"Oh, we don't sing," La Terrasse owner Sophien Bennaceur reassures when a mille-feuille topped with a candle is requested. He's right — an off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" would surely feel out of place in such an elegant setting. Diners here appear serious, unlike the giddy folks pouring out of Joe's Stone Crab across the street. You can see and hear them if you grab a patio table at the French bistro. Definitely sit outside.
That's because the exterior is très romantique. It's also très white, the only exception being the green foliage separating the restaurant from Washington Avenue and its upscale SoFi competitors. They include big guns like Estiatorio Milos, Il Mulino, and Smith & Wollensky. This courageous newcomer is also steps from La Gloutonnerie, an established French eatery and local brunch favorite. What's more, the previous tenant, La Maison, served similar fare and lasted less than a year. But enough about real estate.
After being given ample time to settle into the idyllic surroundings, my guest and I begin to fear we've been forgotten. When a server finally emerges with water and menus, he quickly disappears for a long time — allegedly in search of a requested wine list. Upon his return, there's no wine list in hand. Nor can he answer simple questions about a few dishes.
Thankfully, an unlimited supply of warm baguette helps abate our hunger until our order of mussels in a classic marinière sauce are brought out. The heaping portion of plump, tender bivalves smells of the ocean and tastes like a vacation on France's shores. Piece after piece of bread gets submerged into the fragrant white-wine-and-shallot-infused broth in an effort to mop up every single drop. Bravo.
Next is Atlantic salmon tartare subdivided by ripe avocado slices. Executive chef Lisandro Sanabria, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, says he uses plenty of spices to augment the starter, but the flavors are on the timid side. A pillowy jumbo lump crabcake, however, is adequately seasoned, as are delectable fries that have been amped up via Cajun spices.
Sanabria's resumé includes a yearlong stint at Casa Tua, followed by several years as a sous-chef at Le Bouchon du Grove. The Argentine toque says French cooking is his calling but still enjoys putting a Spanish twist on his creations.
As an example, Sanabria points to the coq au vin and explains that his sauce is richer than the traditional French version. This is true, albeit not in a good way. Indeed, the cloying red-wine-based liquid masks all other flavors to the point it becomes a challenge to make out what animal is being eaten.
Meanwhile, a simply roasted hen is dull, dry, and generally inferior to one a modestly skilled home cook could whip up. It's too bad, because the chicken is one of a trifecta of entrées offered as part of the restaurant's three-course prix fixe. For $39, it's a nice deal, especially when you consider the hen alone costs $30.
After the chicken, we move on to duck — the duo de canard. This main dish pairs roasted duck breast with a leg confit, the latter a speciality of the Gascony region. Though the greasier-than-necessary confit tastes fine, the breast is painfully overcooked, making for some exhausting chewing. Not even the aromatic porcini mushroom sauce can save this poor bird.
On the other hand, the warm fois gras is exquisite. Sanabria uses grade A fois gras from Canada and adds salt, pepper, and a touch of flour before pan-searing the meat. He places it atop an upside-down apple tart, thus helping to balance the richness of the fatty protein with the dessert's sweet and tangy notes. The only complaint is there's not enough of it.
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As we near the end of an uneven meal, there's been one constant: haphazard service. At no point is any of the staff rude, but at a restaurant with mains priced between $22 and $45, customers shouldn't have to request menus or wonder about their server's whereabouts. Nor should they have to ask to have their glasses refilled with wine and/or water.
If the meal had begun and ended with moules-frites, La Terrasse would easily garner a five-star review. But this restaurant has no ambitions to be a casual place to load up on democratic bivalves and fries. By all accounts, Bennaceur's SoFi spot wants to compete with its equally pricey and glamorous South Beach neighbors.
But to earn a reputation like that of Milos or Il Mulino, the service and cooking must improve. Right now, the steep prices aren't justified, even with the beautiful terrace. The kitchen's few outstanding creations are evidence La Terrasse can do better. Our mille-feuille, by the way, was magnifique.