The French Perfection
Pascal Oudin, born in Bourbon-Lancy, France, was working in professional kitchens at age 13. Within a few years he was being recognized as a wunderkind apprentice chef. Then came further training under Alain Ducasse, three-star Michelin masters Roger Vergé and Joseph Rostang, and the late, great Jean-Louis Palladin, who mentored the young man upon his arrival to the States in 1982. Two years later Pascal landed in Miami, where he embellished his classic French technique with tropical touches, which subsequently garnered him a loose association with the Mango Gang. Oudin tilted toward more traditional cookery during his lengthy stint as executive chef at Grand Café in Coconut Grove's Grand Bay Hotel, and by the time Pascal's on Ponce premiered in 2000, he had returned all the way home to country French fare — with a bit of contemporary flourish.
Back then the idea of a well-paid chef from a highly reputed hotel leaving that security to open a small, unpretentious neighborhood restaurant of his own was, at least in these parts, a radical notion. And daring too: Had the gamble failed, it would have been a personally costly defeat. Then again, having to pay a mortgage and feed the kids — much like sensing the blade of a guillotine — focuses the mind and provides great incentive for putting out a level of service and cuisine that will make customers want to return. Which is precisely what Pascal did. Reviewers were effusive in their praise of his meticulously prepared, heartily flavored food, and the public concurred. Pascal's on Ponce has been considered one of our finest dining establishments, French or otherwise, ever since.
It hasn't changed much in seven years — still a modest 50-seat room with an elegant, full-service mahogany bar flanking the rear left side. The space is well-lighted and conspicuously clean — walls freshly painted, linens neatly pressed, nosegays of fully bloomed, unblemished roses upon each table.
The cuisine proved equally bloomed and unblemished. Like all great chefs, Pascal is able to transform the simplest of ingredients into something unexpectedly divine. Take, for instance, the humble egg, which has long been used as an industry yardstick for gauging a cook's skills. Eggs play such an integral role in cooking that the number of folds on a chef's toque used to denote the amount of ways the chef could prepare them. Put a crease in and a star atop Pascal's hat for his "twice-baked upside-down" cheese soufflé appetizer, so diaphanously dainty it was like inhaling a breath of Gruyère-perfumed air — shadowed with satiny Parmesan sauce.
It has been said the surest way to impress dinner guests is to make a soufflé — and to really impress them, make two. So we had soufflés for dessert as well. Sure enough, we were impressed. The only flavors offered are bittersweet chocolate and du jour — on this occasion Grand Marnier. The former makes those ubiquitous flourless cocoa pucks with molten centers seem like leaky brownies. Our threesome planned on sharing one Grand Marnier, but instead we were brought a trio of smaller soufflés, each baked and served in its own little copper pan. That's the sort of thoughtful touch that categorizes Pascal's as a friendly neighborhood restaurant.
A soufflé's rise is contingent upon egg whites getting whipped into thousands of microscopic, balloonlike cells that in the oven expand with hot air and propel the concoction skyward. The yolks are used to enrich flavor, and are also employed as a thickening agent for warm, custardy crème anglaise (vanilla sauce), which our waiter poured into the poked centers of each puffed, sugar-dusted cap. Impeccable renditions such as these remind diners why the popularity of soufflés has never fallen.
Americans have had a less steady love affair with baked Alaska, but clearly this classic is back in favor. Pascal proffers a scaled-down version sans the flair of tableside flaming, but with strawberry and vanilla ice cream covered in luminous Grand Marnier-spiked meringue — made by whipping egg whites and sugar in a double boiler until the temperature reaches 130 degrees.
Twisted, spätzle-size pearls of ethereal gnocchi came capped with oyster mushrooms, creamed with mascarpone cheese, and permeated with truffle oil. It was smart to make this plate an appetizer, for a larger portion would likely end up being too bloatingly rich. Country duck terrine, likewise downsized to cut caloric implications, was a gorgeous, glossy circle of meltingly luscious pâté fatted with foie gras — a work of art both visually and epicurially.
The gnocchi, as well as the terrine's forcemeat, get bound via eggs, so we can agree that Pascal's toque should be multilinear. But Mr. Oudin's oeuvre extends well beyond ova. Take, for instance, a main course comprising plump, marshmallow-size diver scallops burnished with shreds of braised short-rib meat — a robust burst of surf and turf in every bite. The trio of bewitching bivalves luxuriated in a buttery lobster broth bobbing with fava beans, Vichy carrots (cooked in fizzy water), fennel, and fingerling potatoes.
One small, thick cylinder of milk-fed veal loin, halved into two rounds, was buoyed by light but full-bodied veal jus drawn from seriously simmered stock. Didn't look like a lot to eat, but the meat was voluptuous and more than ample when accompanied with sautéed oyster mushrooms, a quenelle of chestnut purée, butternut squash, and a minihead of Savoy cabbage (looks and tastes like bulky Brussels sprouts but bears the looser leaves of its namesake family). Slices of rare, oven-roasted duck breast, shingled around an opulent confit of drumstick, presented a similar pastiche of petite pleasures for the palate to peruse: a Savoy cabbage ball, fingerling potato, and well-turned pears and turnips all pooled in tangy dolce forte (sweet-sour) sauce fortified with vinegar, honey, vanilla, orange, and star anise.
If, like a fine French wine, Pascal's has gotten only better with age, so too have the fine French wines: The restaurant nabbed its first Wine Spectator Award of Excellence this year. The United States, Spain, Argentina, and Chile provide the rest of the bottles, and half bottles, born of small vineyards and inclusive of distinctive, hard-to-find appellations. Prices are marked up as usual; if you choose to bring your own, the $25 corkage fee is waived on Mondays.
The middling nature of predinner bread stood out like an amateur actor in an all-star cast. It wasn't short on warmth or crustiness, but tasted like the par-baked frozen sort that gets finished on site. These pale in comparison to a fresh baguette or grain-laden roll.
Service is prompt and proper, the waiters trained to operate in professional fashion (including the placement of one hand behind the back when pouring wine and performing other tasks). It was therefore surprising to hear our server fumble when attempting to clarify certain menu items. Cheese descriptions were especially lax — and only a few are offered. The cheeses, however, were flawless, a fully ripened threesome that provided a varied breadth of sources, textures, and tastes.
Prices have inched up in the past year: Appetizers are $9 to $14 (a couple of dollars more than before), entrées $27 to $37 (about $5 higher). Though not inexpensive, Pascal's stands as something of a bargain in Miami's inflated dining scene — especially for French cuisine rendered so sublimely. A tip of the pleated toque goes to the integrity of Mr. Oudin's cooking and to the influence his success has had in spurring others such as Michelle Bernstein (Michy's), Michael Schwartz (Michael's Genuine), Dewey LoSasso (North One 10), and Andrea Curto and Frank Randazzo (Talula) to likewise leave the corporate food world for their own greener pastures. These chefs give us some of our most gratifying grazing, with Pascal's on Ponce continuing to lead the way.
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