Neal's Restaurant opened in Aventura in 1993 and enjoyed a felicitous four-year run. In 2005, Neal Cooper partnered in a second venture, Il Migliore; it, too, drew local clients, many lured by fond memories of Neal's, which had closed. Il Migliore is still humming along, but Cooper left nine months ago. On March 12, venue number three, Petit Rouge, moved into the petite room in North Miami once filled by Plein Sud. The genre has transformed from trattoria to bistro, yet Petit possesses the same amiable elements of casual neighborhood dining that Cooper captured so well in his first two efforts.
Ambiance in the 24-seater is cozy and intimate yet lively — French tunes hum softly over speakers as bistro chatter ricochets off the red ceiling and ivory walls. Details are nailed down, from the rustic look of hardwood tables on tile floors, to silverware and dishes imported from France, to the absence of television screens. A tiny outdoor eight-seat terrace faces a little strip mall parking lot. A view of the Seine it ain't.
Another Cooper constant has been stellar service, and Petit's staff performs to standard. Appropriate glasses, plates, and silverware are set prior to the food and drink arriving and then reset between courses with a quick, quiet efficiency that in this town is usually exhibited only by waiters removing tips from tables. Our server articulated and recommended wines with confidence. There are some 70 selections, about 25 percent from California, the rest from France. Prices start at $28 and reach $260, with the average bottle around $40. By-the-glass options, $8 to $14, are poured tableside from small glass decanters.
Honest, accessible, well-executed food is the third ingredient in the chef's stockpot of restaurant successes, helped along here by chef de cuisine Daniel Small. We began with crunchy-crusted wedges of fresh baguette and then segued into a starter of ris de veau. The thick plank of panko-crusted sweetbread came sliced diagonally in half — looking just like a particularly plump fried chicken breast, though veal sweetbreads of course boast a far richer, sweeter flesh. A thin pool of lemon-caper sauce effectively counterpointed the fried notes, as did a textbook Dijon vinaigrette that lightly laced a thatch of field greens on the side.
Salmon tartare was appealing in a fresh, chopped-sashimi sort of way, with minced egg, onions, and capers scattered on the plate and a small dollop of crème fraîche on top. Still, the fish could have been beefed up with one or more traditional tartare supplements, such as raw egg, mustard, or Worcestershire sauce.
Our waiter kept recommendations to a minimum yet did disclose that the chef's favorite salad was frisée, radicchio, and baby arugula leaves studded with lardons (nubs of bacon) and dressed in bacon vinaigrette — with a poached egg and brioche crouton perched on top. Some guests at the table suggested that the assertive bacon dressing overwhelmed the other ingredients. On a technical level, this was true, but the combination of flavors was just so unbeatable it's hard to quibble; plus I find it nearly impossible to type the words too much bacon.
French onion soup, the standard bearer for any bistro, was bolstered by a bold beefy base, with sweetly caramelized onions, a terse tang of sherry, and, most impressive, a sturdy, darkly bronzed cap of Gruyère. Très soigné!
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It's nice to see a classic such as truite grenobloise — the whole, skin-on Idaho rainbow trout presented butterflied and boneless, adorned with capers, parsley, and teeny croutons in "lemon butter sauce." The fish touted trout's subtly nutty taste, but the croutons weren't crisp enough, and the lemon butter would have contributed more of a sweet counterbalance had it been browned more. An ample portion of bright and snappy green beans alongside was pleasing.
A solid rendition of steak frites brought a flat rectangle of skirt steak cooked properly bleu — the exterior nicely charred and smothered with caramelized shallots and a thin, red wine-based Bordelaise sauce. The frites were hot, crisp, and greaseless, so neatly cut and light golden brown they looked to be the frozen variety — but, in fact, were culled from fresh spuds. An à la carte side of pommes de terre à la sarladaise (sliced potatoes cooked in duck fat) was also flawlessly fried, but displayed little discernible duck fat flavor.
Two meaty rashers of calf's liver were prepared just right, attractively crisped on the outside, tender pink within, topped with sautéed onions, and plated with plush Yukon gold mashed potatoes — a very rewarding dinner for $21 (most entrées run $20 to $24; appetizers, excepting foie gras and caviar, range from $12 to $19).
Dinner can be followed with a cheese plate or homemade desserts, which include tarte tatin, pot de crème, and nearly perfect profiteroles. A low, wide wedge of lemon tart featured a buttery pine nut crust, scintillating citrus curd, and simple raspberry-and-mint leaf garnish; with French press coffee, it was a luscious finish to a very agreeable meal. Seems that for Mr. Cooper, the third time's a charm — just like the first two.