Restaurant Reviews

How to Love the French

Cocopelli Café is a curious name for a French bistro, not much better than calling your brasserie Vinnie's Diner. An outdoor deck leading to the café is a concrete mess, with a few tables and some scraggly shrubs surrounding the periphery. The awning looks to be about twenty years old, not six months, which is when it went up to anoint Cocopelli's opening. The location on Biscayne Boulevard between 110th and 111th streets pretty much explains the restaurant's ramshackle exterior, as this particular stretch of street is undergoing a blustering construction that makes it only marginally less dusty and chaotic than roads leading into Tikrit. First impressions didn't augur well, but as they say, you can't tell a book by its cover: Cocopelli is a blissful little bistro.

The outside appearance fools you in more ways than one: A glassed-in, 24-seat patio with wooden slat blinds looks to be an add-on to a larger restaurant indoors. Not so, as the interior room has but four tables, along with a darkened display case of desserts, a counter with a couple of barstools, a plush couch, wooden shelves bearing bags of chips and soy snacks (presumably for lunchtime purchase), and a birdcage with two parakeets that releases an organic, birdie-litter aroma upon the closest table.

Above the swinging doors leading to the kitchen is a kokopelli -- not the Italian surname I had surmised but the dancing flute player from America's prehistoric Southwest. In some Indian legends this mythic being is a fertility symbol, carrying seeds, blankets, and babies to offer the maidens he seduces. I'm not sure what this has to do with French onion soup, but at least it makes for an alluring allegory -- far more engrossing than the very short story behind Cocopelli's wine list: They have none, or at least didn't when I visited, offering only glasses of house Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot. They've been working on it, the licensing having taken awhile, and by the time you read this the grapes should be flowing.

To be honest, neither of Cocopelli's dining areas is particularly attractive, but the comfortable, lived-in, homespun ambiance captures the laissez-faire spirit of standard bistro décor. That's the way Moroccan co-owners Asmaa Benmaazouz and Hassan Benjelloun want it. You're more likely to see Asmaa in the front of the restaurant than partner/chef Hassan behind the stoves -- he keeps pretty busy as owner of La Factoría and director of operations at Opium and Mansion nightclubs on South Beach. But he evidently leaves the kitchen in competent hands, as the cuisine consistently exudes full, wholesome flavors.

We started with a charcuterie plate centered by field greens dressed in Dijon vinaigrette, upon which rested a couple of slices each of Italian hard salami, prosciutto de Parma, baked ham, ripe tomatoes, some cornichons, and the tastiest homemade country pâté I've had since -- well, I can't remember, but probably the last time I was in France. Coarsely textured, tender with fat, redolent of pork and pâté spice. In other words, just right.

Escargot is available accompanied by the traditional garlic butter or with brie. Brie? It sounded so incongruous I had to give it a try. Thin strips of the melted cheese did end up quelling the snails' delicate taste, but the gently cooked gastropods were tender as the brie. So were fresh ribbons of raw salmon marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and fresh herbs, delightfully light atop a frizzle of salad greens. Tuna tartar is also available.

I find quiche too heavy for an appetizer, but I'd come back for lunch and give one of the three offerings a try. French onion soup is fairly filling too, but it's an almost obligatory bistro starter. This rendition was gracefully infused with sherry, but the Gruyre on top was pale and shriveled; why can't anyone make this soup with a properly bronzed cap?

Some chefs treat seafood the way plastic surgeons approach Joan Rivers -- an extra nip and tuck here, a macadamia crust there -- what the hell?

At Cocopelli the fish speak for themselves. What they say is: "Take me for who I am, not how I'm dressed." Red snapper, robustly seasoned and crisply seared, came encircled by buttery, chive-flecked carrot slices, a sweet contrast to the inherently salty, julienned, sun-dried tomatoes on top. It is all the fish needed.

Grouper en papillote had something else to say: "Help! I'm stuck in a bag with brie!" Seriously, there was too parsimonious an amount of cheese to overwhelm, and in fact what little there was paired well with the wine-perfumed mélange of leeks, cremini mushrooms, and green peppers that were also bagged with the moist fish.

My Romanian grandma never made me poulet grand-mre, but if she were French, she might have. Here the "grandmother's chicken" is cooked and served in a red cast-iron casserole, two drumsticks, a breast, and a thigh simmered with onions, mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, and fresh rosemary in a full-bodied red wine sauce with homemade, dark chicken stock base. Even without lardons of bacon, de rigueur in the classic grand-mre, this dish was a tonic for the finicky chicken-breast dinners I've suffered through far too many times.

Steak frites brings a twelve-ounce ribeye, crisp French fries, and a healthy handful of field greens slicked with vinaigrette. A quartet of thin, juicy lamb chops, garnished with a dice of tomatoes and basil, came arrayed on a disc of creamy gratin dauphines with subtle undertones of Gruyre (known stateside as potatoes gratin). The chops were luscious, and with the dauphinoise certainly French enough, but they weren't frenched enough -- meaning more fat could have been scraped off the bones. Any such quibbles with Cocopelli's cuisine are tempered by terrific prices: Soups start at $3.25, appetizers are $5.95 to $12, and few of the entrées rise above $20 (the lamb course was $16.95).

Desserts, all made on the premises, are $5.50. In this land of the eight-dollar crme brùlée, that's not bad. We relied on our waiters' recommendations concerning which of the tarts to choose -- apple? pear-almond? lemon meringue? (The wait staff here is no more polished than the décor, but they were pleasant, well informed, and there when we needed them.) On one visit we were ill-advised to go with the raspberry tart, no doubt to rid them of the last piece. It featured vanilla custard with old, refrigerator-odor crust below, sad raspberries on top. Another time a different waiter assured us that the chocolate tart was freshly baked. It was, the crackly top crust easily succumbing to reveal a rich, dark chocolate pudding center. Just the same, I suggest not trusting anyone's word on desserts. Get up from your chair, walk over to the pastry case, peer through the barely translucent glass, and look for the tart with the least pieces carved out. Chances are that's the most recently baked.

Coffee comes in a cup the size of a soup bowl, weighty enough that a frail person might need both hands to pick it up. I like that. And I like Cocopelli Café. Once the construction dust clears, residents of Miami Shores and North Miami might take note that, with this bistro and North One 10 across the street, they now have more worthwhile restaurants than Ocean Drive and CocoWalk combined.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein

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