It's more than just a little bit unusual for a restaurant's grand opening to be announced by a banner that trumpets not only the date it commences business -- in the case of Le Marais Express, this year's Jewish holiday Passover, several months ago -- but also when it intends to close: Passover 2006. But Le Marais is not, for better or for worse, your usual brasserie.
A venture of Les Halles Group (owners of Les Halles in Coral Gables and several other American cities, as well as two somewhat more gastronomically ambitious Le Marais flagships in Manhattan), the cozily traditional décor of the wood-beamed stucco room does serve the sort of classics typical of brasseries in France: hearty beef bourguignon stew, navarin d'agneau (braised lamb shoulder with vegetables), steak and frites, salad with duck confit rather than mangoes. But the food is all glatt kosher. In fact, plans call for the restaurant to eventually be part of an all-kosher hotel -- hence the projected closing, for remodeling of the old-fashioned pastel pink stucco building, from next spring until roughly Thanksgiving of 2006. Naturally, there might be a delay of a few months or years, if our town's usual permit/construction delays kick in, so opening before renovations was an ingenious idea. This is especially true because Mid Beach has long needed a restaurant like Le Marais. There are plenty of kosher eateries in this neighborhood, where many residents still take their summer dog-day constitutionals in fur hats. But frankly, frum along Arthur Godfrey Road's restaurant row seems mainly to stand for frumpy.
Le Marais, in contrast, is a place where hip people who keep kosher can dine with friends or business associates in an upscale setting, even at relatively late hours -- till midnight, except on the Jewish sabbath; the place is closed Friday night and Saturday. And as at classic French brasseries, service is conveniently continuous, with no break between lunch and dinner. The food is far more sophisticated than that in other neighborhood kosher joints too.
Le Marais does, however, have drawbacks. As typical of kosher food, prices are high, for the required religious rituals don't come cheap; even the lunch menu's three relatively bargain sandwiches (not available at night) run $12.50 to $14.50. As for quality, a French dip sandwich, sliced steak on a crusty if otherwise unsubstantial baguette, came cooked perfectly rare as ordered. Admittedly the cut was lean shoulder "minute steak," devoid of fat marbling, so quite tough. But its pleasantly grill-charred taste was nicely complemented by a bowl of intensely wine/shallot-enriched au jus. And since the sandwich comes with the same huge heap of flavorful, crisp fries as Le Marais's steak/frites entrée and features the same round steak for $4.50 less, it's a good buy.
The menu is also relatively limited for a brasserie. For instance, of only five starters, two are salads, typically eaten post-entrée in France. And our choice of the authentic appetizers, housemade gravlax al'aneth, was just okay -- attractively garnished with egg, parsley, and capers but unappealingly thick (the cured salmon is customarily sliced paper-thin) and tasting almost exclusively of salt rather than sugar and/or aneth (dill). Mustard/dill sauce would've helped make the dish more interesting.
For dessert, our tarte Tatin was less French than fusion: thin French puff pastry crust and thick American apple pie filling that was problematic -- cooked to near-applesauce texture. But the single crust was rich enough to make the tart satisfying.
As for wines, the list is dominated by respectable, if predictable, Baron Herzog selections, including a dreadful white zin. Otherwise, though, nothing's cloyingly Manischewitz-like. In fact a Barkan Classic Merlot from Israel (at $8 per glass, the cheapest red; bottles are a better deal) was dry enough to instantly dehydrate the roof of my mouth.
It may not be the brasserie of a Francophile's dreams, but Le Marais is very different from Miami's average kosher eatery. Vive la différence.
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