So here's my dilemma:
I had dinner at Vin Brule the other night. It's a cute little place cute as a button, in fact almost at the downtown Miami end of Coral Way. Nothing fancy, just your classic neighborhood café. Handful of tables on a terra-cotta tile floor, big windows facing the street, shelves full of (mostly) inexpensive Italian wines on one wall, colorful if not hugely adept modernist paintings on the others.
Sweet place, obviously a local favorite. The chef seems to know everyone in the dining room (except us, of course). She likes them; they like her. And they really like her restaurant.
1246 Coral Way, Miami; 305-285-7681
Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Monday through Thursday, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday through Saturday, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
So what's my dilemma?
The food. It's not bad, but it's not that good, either more like what you'd get in the dining room of a friend who's a moderately talented home cook.
So do I say, "Go to Vin Brule for the cozy, welcoming ambiance, the exceedingly friendly people, the blessedly modest prices"? Or do I say, "That's swell and all, but you don't eat the atmosphere"?
I haven't figured that one out yet.
What I have figured out is that some of the food needs work. Caesar salad arrives as a plate of tired, beginning-to-brown-around-the-edges chopped romaine, as much tough, dark green outer leaves as crisp, pastel green inner leaves. The menu says the tart, vinegary dressing is homemade, so I'll take its author's word, but it still tastes suspiciously like the stuff out of the bottle.
A sign in front of the restaurant terms its cuisine "North Med," which seems to mean equal parts Italian and Spanish. So a short roster of tapas is offered. The eggy tortilla de patatas is pretty good and, unlike most local versions, cooked to order in individual portions.
Spanish-style lentil soup is passable, its broth on the watery side of thin but bulked up with lots of tender lentils and potatoes, plus bits of chorizo that give it a vaguely smoky kick. Cazuela española is terrible, a small earthenware container holding a few chewy shrimp and chunks of incredibly salty jamón serrano under a veritable forest of sliced mushrooms, whose seemingly unreduced liquid gives the dish its only flavor and a musty, tepid one at that .
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There's a longer list of pastas. We opted for tortelloni, eight multicolor pasta packets bearing four different fillings, which our charming waitress assured us were made in-house. They did taste homemade, and each of the various fillings (ricotta and spinach, four-cheese, mushroom and salmon) had its own distinct flavor and character. But overly thick, leathery pasta made that flavor and character but a fleeting tease to the palate. As for the promised "noisette" butter, it was more like plain old melted butter, with none of the rich, nutty flavor and mahogany color that comes from slowly browned milk solids.
A long wait later (the place was beginning to fill up), our tiramisu arrived. And guess what? It was great, super, fabulous. Rich and creamy, impeccably fresh-tasting (nothing picks up nasty refrigerator flavors faster than mascarpone), it was so damn luscious it could cause half the Italian chefs in this town to rip out their chest hair and beat themselves to death with a pastry brush.
So I ask you: "Do you go to Vin Brule for the pleasant atmosphere (and killer tiramisu), or pass on food that rarely rises above the level of adequate?"
I report. You decide.