South of the border has gone south of France. Mercadito’s cavernous space in Midtown Miami is now Brasserie Azur. Tacos and margaritas are out. Escargots and ratatouille are in.
“The chickens are French. They run free and have wonderful lives,” a waitress told us with a French accent on one of our recent visits.
There were no objections from the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where rows of plump birds roasted on a large rotisserie. Marinated in truffles or rosemary and lemon, the whole chickens are served perched on fingerling potatoes in red French oven pots. It’s a lovely prospect for sharing if you can convince others at your table.
That may be difficult with a menu that has more than a dozen entrees, six salads, another dozen appetizers, a seafood bar, pizza, pasta and a meat-and-cheese board. The choices are as vast as the setting, which exudes farmhouse elegance.
Whitewashed wooden chairs and benches with tan striped cushions surround rows of white stone tables. The open dining room is divided into sections by thick wood consoles topped with potted herbs. Brown butcher paper with sketches of vegetables and wine serve as placemats.
Old black-and-white videos of Fred Astaire rotate behind a long bar along one wall. Overhead tunes skip from French music to disco to Pink Floyd.
Under rows of Edison bulbs, an army of staff in natty tan pants, suspenders and long denim aprons fans out across the brasserie. The orderly neutrality is the calm under a storm of brilliant red (and obviously fake) bougainvillea draped heavily from an overhead pergola, an odd false note in an otherwise tasteful setting.
The real stuff grows profusely from pots outside on the front patio, where diners can also eat at wicker bistro chairs and tables. It’s a casual contrast to Brasserie Azur’s formal sister restaurant, Villa Azur in Miami Beach.
Lightly buttered crusty white bread in a basket comes complimentary to the table. Among the starters, a plain and simple platter of burrata with tomatoes and basil, as well as a limp tuna tartare, were upstaged by the savory seared octopus appetizer with sliced potatoes and olive tapenade. The chunky olive spread was a sharp counterpoint to the creamy, warm spuds, a dreamy combo disturbed only by cold cherry tomatoes thrown in for garnish.
Main courses span all meats but lean heavily toward the sea. Our plump mussels with garlic and white wine sauce came with superb hot and salty fries, but we would have preferred heavier doses of onions and garlic in the broth for more flavorful dipping.
Grilled, thyme-flavored lamb chops with roasted garlic were a hearty, juicy choice, cooked perfectly to order and served with a small, classic gratin Dauphinois of thinly sliced and layered potatoes and cream in a small crock. It was our favorite dish on the menu.
Some of the other classic dishes failed to conjure up Provence. The hanger steak as our steak frites was thin and overcooked, a sad state even the tasty shallot confit could not hide. Both the breaded veal and its accompanying pasta also were overcooked.
An extensive desserts menu stuck mostly to tradition, with a fine chocolate mousse and apple tart. Salted caramel butter crepes stayed true to their Breton roots, but the delicacy of the crepes was overwhelmed by excessive helpings of caramel sauce both inside and out.
Casual is a great concept, but it shouldn’t apply to the kitchen if pretty Brasserie Azur wants to fill all its tables.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Jodi Mailander Farrell: firstname.lastname@example.org, @JodiMailander