Can a classically trained Parisian chef save Coconut Grove’s Florida Avenue from its tumbleweed existence?
Villa Mayfair Executive Chef Frederic Joulin comes with credentials up to the task. He has worked in some of the most notable restaurants and patisseries in France — Guy Savoy, Jean Millet, Yvan — not to mention the two years he lists as private chef to President Jacques Chirac. He has even run his own places, from the well-reviewed Le Clos Saint-Honoré in Paris to the hit-or-miss Le Café des Arts in South Beach.
Now he’s boldly taking on the challenge of filling the formidable footprint left by Brasserie Le Coze, which occupied the same space in the early 1990s. Run by the brother-sister team of Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze of Le Bernardin fame, the old Grove restaurant was named one of America’s best 25 restaurants by Esquire magazine before Gilbert unexpectedly died of a heart attack at 49 in 1994. Maguy sold the beloved French-American bistro to focus on her New York restaurant with new partner Eric Ripert. South Florida Francophiles — and the charming spot with its wall of café doors — have never fully recovered, despite a lively but short-lived brunch scene there when News Café ran an offshoot out of the location in the late 1990s.
Entre Joulin and partner Timo Kipp, who hired interior designer Francois Frossard (The Forge, Mansion, Opium) to turn the large interior into a glam dining room that feels like a lavish private club on an all-night bender. (Contrary to the name, the restaurant is not part of the Mayfair Hotel across the street.) Ceramic animal heads hang from the wall of the enclosed patio. White and brown padded leather couches mingle with curvy baroque chairs around wood laminate tables. The scrollwork ceiling drips chandeliers over a chic hammered-brass bar and vast stretches of 1930s mosaic floor tiles.
The opulence is purposely dressed down by an attentive army of wait staff in jeans and black shirts. There isn’t a white tablecloth in sight.
The eclectic ambience works, except for the all-out assault on your senses from purple and red neon, which lights up the posh décor like a forensic UV light at a crime scene in some aging playboy’s chateaux. A house DJ unobtrusively spinning Muzak-like renditions of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, along with standing wine buckets in the shape of oversized martini glasses, adds to the Euro-cheese factor.
Fortunately, Joulin’s amazing culinary skills outshine the disco lighting and soundtrack.
While the indulgent surroundings scream for attention, Joulin’s French-infused American fare commands it with perfectly seared steaks; a superb, herb-crusted rack of lamb with croute de tomate, and delicate, pan-fried branzino with a flavorful salty, crisp skin.
Appetizers are subtle stunners, such as truffle artichoke soup accompanied by a puffy brioche studded with small pieces of woodsy wild mushrooms. Tender and smoky grilled octopus comes dressed with mild-spicy limoncello vinaigrette. A savory tomato “tatin” pie paired with a rich, fatty jamón ibérico Patanegra combines the best of France and Spain on one plate.
Forget asking about specials. Joulin regularly changes two or three appetizers and entrees. One night, the white root vegetable salsify came julienned in a frothy, creamy sauce under our branzino; a week later, snappy spring vegetables accompanied the light white fish.
A raw bar and elegant classics such as whole Maine breaded lobster thermidor and a pricey Dover sole give the menu a seafood bent. Most entrees are a la carte, with sides, such as mashed potatoes in crème fraiche and French green beans with shallots, extra. Portions are small by Miami’s supersize standards, but most dishes are rich enough to make up for the lack of weight on the plate.
With the exception of the decadent, warm “mi-cuit,” a small, thick chocolate cake filled with gooey Valrhona chocolate, desserts are light and fruity. The must-try treats here come from the elegant bar, where Mad Men-style classic cocktails are given a new twist with mixologist magic from cherry-rose hip tea, elderflower liqueur and other exotic ingredients. Most drinks come with a retro-sized large cube of ice.
Joulin is working hard to increase foot traffic in this quiet outskirt of the Grove with a small bites menu on Tuesdays, specials for women on Wednesdays and a Sunday brunch. For the first time in 10 years, Florida Avenue deserves to be found again.