Restaurant Reviews

Bal Harbour's Le Zoo Does Stephen Starr Proud

Conventional profiteroles can be among the most uplifting desserts. Just one bite of the dressed-up cream puffs drizzled with chocolate sauce conjures fond childhood memories or romantic sojourns in Paris. At Le Zoo in Bal Harbour Shops, executive pastry chef Kelli Payne's profiteroles are guaranteed to stir your emotions too, with an added element of surprise — bananas. Wedged between the two crisp shells are vanilla ice cream and tender banana bits. However, this playful take on the ubiquitous French dessert isn't unique to Miami. It happens to be borrowed from the eatery's sister restaurant in Washington, D.C., Le Diplomate.

Indeed, Le Zoo's menu is for the most part a hybrid of Le Diplomate and Parc in Philadelphia, both of which are French brasseries owned by Stephen Starr. The Philadelphia-based restaurateur's company, Starr Restaurants, controls more than 40 operations across the nation. They include the relatively new Continental in Miami Beach and Le Zoo's Japanese next-door neighbor, Makoto. Starr cites Makoto's ongoing success and the location's year-round appeal as the reasons he jumped at the opportunity to debut a second concept in the luxury open-air mall.

They may very well be the best pommes frites in town.

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Situated in the former La Goulue space, the 200-seat interior salon and palm-tree-covered patio were designed by Shawn Hausman, the designer behind the Standard Hotel in Miami Beach as well as Le Diplomate and Parc. The result is a breezy and cheerful venue best described as an archetypal Parisian bistro with elements of a seaside Saint-Tropez café. Think mosaic-tile floors inside and red, white, and blue wicker tables outside.

Like the decor, Le Zoo's menu consists predominantly of brasserie staples, save for a few Mediterranean-leaning plates. Take, for instance, the angel-hair pasta entrée, featuring a substantial serving of Alaskan king crab paired with Fresno chilies and crème fraîche. You're unlikely to find this dish at a typical French bistro, but who cares when the delicacy's meat is mouthwatering and Starr's favorite noodle variety goes down like silk?

Credit for the development and execution of the pleasantly light pasta belongs to the restaurant's top toque, Craig Wallen. The 39-year-old Pekin, Illinois native has toiled in some of New York City's finest Italian restaurants, training with the likes of Mario Batali, Scott Conant, and Michael White. Before landing his first Miami gig, Wallen helmed the kitchen at Cesca Enoteca & Trattoria on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Le Zoo has been open for nearly three months, and Wallen says they've been busy for lunch and dinner from the beginning. Even on a particularly cold weekend night, the space fills up with a crowd that would seem out of place anywhere except in the wealthy playground that is Bal Harbour Shops. Here it's business as usual to spot a middle-aged Russian woman with an oversize pout and a coat that reads "Rich Bitch" dining next to two teenage girls with Givenchy handbags.

After my guest and I are seated outside, our wobbly table is secured and a rack is brought to hang our purses and jackets; then the heat lamp's temperature is adjusted accordingly. There's no need to request water or bread refills, and throughout the evening, the manager drops by to inquire about our meal. Starr Restaurants knows the importance of paying attention to the details, and you can see it everywhere, from the waiters' coordinated burgundy Vans to the wine-cork ceiling above the bar that was installed by hand over several weeks. As one would expect of such a brand, Le Zoo is run like a well-oiled machine. And, yes, it does make a difference.

One of the highlights of the evening is a mushroom tart divided into four shareable wedges. Twelve cases of mushrooms are reduced until a strong mushroom concentrate is left to slather atop a buttery puff pastry. It's then fortified with a truffle pecorino cheese that coaxes out the richness of the mushrooms. The forest-flavored velvet pioppini variety are particularly delicious and serve as the icing on the sinful pie.

Also nice are the escargots, which arrive sans shells in a miniature Staub cast-iron oven. A side of bread, for scooping the snails and dipping into the hazelnut butter, has been spiked with Chartreuse. Wallen says the French liquor adds a herbaceous note that complements the intensity of the butter and the flavor profile of the snails. He's absolutely right, although the starter would benefit from a touch more garlic.

Le Zoo's modus operandi, the chef explains, isn't to reinvent classic dishes but rather to offer the cleanest and loveliest versions of them. An excellent example is the restaurant's trout amandine. A gorgeous trout fillet is evenly fried and coated in a hazelnut butter, lemon, and almond sauce and proffered with toasted almonds and al dente green beans. What makes this main soar is that the aromatic sauce doesn't mask the fish, which is flaky and delicate on the inside and wonderfully crisp on the outside.

Though the trout requires no additions or subtractions, the same can't be said of the steak au poivre. The kitchen uses a topnotch hunk of New York strip and cooks it to the desired medium-rare; however, the Cognac-infused sauce is peppery to the point of setting one's mouth on fire. A dish that would have otherwise been a winner is simply ruined by too much of a good thing. Conversely, we devoured the thin, crisp, salty fries instantaneously. They may very well be the best pommes frites in town.

Chef Wallen says Mr. Starr loves a properly prepared beef stroganoff, and Le Zoo's iteration is straightforward: filet sautéed in a mushroom cream sauce with a splash of Worcestershire sauce and mustard. The stew-like dish has its origins in Russian cuisine, and the meat is traditionally spooned over wide egg noodles. Certainly, some patrons will delight in the richness of this entrée, but as a whole, it would be a bigger hit if the sauce were lightened and used more sparingly.

With main courses ranging from $15 for a simple omelet to $39 for veal Milanese, this is not a cheap spot. That said, the portions at Le Zoo are more than generous, and the overall high quality of the cuisine and service are unmistakable. And though not everything here tastes quite as irresistible as Chef Payne's milk chocolate pot de crème, this fun brasserie is on par with some of France's finest.

Le Zoo

9700 Collins Ave., Bal Harbour; 305-602-9663; Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday 4 to 11 p.m. and Sunday till 10 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Mushroom tart $16

Escargots $15

Steak au poivre $38

King crab angel hair $25

Trout amandine $27

Beef stroganoff $28

Pommes frites $7

Profiteroles $11

Milk chocolate pot de crème $11

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Valeria Nekhim was born in the Ukraine and raised in Montreal. She has lived in Manhattan and Miami. Her favorite part of food writing is learning the stories of chefs and restaurateurs.