Remember the way Miss Piggy spoke "French"? Sure vous do! Vous can't tell me that even 50-year-old readers don't still sometimes sneak a peek at Sesame Street and Mlle. P's exuberantly pretentious ventures into zee vaireee heavily accented faique Franglais.
Less funny was the sort of faique French food that predominated in l'Amerique during Sesame Street's early days in the Seventies -- which was when Marseilles native Andre Filosa first started cooking in Miami. Actually make that faique French and imitation Italiano food, because when Italian-American food "evolved" from its Neopolitan red-sauce days of the Fifties and Sixties into something more neo-Northern Italian white-sauce "classy," it and its French-American counterpart had more in common with each other than with any authentically regional French or Italian food.
French and Italian cuisine in America have changed since those days, and so has Andre's restaurant -- three location changes, for starters. What was harder to figure was anything about the food. Reviews I'd read as recently as 2000 as well as the menu's cover (with MADE IN FRANCE stamped prominently over some wine-swilling Frenchmen with zee typically huge curling moustaches) suggested the food was French. The menu's contents, though, with just a few exceptions like chocolate mousse and one Moroccan dish, screamed "mama mia!" Hmmm. Obviously necessary to perform zee taste tests.
16145 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami Beach
305-919-9962. Open daily except Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for lunch, 4:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. for dinner.
A starter of authentic merguezes was a high point on two recent visits to Andre's. The soft texture of these loosely packed, homemade North African-style sausage links contrasted unexpectedly but appealingly with their taste: boldly meaty, with considerable hot-pepper kick.
Another appetizer, salmon carpaccio, was less successful, the salmon sliced so tissue-thin that discerning much taste or texture was difficult. In fact the slices were so mushy-thin that it was impossible to even separate them from their plate, except in shreds.
Among entrée choices triple tail was impossible to resist, as this fish is seen seldom on local menus though seen often in local waters (usually by mahi-mahi fisherfolks who tend to ignore it as just an oversized panfish). The fish may not be much in the glam department but it tasted great, in texture tender, similar to skate or some soles, in taste mild like black grouper or Chilean sea bass.
Entrées are offered with a choice of eleven sauces, and delicately rich Florentine (béchamel, lemon, seafood stock, wine, scallion, and spinach) went beautifully with this fish as well as with accompanying angel hair pasta.
African snook, though, was a major disappointment. The "snook" part of the name makes this fish sound like it should be in the same rare-local-jewel category as triple tail; three types of snook, all excellent, do frequent South Florida waters. But what increasing numbers of Florida restaurants are selling as African snook isn't any of the three. It's a more marketably exotic -- i.e. faique -- name for the farmed version of Nile or Lake Victoria perch: tilapia. Yup, the same fish that's been such a marketing success in American supermarkets because this aquaculture marvel tastes like nothing.
Still, since African snook is neutral rather than offensive, Andre's version would have been a good choice for the timid had our waiter counseled us better on sauce choice; livournaise (an unsubtle yet underspiced blend of onion, green olive, tomatoes, fish stock, and wine ) simultaneously overwhelmed the fish and underwhelmed its eaters.
An attempt at Asian fusion, Chinese tuna -- seared tuna pieces on a huge heap of mesclun -- was an idea whose time should not have come. The tuna bits, though tiny, did somehow manage to come almost as rare as ordered but tasted fishy even under an overbearing blanket of soy sauce. And except for this supremely unsubtle marinade, the salad appeared undressed. Between sodium overload and boredom, no one at our table could manage more than a few bites.
Though extremely simple, carbonara sauce, little more than a mix of beaten eggs with pancetta plus Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses, can be irresistible on almost any pasta when prepared properly. But simplicity can be difficult. The sauce on Andre's linguini carbonara was too thin to adhere properly to the noodles and contained too much bacon, producing an impression not of richness but of pork-flavored saltwater.
Ziti broccoli, which had been touted to us as packed with garlic, was totally bland. But both broccoli and pasta tubes were, at least, properly al dente.
As for the normally pedestrian veal française, the quality of the thin cutlets was good, the cooking was brief enough to leave some moisture in the meat, and the sauce -- a white wine- and lemon-spiked béchamel studded with plentiful fresh sliced mushrooms -- was a tasty combination of butter-rich and citrus-tangy. The veal's eggy batter, though, was soggy.
On the dessert tray apple tart looked best to me, but since I'm not a dessert lover I let the sugar fiends order. The white chocolate mousse cake they chose tasted like a sweetened version of the bathtub duck I owned as a small child: rubber injected with air bubbles. My dining companions each had one bite and looked stricken, trying to refrain from responding to our waiter's query about how we liked it. Only two out of three succeeded in refraining. The nice fellow whisked it away without charge.
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Pricing at Andre's, one must mention, is unusually confusing. Lunch prices, for instance, are reduced but not uniformly; lunchers can save five dollars on chicken Andre but only two to three on any veal or pasta dishes. At dinner the menu advertises "side any pasta" at $2.75. However when we attempted to order a side of ziti broccoli, our waiter informed us that this, as well as any other pasta with ingredients that "take up a lot of room on the plate," was only available as a half-order, not a side. Okay. We ordered a half, which wasn't, at least not in price: As I learned only after checking the unaccountably high bill against the menu, a full order is $10.75; our "half" was $7.95. Additionally we were overcharged for "three half-orders" of the non-bulky pasta shapes that our waiter had seemingly permitted us to order as $2.75 sides. We did order these three sides, not realizing (since our waiter hadn't informed us; I found out by calling several days later) that pasta is supposed to come free with every entrée. What came was the included pasta -- along with a hefty bill for three pastas that never came, in any size, shape, or form.
Because personnel were all friendly, I'm assuming (and truly believe) that the erroneous pasta charge was merely petty incompetence, not dishonesty. But wine prices were inflated to practically the point of petty larceny. I realize that restaurants depend on wine markups, but doubling retail seems plenty hefty; at $24, our table's bottle of Buena Vista sauvignon blanc was roughly three and a half times what this very humble plonk costs at the supermarket. It was also charged as "open food" rather than as "beverage" -- a reckoning method that made no difference to me, since I figure tip on the whole check minus tax, but something that diners who tip on food only would find less straightforward than it should be.
Andre's wasn't awful. It was just a lot of money to pay for what was basically old-style Continental cuisine with a few genuinely gutsy near-Eastern, Italian, French, and Florida accents. Next time I want to go back to 1970 for a snack, I'll economize and rent a time machine.