Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Lemon Twist - North Beach
Lemon Twist is an example of restaurant reincarnation. Years ago, there was a restaurant in this little spot on Normandy Circle, towards the northern end of Miami Beach, called Lemon Twist (which, alas, was not that good). Then the space went dark for a while. Then it was a very lightly trafficked sports bar. Now it's Lemon Twist all over again. This time around, it's under the tutelage of Alain Suissa, whose resume also includes Grass Restaurant and Lounge in the Design District. Maybe this Twist will stick around a while longer.
It's a genuinely charming venue, with a pressed tin ceiling over the bar, a long velvet sofa serving as a banquette, roses and candles on the tables, and dark lace, linen-covered sconces, and French posters on the walls. It looks and feels exactly like what it aims to be, which is a classy neighborhood bistro. The menu likewise hews pretty closely to the line of straight-ahead French bistro fare. A short list of appetizers includes onion soup gratinee, endive salad with roquefort,escargot in garlic butter, a charcuterie plate. Entrées include poached salmon, sea bass provencale, moules frites, chicken cocotte, duck a l'orange, a few steaks, a rack of lamb. The menu listing is supplemented with about a half dozen blackboard specials, but there are few surprises here (though a "Weight Watchers" section of the menu, complete with "points," seems strangely incongruous; what self-respecting Lyonnaise chef would deign to do a "Weight Watchers" menu?)
I've previously mentioned how I find a traditional French bistro lineup to be genuinely satisfying and reassuring. This can be both good and bad for a restaurant. On the good side, if you do the classics competently, you can create food that people already know and love; it requires no learning curve. But on the other hand, to stand out is difficult. It is not easy to make a truly outstanding onion soup, particularly when almost every diner has had the chance to try several versions already.
Our meal at Lemon Twist was a bit slow getting started. When we were there on a Sunday night, it appeared there was only one person working the entire restaurant, and though they weren't terribly busy (only about 3-4 other tables being served while we were there), he was struggling a bit to keep up. We waited at least 15 minutes for water to be served and orders to be taken, and about another 15 minutes before any bread hit the table (without butter? is the chef really from Lyon?), but things generally picked up from there.
We started with the escargot de bourgogne, as well as a couple items from the blackboard - a frisée lardon salad, and the soupe du jour, a cream of asparagus and leek. The snails were doused in the customary bath of butter and garlic, and though the presentation was perhaps not as impressive as at Au Pied de Cochon, where they are served stuffed back into their shells, the buttery juices were just as good sopped up with some warm bread (though the bread likewise would not compare favorably to the crusty baguettes served at APDC). The frisee lardon hit all the right spots, the bacon still chewy with just a hint of crispness, the spriggy lettuce dressed with a classic vinaigrette bolstered with bacon fat, the poached egg warm and still oozy. The soup was satisfying if a bit one-dimensional.
For mains, we tried the moules and frites, the duck, and a filet mignon, served with a wild mushroom sauce. The mussels were a generous serving of nice, tight, fresh mussels bathing in the regulation broth of white wine, garlic, butter, and parsley. The fries that came with it were cut a bit thinner than I prefer for classic French frites, and notwithstanding were just a tad underdone in the middle, but these are minor quibbles, and they disappeared regardless. The duck - half a bird, roasted - was also nicely done, the orange sauce flavored with a cautious hand so as not to overwhelm with sweetness. I would have liked a slightly crisper skin (Gourmet Diner in North Miami does this exceptionally well with their roasted duck). A modest show of creativity was on display in pairings of roasted turnips and figs. I think turnips are an underrated vegetable - like potatoes, but lighter in texture, and sometimes an even better vehicle for other flavors - and the dried figs were likewise a nice idea though they could have stood something to rehydrate and soften them a bit. The filet (not my favorite choice of steak, but what Frod Jr. chose) was decent but unexceptional, though reasonably priced at $23.50.
Prices across the line were pretty fair, with appetizers ranging between $6.50 and $12, and entrées between $14.50 (for the mussels, a bargain comparable to the days that the now-closed Le Bon on Lincoln Road had their "Beat the Clock" specials) to $24.50. Most main courses come a la carte, and there are about a half-dozen sides available to round out your meal. We tried the potato gratin dauphinois, thinly sliced potatoes bathing in a rich sauce of cream, cheese and garlic. More browning of the exterior would have made this even better, though it was rich and pleasing as is.
We finished off with a crème brûlée and a Mont Blanc. The former had fine custard, but the burnt sugar crust didn't quite achieve that shattering crispness that the best examples have. The latter was a simplified version of a French classic, with sweetened chestnuts served over vanilla ice cream. Nothing wrong with that. Other dessert options include more old-school favorites - iles flottantes, fondant au chocolat, bananes flambées - with prices ranging from $5.50 to $8.50. We brought our own wine (and were not charged corkage, though I don't know if that was policy or oversight) and did not think to take a look at the list.
In looking back on these comments, there are a number of cavils. But though it's true that I thought things could have been better about many of the dishes, and that none completely floored me, they were all in fact quite good. While the menu doesn't have the range or variety of Au Pied de Cochon, and the food may not be executed at quite the same level as I've experienced at Petit Rouge, it is a fine neighborhood bistro, and I would (will) happily go back.
My sense is that Lemon Twist is not really shooting for greatness. Nobody will ever mistake this place for Bouchon. But it's possible to be perfectly good without being great, and Lemon Twist has a chance of becoming that.
908 71st Street
Miami Beach, FL 33141