In 1990 we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1991 we're bidding farewell to the Soviet Union. In the midst of an era of great change, it seems not even Miami restaurants are spared.
Seldom does a dining establishment survive turnover in ownership, management, and chef, but Cafe Chauveron -- a Bay Harbor Islands landmark -- is doing just that since changing hands this past January. While menu changes are subtle, and ambiance is still as far from splashy as Leontyne Price is from Janet Jackson, the restaurant is not nearly as old-line and highbrow as it used to be. A chilly formality still permeates the dining room, with its charcoal-color tweed banquettes, white linens, and impressionist paintings, but the mood and menu are youthful and upbeat.
Most surprising of all, entree prices are slightly lower than in the past. Not that you'll find the place jammed with folks who stopped by on their way home from holiday shopping at Kmart -- on the night my companion and I visited, for example, former Costa Rican President Luis Alberto Monge was dining with a group of Tico friends and relatives. We couldn't readily identify other diners but judging by the glint of jewels and the subtlety of power suits, the restaurant's clientele is the only thing that hasn't changed.
If those folks could roll with the punches of the new regime, we figured Cafe Chauveron must be doing something right. It is. The restaurant seems to have adopted the very American "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy, and has concentrated on making only small adjustments. Sweetbreads, for example, once prepared with chestnuts, are now sauteed with braised leeks and served in a Madeira sauce. On the old menu, the chicken had a red-wine sauce, but now a breast is stuffed with spinach and mushrooms. A signature dish, grilled Dover sole, is still offered at its former price of $28, the highest price for a seafood entree. Most entrees run between $19 and $29.
The restaurant has done a laudable job of fine-tuning. Other seafood dishes have been updated -- some to take advantage of fresh tropical ingredients, such as the Florida fish stew, which used to be served as a classic Marseillaise-style bouillabaisse. Other new seafood offerings include pompano in white-wine sauce with grapes, yellowtail with braised endive and herbs, and tuna grilled with sweet bell peppers, all of which cost between $23 and $25.
As in the past, the menu is well balanced between meat and seafood entrees, but the restaurant breaks new ground especially with its starters. More than a dozen appetizers, most priced between eight and twenty dollars, head the menu, and many standards get a new twist, such as fresh blue-point oysters crowned with horseradish cream and caviar, and snails in garlic butter served with a parsley flan.
Service at Cafe Chauveron is good, if a bit brusque. We were never offered any replenishment of the single roll we each received. When entrees were served, no one came to grind fresh pepper over the dishes -- a practice we've come to expect even in less-pricey restaurants. When I reached into the ice bucket to read the label on the bottle of wine we'd ordered, a waiter apparently thought I was helping myself to a bottle belonging to folks at the next table (their bottle was stored in the same bucket, but I was not aware of that when I made my move). Said waiter showed little aplomb, practically diving headfirst into the bucket to protect our neighbors' vintage. Perhaps they were drinking the Bonnes Mares 1926, at $3200 one of at least a dozen bottles that cost $1000 or more. We ordered the house wine, which cost twenty dollars and represented the low end of a very broad spectrum.
Despite this one gaffe, however, gracious gestures abound at Cafe Chauveron, and as we sipped before-dinner drinks we enjoyed one -- complimentary hors d'oeuvres. Two won tons stuffed with lean duck, and a couple of toast rounds topped with a delicious, delicate salmon mousse were wonderful warm-ups. For my first course I chose stone crab ravioli with citrus sauce, while my companion selected a salad of baby oak-leaf lettuce with goat cheese. The salad was a symphony of spiky baby oak leaves deftly dressed in walnut oil and raspberry vinegar, a crisp counterpoint to several mounds of velvet-smooth goat cheese.
The ravioli was as bold and beautiful a dish as one can imagine. Three plump squares of squid-ink pasta rested on the citrus sauce like huge, abstract black pearls on yellow silk, and the taste was incredible. Each al dente ravioli contained a large, succulent morsel of stone crab --
perhaps the same amount of meat as in a medium-size claw. The mildly tart, lemon-based sauce made a perfect dip.
Reversing our usual dining roles, I ordered a meat dish -- one of the evening's specials, a veal chop with morel mushrooms -- and my companion opted for the salmon with caviar. My chop was enormous, but tender and pink inside, and quite delicate. The spongy dark-brown morels had been glazed in butter, but little of their flavor had been imparted to the meat. Still, a bit of meat and morel together was ecstasy.
My dining companion's dish was more of a dazzler, a large, thick portion of salmon served in a champagne sauce topped with black and red caviar. After a delicate poaching, the moist fish flaked at the touch of a fork. The sauce tasted mostly of the fish's own juices, and did not overwhelm the slightly sweet salmon. As a crowning touch, the caviar was truly inspired. While the red added little more than a new texture and color to the dish, the black caviar and its juices seeped into the salmon and provided a salty zest.
Both our dishes were surrounded by a medley of colorful garnishes that made the white plates look like artists' palettes: small molds of forest-green parsley flan, which had a mousselike texture and the refreshing taste of the fresh herb; baby carrots and asparagus spears; polenta in the shape of stars; and small molds combining sauteed onions and red peppers.
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After such wonderful meals we expected a truly grand finale. But the chocolate mousse cake with sabayon hit with a definitive thud. The mousse was heavy, the cake layer underneath tasted like an ordinary sponge cake and had not soaked up any of the of sabayon. When we ordered our entrees, the waiter had asked if we would like one of the many sweet souffles for dessert, and we declined. As we dealt with our nearly tasteless mousse cake, we saw some of those extravaganzas going to other diners, and it was obvious we'd made the wrong choice. Then again souffle is as good an excuse as any to return to
9561 E Bay Harbor Dr, Bay Harbor Islands; 866-8779. Hours: Daily from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.