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Best Eats in Merrick Park: Pascal Oudin's New Brasserie Central

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Food isn't all that makes a French brasserie. Sure, there's tangy cheese and the rich, peppery aroma of steak frites. But just as important is the frazzled waitress with a pack of cigarettes peeking from her purse. And then there are the throngs of cafégoers, who crowd the sidewalk to sip wine and chat even on brisk winter nights.

This is what Pascal Oudin is seeking to create at Brasserie Central, which opened in late November at the Village of Merrick Park.

You know Oudin. He's the 55-year-old who runs the French white-tablecloth standby Pascal's on Ponce. He arrived here in 1987 to open a French restaurant in Miami Beach's Alexander Hotel, then departed three years later for Washington, D.C., before jetting back to Paris.

He was lured back to Miami in the mid-'90s to open a restaurant in Coconut Grove's Grand Bay Hotel. After Oudin spent a few years at a Cracker Barrel-esque place, a friend mentioned an available space on Ponce de Leon Boulevard off Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. The chef jumped at it and in 2000 took on a mountain of debt to open the restaurant that he would give his own name.

Yet in the back of his mind was the nagging urge to open someplace more casual to serve the food he knows best. "Brasserie food is what we grew up with," he says.

The 150-seat Brasserie Central maintains a semblance of that simplicity despite bow-tie-clad servers and the upscale clothing and jewelry stores that lurk nearby. A 60-seat patio shaded by large red umbrellas is a respite from daytime shopping sprees. Inside, thick wood-topped tables surrounded by lacquered black Brentwood chairs rest on Cuban tile floors. Dangling above a small bar, a handful of Edison-style light bulbs spotlight chalkboards with daily specials. Cooks slice house-made charcuterie and shuck oysters.

This is where Oudin comes closest to re-creating the convivial restaurants of his homeland. The sterile stucco shopping mall just around the corner offers none of the charm or character of Toulouse or Marseille. Nevertheless, Brasserie Central is a well-executed representation of the food you might find there and a happy addition to this high-end Gables mall.

Diners are welcomed with a warm baguette tucked into a brown paper bag that includes a fragrant, sticky bulb of roasted garlic. Once you've dug out all the sweet, softened cloves, the bread becomes a vessel for a half-dozen charcuterie offerings that Oudin and executive chef Fabien Micard, who came from Pascal's, prepare daily. Pink slices of jambon blanc begin as pork leg cured in salt and sugar, then simmered for hours in court-bouillon. Slices of it fill a rich croque-monsieur that's made with country bread soaked in a luscious béchamel.

There's also a rough country pâté packed with slick bits of fat and knots of pork all bound by tangy whipped chicken livers. One little glass jar is filled with a foie gras mousse that emits enticing whiffs of brandy. Another bears delicate pork rillettes culled from shoulder, seasoned with thyme, and braised for hours in its own fat. It's then pulled, covered with fat, and cooled. The result is savory and meaty, with a pale-yellow cap that spreads like butter onto crusts.

The charcuterie also spills over into entrées with a skinless sausage called boudin blanc. Oudin begins this by whipping a mousse of chicken, fat back, pork shoulder, cream, and eggs flecked with musty slivers of black truffle. The fluffy mixture is compressed and shaped in plastic wrap. When someone orders it, the mixture is poached in court-bouillon. The result is silken bites sweetened by the accompanying glazed apples and seasoned with a hearty veal gravy.

There's also a velvety vichyssoise dotted with olive oil and crisp croutons. The chilled blend of potatoes and leeks with a touch of cream and salt makes for a perfect starter on humid evenings. So, too, does the Lyonnaise salad, one of the world's best excuses to eat rich breakfast fare at night. Fat, crunchy-chewy lardons are tucked into a small garden of bitter frisée. A poke of the poached egg that crowns it lets the yolk run, a reminder of why this simple salad perseveres.

In another iconic dish -- steak tartare -- Oudin adds a twist he found a few years ago during a trip to Lyon. "It's lightly seared, and it's amazing because this adds a little crust," he says. Indeed, the faint smoky char on a fine dice of New York strip and rib eye adds a nuance to the fist-size dome bound with mustard, brandy, red onions, and egg.

However, not everything strikes a perfect chord. The ratatouille alongside a tender braised lamb shank is underseasoned and overcooked to the point where the vegetables morph to mush. A mille-feuille is topped with a too-sweet layer of frosting. Its thin pastry sheets, which should be brittle, are rubbery after sitting too long in a bland cream.

Those missteps are forgiven when you pierce the snappy charcoal skin of trout almondine. Both sides of the fish, farm-raised in Idaho, are doused in brown-butter sauce that enlivens the delicate flesh. A squeeze of lemon adds a burst of acidity. Pan-roasted almond slivers lend some crunch and nuttiness that complement the simple sauce.

Even better is a steaming bowl of fat Mediterranean mussels heaped into a redolent butter-and-white-wine broth that adds just the right amount of richness and fruity taste. It's hard to avoid the accompanying basket of crisp fries, but that all depends upon your plans. If you're off to Neiman Marcus to drop a few grand on a suit or ball gown, you might want to abstain.

But if you're here for Oudin's fare, go ahead and indulge.

  • Charcuterie $16/$32
  • Salade Lyonnaise $11
  • Croque-monsieur $14
  • Steak tartare aller-retour $15/$26
  • Trout almondine $23
  • Moules frites $22
  • Mille-feuille $8

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