From time to time, Alice Waters would cook dinner for friends in her Berkeley home. These gatherings garnered enough exuberant word-of-mouth that before long, everyone Alice knew craved an invitation. She started Chez Panisse mainly as a means of feeding them all without going broke — and the rest, as they chez, is history.
Like Ms. Waters, Venezuelan-born Elida Villarroel prepared food for admiring guests at her home in Caracas. More specifically, she would stage a daily chef's table dinner in the garden behind her house (and had the business savvy to charge money for the effort). That garden became a party every night, filled with a single group ranging in size from eight to thirty. An actual restaurant space seemed like the natural next step. During a visit to Miami during Christmas last year, Villarroel decided Coral Gables would make a fine locale for such a venture. Seven months later, her Charlotte Bistro was launched, serving soigné lunches and dinners on Miracle Mile in the City Beautiful.
Point is, opening a restaurant doesn't have to be as difficult as some make it out to be. It is, or should be, simply an extension of hosting friends for dinner — assuming you know how to cook. The same rules apply: You warmly greet your guests, offer gratifying food and drink in a comfortable environment, and at meal's end let them know you hope to see them again soon — mi casa es su casa, and so forth. Ms. Villarroel has figured out this seemingly obvious formula. It is surprising that more folks haven't.
264 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-443-3003; charlotte-bistro.com. Lunch Tuesday through Saturday noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6:30 to 10:30 p.m.
It is also obvious that Elida Villarroel knows how to cook. She served apprenticeships in the kitchens of one-Michelin-star L'Alexandrin, two-Michelin-star Pierre Orsi, and three-Michelin-star Michel Bras (chef Bras being her main mentor). Once the local food world gets wind of Charlotte Bistro, Elida Villarroel will be a star of her own in Miami's little galaxy of chefs.
Charlotte's distinctiveness begins with the eclectic décor, a delightfully personal alternative to corporate cookie-cutter dining rooms. "It's so girlie," my wife observed as we entered, and indeed it exudes a dainty tearoom appeal. Beginning with old-fashioned little octagonal black-and-white floor tiles, the space is designed as a quaint and quirky collage of mismatched chairs, patterned wallpaper, off-kilter wall adornments, floral nosegays, and white ovoid lamps hanging from a high black ceiling. It all fits together just right to form an utterly charming ambiance.
The cuisine weaves a similarly enchanting web, fusing strands of French bistro fare with ingredients such as the curry and coconut milk that globalize a beurre blanc pooled beneath three bacon-wrapped langoustines. Alongside the thick, succulent crustaceans were thin slices of softly cooked zucchini infused with the alluring perfume of anise. Jeez, she can make even zucchini taste good.
Diners are started with tall spikes of flatbread and a bowl of black olive tapenade. Complimentary, meticulously presented tasting spoons follow, a trio per person that varies nightly. One such threesome brought a grainy-textured salmon mousse with dill; a "sofrito" of tomatoes, peppers, and onions sprinkled with yellow grains of rice; and finely chopped chilled octopus sparked with lime juice.
Those tasty tastings were a harbinger of the light, fresh, and beautifully balanced cuisine to come. Take the onion soup, fragrantly fingered with fresh thyme and topped with croutons lightly glazed with melted Emmental cheese. Or try two square slices of bacon-wrapped, pistachio-spotted, coarsely textured pheasant terrine, the bird first being marinated in Porto, rosemary, and herbs d'Provence. Accompaniment for the pheasant are paper-thin slices of pear cooked in cardamom butter, a sweet confit of tomato, caper-raisin sauce sharpened with raspberry vinegar, and a teeny julienne of fresh sage. It's a terrific terrine, although some bread or croutons would have been appreciated, both with this dish and with a starter of salmon gravlax. The latter was too thickly sliced and too mildly flavored — seemed more like sashimi than dill-salt-and-sugar-cured fish. Still, it was rewarding enough with a dice of fresh cucumber and a dollop of crème fraîche freckled with sevruga caviar.
Most ethereal of the half-dozen entrées was a tender lobster tail poached in brown butter and set afloat with five ravioli rounds of minced lobster in saffron-spiked broth. On the other end of the heft spectrum: two hearty domestic double lamb chops (12 ounces' worth) marinated with thyme and nutmeg and sauced in lamb jus touting just a trifle of truffle oil. Beneath the posed, intertwined chops was a dab each of golden onion purée and violet-colored (but too dry) mashed potatoes, plus a timbale-shaped mound of lightly sautéed bright-green baby spinach leaves. All were neatly arranged like paints on a palette, with a slash of balsamic glaze and a sprig of fresh thyme on the remaining white portion of plate — clean and delicate in presentation and taste.
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Equally impressive was pan-seared grouper finished with hazelnut butter, sauced in lemongrass velouté, and sided by a delectable celery root purée, glazed pearl onions, and another sauté of baby spinach leaves. Those seeking a safe yet sound main course should be satisfied with a trio of petite, farm-raised chicken breasts tenderly seared with herbs d'Provence and chaperoned with sweet red pepper coulis, minced ratatouille, and meaty strips of Portobello mushrooms.
The signature dessert is "chocolate soup," a cross between dark, hot chocolate pudding and dark, unbaked chocolate soufflé batter, with a quenelle of homemade coffee ice cream and a long, buttery wisp of a tuile twirling around the whole like the trail of a ballerina. The chocolate used comes from Chuao (chew-WOW), the first Venezuelan chocolatier based in the United States (from San Diego but with a branch in Coral Gables). Crème brûlée comes crisply capped, scented with cardamom, and paired with a teeny, tantalizing smudge of roasted banana ice cream. "Tart tatin" is dreadfully deconstructed into caramelized apples sandwiched between wafers of dry puff pastry.
Service is as uncomplicated as the food. Empty water glasses are filled and empty plates are removed from the table without the waiter interrupting conversation; there is no hard sell when it comes to food, dessert, or wine. Options for the last are clearly enough discerned from a limited listing laced largely with familiar, affordable (most bottles $28 to $40 and marked up about two times) European selections (and within this group mostly French).
Things not found here: TV screens. Screaming music. Hostesses with fake breasts offering vacuous greetings. That's what South Beach is for. Instead, one of the congenial waiters seats you, and once you've finished your meal, Elida will glide over to thank you for coming. A polite hospitality flows through Charlotte, reflected in phone manners when taking reservations, in tableside manners when taking orders, in a parting shot of lychee juice brought to diners after the meal. Dinner at Charlotte Bistro is an elegant, enjoyable experience. It's as simple as that.