“What’s the difference between a brasserie and a regular French restaurant?”
A middle-aged man posed the rhetorical question to his dining mates on a recent night at the new Brasserie Central at the Village of Merrick Park in Coral Gables. They looked up from their menus, which they were illuminating with their iPhone flashlights. I leaned in from the next table over.
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“At a brasserie you get a kitchen towel for a napkin, and you eat lots and lots of frites.”
Well, check and check. Chef-owner Pascal Oudin’s 2-month-old Brasserie is a more casual, more affordable version of his longstanding Pascal’s on Ponce, also in Coral Gables. And it serves lots and lots of skinny fries, which alternate between being hot, crispy and salty and cool, limp and bland.
Inconsistent dishes draped a wet blanket over my experiences at Brasserie Central, and while table service improved with each visit, the restaurant’s floor staff displayed amateurish behavior too often to be taken seriously in this upscale mall environment. One night, a hostess indiscriminately spritzed a cloud of Windex toward my dining mate’s head; on another, a manager made a scene by ordering a tourist to stop snapping pictures of the restaurant’s open kitchen.
That kitchen has the ability to strike comfort-food gold. I found it in country-style dishes like Brasserie’s escargots — meaty and nearly floating in individual puddles of garlic-parsley butter — and a proper onion soup with three islands of baguette rounds under melted Gruyère.
Boudin blanc is a sleeper hit: a light-as-air veal sausage with truffles, served in a cast-iron pot with simmered golden apples. It’s heady and sweet and savory and the farthest thing from inconsistent; I’ve ordered it multiple times, and it’s always the highlight.
I can’t say the same for a ceramic bowl of brandade. The whipped mix of salt cod and olive oil wasn’t fully emulsified, leaving odd chunks of fish among smooth areas. Steamed mussels — a brasserie classic — showed neither steam nor flavor when they hit our table, just grit and more than a few unopened shells. A thin-sliced pâté of pork and chicken liver would have greatly benefited from the cornichons and Dijon mustard promised on the menu.
While yawn-worthy sides like green beans, glazed carrots and a lettuce salad are available, some dishes come with extras like cafeteria-quality mashed potatoes (lumps, brown gravy and all) and buttered macaroni. These are plated in a corner of big serving dishes, dwarfing their accompanying entrées and taking up all of your table’s prime real estate.
Taking up prime real estate in my freezer: the leftovers of Brasserie’s half-chicken entrée, which will sit there until I overcome the guilt I feel about throwing it out. I pulled and tugged at its skin with an inadequate dinner knife until getting to its dry, stringy meat.
I hoped hearty cassoulet would save the day, and I didn’t hesitate to order it when my favorite French dish of all time was a verbal special on a cool night. Something got lost in translation, as a garlicky Toulouse sausage was riddled with fatty pebbles, what were supposed to be slow-simmered white beans were (I’m 99 percent sure) pinto beans, and the whole one-texture wonder lacked toasted breadcrumbs or anything to break up its brown, mushy monotony. At $35, it’s an unacceptable version of a dish born from peasant roots.
Grainy pastry cream marred an otherwise serviceable Napoleon; coffee flavor stood out among a trio of pots de crème.
Brasserie Central occupies an enviable indoor-outdoor space in a highly visible part of Coral Gables, a town where the restaurant’s proprietor has a proven track record of satisfying customers. With more consistent food and service, his rustic French brasserie could come to be as satisfying as its fine-dining sibling.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Evan S. Benn on Twitter: @EvanBenn.