Not to be over-eager, but can we start at the end, s’il vous plait?
It’s not that the salty steak frites, with its dollop of herbed butter melting over thick slices of beef, isn’t delicious, or that the crispy duck confit with hash browns isn’t a flavorful, unctuous treat.
It’s just that the sweet endings lovingly prepared by pastry chef/co-owner Ahmed Youbi make waiting the hardest part at the 2-year-old Café Bonjour in South Miami.
Spoiler alert: The couple in the back corner as we first sat down in the unassuming, spare shoebox of a space was our first indication that we may want to start with dessert. Eyelids fluttering, the young woman appeared to be climaxing over a strawberry torte that Youbi had just delivered with relish while her male companion bowed his head reverently over a flourless chocolate mousse cake.
Um, we’ll have what they’re having.
Unlike the generic afterthoughts that appear on many Miami restaurant menus, the desserts at Café Bonjour are airy, sugar-woven masterpieces that seemingly float above their plates. Displayed in a glass case at the front of the open kitchen, they never last beyond the day they’re created.
“You’ll be sure she eats this right away?” Youbi begged as we took home to our daughter a dreamy, fresh-from-the-oven Napoleon, rich vanilla pastry cream and raspberries oozing between layers of flaky puff pastry.
The only flamboyance here is on your tongue. From its nondescript “French bistro” sign out front to the museum posters on its walls, this neat and tidy, wood-floored café-patisserie keeps it humble. There is no wine menu, although a house red and white can be ordered by the glass. Classical music plays softly from an old-school stereo on a shelf in the kitchen. Soup and quiches du jour appear on a small chalkboard on the wall with daily specials, such as steak with seared foie gras and sautéed scallops with zucchini and peppers.
Ahmed and Veronique Youbi may be the hardest-working husband-and-wife team in South Florida’s restaurant biz. He arrives at 6:30 every morning to start baking while she works the 7 a.m.-3 p.m. shift as a nurse at Mount Sinai Medical Center before donning her pearls and ballet flats to run the front of house for dinner until 9 p.m. The couple, originally from Lyons, France, owned and operated La Crepe Bistro on Red Road in South Miami for seven years before taking over the former Quiznos spot in a sprawling U.S. 1 strip mall, where there is plenty of parking for a devoted troupe of moms who stop by with little ones for afternoon croissants.
Their modest menu sticks to traditional, affordable French classics, with an occasional flourish, such as the cold mango soup produced recently by Chef Manuel Arredondo, 25, fresh off the cook line at The Biltmore Hotel. (“It’s a combination of our recipes, with his younger touch,” said Veronique Youbi. “We like it when he uses his imagination.”)
A calamari appetizer comes out lightly breaded with two sliced lemons and a peppery aioli. Salads are large, with touches of fruit and nuts. Grilled lamb chops, singed with an exterior of herbs, share a plate with mashed potatoes and green beans. The bone-in chicken breast, moist and juicy on the inside with a crispy exterior and a grainy mustard sauce, is one of the superior entrees.
You’ll want to eat your vegetables at Café Bonjour, where accompanying side dishes are not an after-thought. The haricot vert accompanying our duck confit mingled with thin, slightly crunchy sautéed zucchini strips; cubes of slightly-charred potatoes melded with onions for the hash browns. The only fault to be found during our two visits was a tendency to over-salt dishes.
Still, the savory can’t compete with the sweets delivered lovingly to your table by the always-smiling, eager-to-please Ahmed. His version of a French apple tart, with pureed apples spread over a light dough and topped with baked slices of the fruit and a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream, turns simplicity into sublime. The flourless chocolate cake, rimmed with spirals of chocolate meringue on the outside and filled with chocolate mousse on the inside, is a sumptuous reminder that happy endings do indeed sometimes happen.