One step into the lobby of the Cadet Hotel, and I am aware of the subtle scent of flowers. Dried lavender is tucked into curtains, and roses burst from vases.
The muted taupe and beige color scheme is as calming as the lingering embrace of the owner, Vilma Biaggi. She guides me outside, to the gardens that seem to be on fire with orchids, lemon, ginger, bougainvillea and carambola.
With her sculpted cheekbones and catlike gray eyes framed by a chestnut-colored bob, Biaggi could pass for Vogue’s Anna Wintour. Though she has fine taste in clothes, Biaggi is no fashion diva.
Instead, the devoted doctor focuses on running a thriving medical practice in Aventura and a stunning boutique hotel in South Beach, across James Avenue from Casa Tua. Inside the Cadet is Pied à Terre, a little-known treasure of a French restaurant that is one of the best in South Florida.
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You would never imagine that this elegant figure in her Chanel ballet flats and diamond stud earrings was raised by missionaries in the Amazon jungle.
“I never knew we were so poor,” she said with a laugh over dinner at a corner table of the intimate, 36-seat Pied a Terre.
The Argentine-born sophisticate explains her journey as a series of “thresholds,” or unexpected events, that shaped her life.
When she was a girl, for example, she struggled with her weight. Biaggi’s Armenian mother “loved and punished” her with food. Now trim as a gymnast, Biaggi said she learned to take better care of herself.
“I never eat with anger or anxiety,” she said.
As she speaks, I am equally intrigued by her tale and by the thyme-scented risotto with mushrooms and tiny cubes of zucchini and carrots on our table. Crusty baguettes with France’s most exquisite butter, Beurre d’Échiré, are irresistible. Our table is set with fine linen, real silver flatware and china hand-painted by an artist patient.
“Elegance not opulence,” is what Biaggi says she is going for.
The cuisine is modern, health-conscious French. But that does not mean we don’t indulge in an exceptional terrine of Canadian foie gras and a crisp Sancerre.
Intentionally, Pied à Terre has no chef in charge of the menu. Instead, Biaggi imports Michelin-starred chefs every few months to teach her local crew new dishes.
Patrick Gruest, formerly of Pascal’s on Ponce, one of her 26 employees at the Cadet, oversees every detail of the restaurant. He sources exquisite ingredients, including the 500-bottle Franco-centric wine list of small producers at surprisingly moderate prices.
“I never even had a sip of beer until I was 38,” said Biaggi, who turned 73 in May.
Now, her restaurant boasts accolades from Wine Spectator and has a collection of single-malts from around the world.
Another threshold, this one tragic: Biaggi’s mother and aunt both died of breast cancer in their late 70s. Their deaths, along with the closure of St. Francis Hospital in Miami Beach, where she practiced at the time, prompted Biaggi to change specialties from surgery to breast imaging. She sees patients three days a week at her Breast Diagnostics Miami, extending the same devotion to their care as she shows in the hotel.
Though it didn’t seem like hotelier was in her career plans, Biaggi said she was captivated when a friend showed her the abandoned Cadet Hotel in the ’80s. She bought it in 1986 with a $100,000 loan. The charming 1941 building (she calls it her twin, since they share a birth year) stored a trove of World War II memorabilia, including letters from homesick Air Force cadets and their famous captain, Clark Gable.
Biaggi continues to anticipate new thresholds, like the one that may come from her latest project: an arts venue on the fringe of Wynwood, at Northwest 38th Street and Second Avenue. There, she is transformaing a warehouse into a space for music, readings, dance performances and concerts. She calls it Planemo: “A baby star in its own orbit that gains its heat from nearby stars.”
She said she looks forward to having her four grandchildren perform in Planemo.
Biaggi herself is a talented pianist who would have loved to make a career of it. Now, is content playing her beautiful 1928 Steinway baby grand for Cadet guests. After dinner, she slides onto the bench to play an enchanting rendition of Chopin’s “Nocturne” with a quiet intensity.
“My journey is based on harmony,” she said afterward. “I am not a hotelier. I’m not a restaurateur. I am not a musician.
“I am a life lover.”
Victoria Pesce Elliott is a Miami Herald restaurant critic and freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter: @VictoriaPesceE. A Miami restaurant review will return next week.