few with her culinary skills; she readily admitted she couldn't compete with their private chefs. She just didn't want anyone to leave her table hungry.

Ah, now that's a different story. All you need to fill people up is a few loaves of good French bread and a nice crisp salad. If you've got that, to hell with the rest of the meal.

Parker must have liked that advice, because she rushed right out to the bakery. And if I didn't know that she was now an investment banker living in New York, I'd suspect that she'd taken my words all the way to 71st Street in North Beach six months ago and opened the French-Mediterranean eatery Lemon Twist, where the bread and the salads are pretty much the best offerings.

Hot, crusty baguettes were delicious paired with a bowl of salty, oil-cured olives. And two salads, both of them based on field greens dressed with a light, beautifully balanced vinaigrette, were basic but satisfying. One was topped with strips of dried duck, like tender jerky, rimmed with fat to keep it moist. This layer pulled off easily to render the game bird into meaty morsels. The other salad was finished with a puff pastry that was flaky and rich with butter, dripping its filling -- pungent goat cheese -- onto the lettuces ($7.00).

Other appetizers, like mousse de tomate au basilic, iced tomato custard, come paired with the mixed greens, a surprise garnish. The mousse was a richly hued, shimmering aspic honed with a breath of basil and garlic and finished with olive oil. The cool custard would have been perfect for a poolside lunch, an excellent summer dish.

Beignets de legumes strove for that same quality of refreshment but never quite made it. Battered in a tempuralike coating and deep fried, sliced eggplant, zucchini, and onions were tasty, even if they did cause us to leave oily fingerprints on our linen napkins. The problem lay in the accompanying sauce, a chilled tomato puree that was cold and watery and detracted from the warm fritters. The same puree, sad to say, was puddled under a broccoli tart that was so obviously burned I found it difficult to believe the waitress had actually served it. I was even more astounded when, after I voiced my objection, she chose to argue with me.

"It's just well-done," she said.
I took a bite. Blackened broccoli doesn't exactly wake up the palate. I insisted she remove it. "Okay, I'll bring you a new one," she said grudgingly.

"Not if the piece is cut from the same pie," I told her. The tart had obviously been part of a larger whole, and while the exterior may have been burnt, the interior was ice-cold and the bottom soggy, suggesting the tart had been simply reheated prior to serving.

"Oh, but they're not," the server assured me.
Oh, but they were; the second triangle was as singed as the first. Worse, the eggy filling had been overbaked to such a degree that it tasted hardboiled. An insult to the customer and an embarrassment to the kitchen.

A main course of lasagne au saumon ($9.50) suffered a similar fate. An overbrowned top was limp and stale, detracting from what would have been delectable layers of salmon, spinach, noodles, bechamel sauce, and jack cheese. A seafood-scented tomato puree under the square of lasagna was pretty, though the tomato theme had begun to show signs of wear.

We were certainly weary of it by the time it appeared once more, to dress poulet aux gambas: two skin-on chicken legs paired with a couple of whole langostinos that had been sauteed with a good amount of olive oil and garlic, and a molded scoop of basmati rice. The poultry was moist and juicy, dark meat stewed to succulence. The prawns, unfortunately, didn't fare as well. The delicate lobstery flesh was gravely overcooked and stuck to the shell. Another major complaint: This dish was a little too messy for its presentation -- separating the chicken from the skin and the shrimp from the shell was a neatnik's challenge (and a drycleaner's delight).

Fish of the day, billed as red snapper, was more likely yellowtail or mutton snapper. More muscular a fillet than red snapper usually is, the grilled fish had a chewy texture. Regardless, the dish as a whole didn't inspire, sporting a salsalike sauce that comprised garlic, basil, and, yes, crushed tomatoes. Pommes de terre dauphinoise, a baked casserole side dish of sliced white potatoes layered with bechamel, was a saving grace, dense but fork-amenable.

Those potatoes also accompanied the best entree of the evening, simple grilled lamb chops flavored with thyme ($15.50). These five supple little treats were that redundancy known as "baby lamb chops," young enough to be ridiculously tender, yet mature enough to be faintly musky.

That kind of main course leaves plenty of room for dessert. And the profiteroles, pastry puffs filled with ice cream and chocolate sauce, were a pleasure, while an airy chocolate mousse was delightfully textured. A pear flan ($5.00), more like a poached pear than a custard, was even better, blanketed with dark chocolate whose smooth bittersweetness complemented the natural grain and sugar of the fruit.

A gratis shot of "lemon twist" -- citrus-flavored vodka -- is the real finish to the meal, and a lovely, mouth-puckering one. It didn't make up for what we considered second-rate service, however. In the middle of taking our order, the waitress went to answer a phone call. "My boss," she said when she came back, referring perhaps to proprietor Christian Hermant or partner Eric Omores, who also co-owns Bash on South Beach; another partner, Thierry Grana, is the restaurant's chef. The waitress also neglected to add the desserts to the check, and later came over to literally pluck the bill out of our hands as we were preparing to settle up.

Perhaps the South Beach connection of one of the owners is a clue to the indifferent service. All told, this trendy 60-seater -- complete with house music and wall murals -- really is more SoBe than NoBe. To my mind, that's part of the problem. Not that North Beach, which is smack in the middle of a renovation process, doesn't deserve an upscale eatery with decent prices (like this one). But the spirit of a restaurant needs to reflect the community rather than borrow a personality from another neighborhood. Tone down the frantic beat of the music and raise the lackadaisical, inconsistent rhythm of hospitality and this place might someday break out of formula and become what it's already being hailed as: a unique pioneer.

Lemon Twist
908 71st St, Miami Beach; 868-2075. Dinner nightly from 6:00 to midnight.

Goat cheese salad
Lasagne au saumon
Lamb chops
Pear flan


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