Gourmet Diner debuted its chrome, '40s-style diner car on Biscayne Boulevard at 139th Street in 1983. La Cigale, a contemporary, ten-table bistro, opened on Biscayne Boulevard at 73rd Street this past July. The former has been described as not being what it used to be, while the latter has thus far generated decent word of mouth. A single visit to each establishment brought unexpected results.
Gourmet Diner flaunts an extensive diner-like menu of burgers, salads, and dozens of main course choices — along with 40 or so daily specials written in small print on a board that gets displayed at each table. There are American and Italian selections aplenty, supplemented by barely enough French items to validate Gourmet's tag line of "just bon cuisine." And it is definitely cool sitting in this classic diner environment — both in a James Dean way and in a you'll-need-a-sweater-because-the-AC-is-turned-up way.
You can't beat diner prices. Daily specials feature a choice of soup or salad; entrée; side dish; and soda, coffee, or tea. Depending upon your pick of protein, the dinner costs $14.95 or $18.95. We started with a stout and well-stocked beef-and-sausage soup du jour and a standard caesar salad — chopped romaine leaves slicked with a light lemon-garlic dressing and garnished with croutons and Parmesan.
A big difference between Gourmet and other diners is that here you can start your meal with an appetizer of escargots prepared in textbook fashion — tender nubs soaked in butter, garlic, and parsley. And you can crunch on a traditional French celery-root slaw: freshly julienned sticks of root vegetable adhered with mayonnaise and heaped atop lettuce and thick slices of red and yellow tomatoes. A squeeze of lemon wedge, a few needed shakes of salt and pepper, and it is spot-on.
A main course of sole meunière was more like sole française in lemon butter sauce — meaning the fish was egg-battered and topped not by an à la minute pan sauce of browned butter frothed with lemon and parsley, but by a merely melted assemblage of the same ingredients. Still, the fish pleased with its fresh, mild flavors. Mashed potatoes on the side were light and creamy.
Liver and onions also scored approval. Two meaty planks came crowned with caramelized onions and accompanied by Gourmet's signature vegetable soufflé — a moist dollop of herby omelet. The only desserts on this mammoth menu were ice cream and an ice-cream sundae. We passed.
La Cigale means "the cicada," so as diners enter the petite strip-mall bistro, they are greeted by the singing chirps of a mechanical insect. This occurs each time the door opens, which can get annoying, but at least the cricket-like sounds are translated somewhat accurately. This is more than can be said for the French cuisine.
Husband/wife owners Thierry and Veronique Bossa hail from Marseilles, so presumably the duo knows a thing or two about bistros. For instance, Cigale's concise listing of old-school French favorites, bolstered by a few nightly specials, is preferable to Gourmet's epic bill of fare in terms of keeping food fresher and affording the chef an opportunity to meticulously concentrate on select dishes.
On the other hand, original chef Alvaro del Busto is no longer at Cigale, and the main focus of the current kitchen crew with regard to our niçoise salad was apparently looking for the can opener. The tuna and olives were surely canned (and the latter certainly not from the salad's namesake Nice). And if the potato slices weren't also taken from a tin, this only means they were cooked days ago and stored in water. In either event, it didn't deliver what one wants from a potato, nor did the salad meet niçoise standards — although there was nothing wrong with the remaining romaine lettuce strips, green beans, tomato slices, or hard-boiled egg.
Lentil salad was simple: al dente dots of the legume served chilled with minced shallots and a splash of red wine vinegar. At $8 a pop, maybe it was too simple. Six plump "shrimp Provencal" were also pretty basic, adorned with only the anise notes of pastis and a speckling of parsley — no garlic or sizzle involved. An accompanying mound of rice pilaf tasted only of pastis, which is not what you want rice to taste like.
Steak frites brought a modest slab of skirt steak, grilled to the requested medium-rare, with thin golden fries piled on the plate. An accompanying side of ratatouille was cooked the Old World way, meaning stewed at length until the eggplant and zucchini are barely distinguishable. Green peppers and dried herbs were simmered with the vegetables, but the overall flavor was mostly that of the dried herbs.
Prices are fair enough: Salads and appetizers run $5 to $10, entrées $14 to $20, and a short selection of wines $25 to $29. Dessert, however, delivered the only bargain: a softly baked, lusciously moist slice of lavender cake, with barely a hint of lavender, cradling a scoop of pistachio ice cream ($8). If only the rest of the fare was as fresh and distinctive.