Restaurant Reviews

Second Coming

In South Florida chefs sometimes mimic the occupational track of major league baseball managers. Get fired from or quit one team/restaurant, hire on at another, then another, and occasionally even wind up back where you started. In 1996 chef-proprietor Robert Guerin sold his Coral Gables restaurant Louisiana -- which he'd run successfully for nearly a decade -- to a group of Brazilian coffee importers with little or no experience in restaurant ownership. They continued to operate the place as Louisiana until this past March, when they gave up, closed down, and got out of Dodge. Guerin quickly re-entered the picture, leaving his post of executive chef at the Coral Reef Yacht Club to take over the lease and reopen the eatery as the 80-seat Robert's Place. He also rehired his old Louisiana general manager Hector Pacheco (who did not stay on when Guerin sold the place), and reinstalled the original Louisiana menu (at prices identical to the ones from 1996).

Unless you give "Robert" its proper Gallic pronunciation, the generic-sounding appellation doesn't quite reflect the restaurant's French-Continental cuisine. (For that matter, "Louisiana" hardly fit the bill either -- not even the crabcake starter smacks of the Deep South, since it's prepared with Dungeness crab and Japanese breadcrumbs.) The kitchen uses ingredients that don't represent France. Until they are interpreted, that is. Take, for example, an appetizer of New Zealand mussels cooked with garlic, shallots, and green peppercorns, or a shrimp cocktail prepared with South American crustaceans. And a refreshing green gazpacho is completely devoid of tomatoes, brimming instead with a puree of verdant vegetables -- cucumber, celery, green pepper, and scallions -- accented with a little dill and a spot of heavy cream.

The escargot bourguignonne starter, on the other hand, was so traditionally French that the snails might as well have been wearing tiny berets. A half-dozen of the plump, dark jewels were broiled in a buttery Burgundy wine sauce, which was studded with garlic and shallots; the sauce proved to be a terrific dip for the crusty, oven-hot rolls that were constantly replenished by our waiter.

Another tres francaise starter: the luxurious foie gras maison. Many establishments attempt to pass off duck liver as foie gras, but this was the real thing, sumptuous goose liver the hue of antique silver and the texture of spun silk. Black truffles were centerpieces in each of the three slices, which were surrounded by croutons, sliced sweet gherkins (rather than the more traditional vinegary cornichons), and chopped white onions heaped in a radicchio leaf.

The vichyssoise was a cool classic, neither watery nor starchy. And the snapper Beverly was an ideal main-course followup. Not only was the opaque, pan-fried fillet soaked in a delicate white-wine cream sauce, but the dish sported a wealth of black caviar, the roe adding just a touch of saltiness to the crisp-edged fish.

Also robust but a trifle easier on the waistline: salmon grenobloise, a sunset-red fillet that was squirted with lemon and sprinkled with capers. The simplicity of this dish was especially notable given the complexity of others, particularly an entree of duck with fresh strawberry sauce. We half-expected the sauce to be either too tart or overly sweet (fruit sauces can vex even a master), but this strawberry version, laced with Gran Marnier, achieved a perfect balance between acid and sugar. The duck itself, half a bird, was meaty inside, not dry, the skin crunchy.

Red-meat lovers will fall for the medallion Henry IV, described on the menu as two "hearts" of filet mignon. Flatter and thinner than typical filets, these meltingly tender steaks were supple and juicy, their musk enhanced by earthy, succulent mushrooms and a tangy bearnaise sauce. Side dishes were our only quibble here. Each main course was accompanied by the same vegetables: soggy green beans, undercooked chipped carrots, sliced potatoes topped with caramelized onions, and a broiled tomato hidden under a blizzard of breadcrumbs. Fortunately each main course was also preceded by a house salad of mixed greens, cucumbers, and sliced plum tomatoes drizzled with a truly good creamy herb vinaigrette.

Fresh strawberry shortcake iced in homemade whipped cream made for an elegant yet comforting way to end the meal. Custardy fruit tarts, displayed on a table in the center of the dining room, looked tempting, but we demurred in favor of a flaky Napoleon.

Guerin has the skill, the staff, and the setting to remake his mark with Robert's Place. Now he needs some customers. On a recent weekday evening we were the only diners, aside from a private birthday party, in the rather formal setting, which is characterized by upright chairs, a deep burgundy carpet, and oil paintings. That no doubt accounts in part for the excellent service (rendered in English, I might add). As is the case with a baseball manager returning to a former team, sometimes it takes awhile to win back the support of the fans.

Robert's Place 1630 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 569-9130. Lunch Tuesday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m.

Escargot bourguignonne

Foie gras maison

Snapper Beverly

Medallion Henry

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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