Even as spring break sputters to a stop and the Grove finally shows signs of emerging from the yearly onslaught, South Beach roars on, as if the season were as high as the sun. The restaurants seem to mutate faster than the people who frequent them, opening, reopening, closing, remodeling, reopening, restructuring the concept, rewriting the menu, hiring new chefs, reopening. The sheer quantity of new and reinvented Beach eateries is overwhelming A and tiresome.
I'm tired of tiptoeing through too-small rooms packed with too many tables; I'm tired of having my wine glass bumped into just as I'm about to take a sip; I'm frustrated by the stupidity of waiters who don't bring my change in bills small enough to leave the right tip. But mostly I'm bored with mediocre food served amid pretentious decor; if I eat in one more coolly modern Italian trattoria I might be compelled to create my own Spaghetti Incident. And I'm outraged by price inflation. To put it in South Beach-speak, I'm over it. I'm done with that.
Which, given my line of work, presents a small problem, one I happily solved (at least for this week) at Cafe Soleil, a pretty, uncharacteristically restful eatery on Lincoln Road Mall. Dimly lighted, with fresh calla lilies on the tables and local art you can actually purchase on the walls, Cafe Soleil occupies the space where a Sara's Dairy and Vegetarian franchise operated briefly last summer (after ostensibly closing for remodeling, they never reopened).
Caterer Leslie Cooper and chef Emmanuel Pradet opened the bistro January 1, a year after they met at a New Year's Eve party. Old-time locals may remember Pradet from his work at the original Colony Bistro; he has also cooked in prestigious kitchens in New York, Paris, and the south of France, an immensely appropriate resume for a restaurateur determined to succeed on the fickle American Riviera.
His experienced hand is obvious in the preparation of even the simplest dishes. The house salad was a toss of vibrant mixed greens arranged over four spears of barely bitter Belgian endive and chopped tomatoes. A light and flavorful sesame oil vinaigrette dressed the plate, lending a vaguely Asian cast.
In South Beach, where restaurants often search for months for a singular identity, Cafe Soleil is an anomaly. While I dislike menus that try with great self-consciousness to cover the world's cuisines, I do applaud Cooper and Pradet's approach: Starting with French roots, they draw on global influences, borrowing different cultures' herbs and flavors to great effect.
Eastern input abounds, turning what might have been a classic French bistro menu into a far more engaging list. A special of the day, a thick bowl of carrot soup, was served hot, laced with ginger and aromatic cardamom, hardly touched with cream. Japanese nori rolls, which at one time were a lunch offering only, were requested so often Cooper and Pradet added them to the dinner menu. Like the soup, these were all-vegetable, the nori smeared with a rich carrot-cashew pƒte, then rolled with alfalfa sprouts, cucumber, avocado, and dulse (a dry, red seaweed). Dusted with herbs and spices, the overstuffed roll was sliced into four generous pieces and complemented by a fabulous dill-tahini sauce.
We retreated to the French countryside for a more traditional appetizer, country pƒte, a fresh, coarse-textured terrine served with toast points, vinegar-sharp cornichons, pungent black olives, and salty, pickled white onions. Mixed greens brushed with a mild, creamy dressing garnished the plate. The terrine went particularly well with the Chilean merlot we ordered, a full-bodied, extremely drinkable surprise gleaned from the low end of the short, international wine list.
Entrees were, for the most part, a French-based Continental selection. Rack of lamb was rolled in crushed mint and grainy mustard, then roasted tender and medium-rare so the mint and mustard blended perfectly. Potatoes au gratin, which accompanied the meat, were without question the best I've had, the potatoes rivaling the mild white cheese for creaminess.
Cajun-style chicken breast, whole, boneless, and plump, was a little dry in places, but the spicing was pleasantly piquant. A delicate basil sauce and smoked salmon accented the poultry, which rested on a bed of fresh, steaming spinach.
Grilled swordfish was a reminder that some meat experts can also handle seafood in the same manner. The swordfish was moist, with a firm flake and a bursting flavor. A tangy black olive, lime, and cilantro pesto added flair, while thin-sliced potatoes presented a buttery contrast. A julienne of squash, zucchini, and shiitake mushrooms was piled generously on two sides of the fish.
Some art lovers believe a smudge or a poorly drawn line on an important work of art enhances it, giving it an air of authenticity. Dessert lovers may feel somewhat the same about the cafe's sweets. Topped by a too-burnt sugar curst, a silky creme brulee was endearingly flawed but delicious nonetheless. Pear tatin was a cross between a tarte (a custard-and-fruit-filled pastry) and a tartine (pastry dough spread with jam or fruit). Three large pear halves, unfortunately a little on the unripe side, were prepared separately, then laid upon a square of soft pastry and garnished with fresh whipped cream. Lychee sorbet proved the best choice of all, neither too slushy nor too icy, tasting wonderfully of the subtly sweet tropical fruit.
The quantity of the food at Cafe Soleil, incidentally, is as worthy of note as the quality. At these prices, the 50-seat restaurant is as rare in this part of town as a parka. And with the resurgence of Lincoln Road, it would seem to be a prime target for trendiness. (The small storefront is separated from the rest of the mall by Alton Road, which might provide a buffer; so far only the immediate neighborhood and a few stray theatergoers have discovered it.)
I guess I've got another dilemma. It's not that I wish the proprietors any bad fortune, but I'd like to see this particular bistro succeed just as it is. Quite frankly, I'm not inclined to share it.