“I never think to come here unless it’s a big event,” said a lawyer friend who lives just blocks from the historic Biltmore Hotel as she raved about a recent dinner at its Palme d’Or.
It’s easy to forget about the treasures in our backyard, and they include Palme d’Or, Miami’s longest-running fine French restaurant. There are fresh reasons to book a table even if you aren’t celebrating a birthday or anniversary. Patrick Calvarese, formerly at Azul, stepped into the maitre d’ role in March, and the talented Gregory Pugin became chef du cuisine in August.
Pugin (pronounced “pew-jahn”), 33, is from Tarbes in southwestern France. He trained in Paris and Biarritz and worked with legendary chef Joel Robuchon before earning a Michelin star at New York’s Veritas. After it closed in 2010, he migrated to Le Cirque Las Vegas, where his culinary creativity continued to wow.
Pugin’s fine but rarely fussy food deserves your full attention. And with no a la carte ordering, there is no way around a full production including amuse bouches, bread, pre-desserts and petit-fours. The choice is five courses or nine, but be assured that portions are petite and the pacing just right.
Renovation a decade ago rendered the dining room lighter with blond woods and mirrors, but black and white photos of unrecognizable Hollywood stars do give it a dated feel.
Tables are still neatly dressed in crisp white linens and set with delicate St James china and heavy flatware. Lint-free napkins and silver cloches add to the pampering. A corner table alongside the pool is one of the most romantic in town.
Every meal starts with an amuse bouche that might include a warm pumpkin panna cotta with Parmesan foam, a lovely bite to fortify you while perusing the friendly wine list.
The always-strong wine program is comprehensive yet not overwhelming. The list of more than 300 labels is arranged by both country and grape. Selections include dozens of options under $50 as well as trophy bottles, with an especially good selection of burgundies.
Servers work in quiet unison, attentive but never hovering.
A lavish bread selection including perfectly crusty mini baguettes and spectacular walnut loaves are offered with grace. The sweet, spun butter is irresistible, especially the one salted with bits of seaweed.
The most exquisite dishes include bright red Alaskan crab meat alongside a tiny tower of see-through discs of watermelon radish layered with bits of crab in Meyer lemon vinaigrette with avocado, coriander and lime. Tiny bits of grapefruit and mandarin gelee and fennel puree add firecrackers of flavor.
A homey risotto made midnight-black with squid ink is served with cubes of spicy-salty chorizo, chopped squid and rich bits of tomato confit, while a gorgeous knuckle of lobster is sauced with vanilla as creamy as custard and countered with a briny bite of golden ossetra caviar. Pea-sized florets of broccoli and cauliflower add crunch and color, while a flourish of edible gold leaf takes it over the top.
Another standout is the scallop creation. These sumptuous, tender rounds are seared until gently caramelized and surrounded by a cloud of chestnut bacon foam. Cashew-sized nibs of potato gnocchi ground it. That same contrast of soil and sea occurs with the divine black cod covered in a lattice of potato and celery dotted with tiny slices of artichoke and sun chokes and laced with rich, amber barigoule sauce.
Sweets follow the same artistically composed format. Our favorite: the chocolate popcorn with spheres of caramel and kernels of crackly coated caramelized popcorn alongside a scoop of buttery, salted-sweet ice cream.
For those who prefer savory to sweet endings, consider the chariot de fromages, the most impressive cheese cart in Miami. The must-sample list include an earthy, mushroomy slice of the butter yellow Tomme des Pyrénées from chef Pugin’s home turf.
Mishaps were minor. We did find two pea-sized bones in the odd but delicious oxtail stew enrobed in a dome of pasta. Plus, a side of dollhouse-sized cannelloni suffered from too much overpowering fontina.
Still, for those of us lucky enough to dine here, there is no place like home.
E-mail Victoria Pesce Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VictoriaPesceE.