By Victoria Pesce Elliott
Looking for a nice quiet evening out with your special someone? Keep walking. The brand-new, hopping George's in The Grove has all the romance of a TGI Friday's. Bells are ringing, the owner is whistling like a construction worker at a Victoria's Secret bikini show and the disco balls spin to the shrill ring of a siren when someone announces a birthday.
Still, it's all in good fun, especially when combined with simple and delicious French/Italian and even some North African fare in an impossibly lively atmosphere created by the charming Georges Eric Farge, who honed his inimitable hosting skills for nearly a decade and a half around the corner at Le Bouchon du Grove.
Here, there is no recession. No global warming. No threat of terrorism. No pollution (except the noise kind). Instead, it's a party all the time, attended by a crew of young, black-clad waiters who squeeze through the tightly stacked tables to assure that the outrageously skinny shoestring fries arrive hot and crisp.
Other fried dishes are more greasy than crunchy, such as the sodden bacalao beignets, golf-ball-sized codfish fritters served on skewers with an oddly goopy, garlicky Creole sauce. But making up for it is the divinely addictive duck confit pizza with an oozy layer of cave-aged Gruyère, delectable shiitakes and just the right amount of pepper and herbs.
In just a few visits you can eat your way through the refreshingly simple and easily navigable menu and similarly unpretentious wine list. Fifty or so moderately priced bottles from the old and new worlds mingle happily on the wine list, just as three and four generations fill the tightly packed space of diners who somehow all seem like regulars.
Apparently, those known to the veteran waiters are given flutes of rose champagne not on the list. If you ask, they will pour one for you. There are plenty of other fine by-the-glass still selections, including a Côte de Provence Domaine Houchard rosé as well as some fine handcrafted beers, such as a hoppy Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA from Delaware and Rogue Dead Guy Ale from Oregon.
There are plenty of perfect matches for the hearty fare, such as a saucy osso bucco adorned with a single baton of fresh rosemary and a creamy side of buttery whipped potatoes. Balance it out with one of the fresh and to-be-shared large salads even if the greens and shredded parmesan on the Caesar are pretty generic. Patés, salmon tartare, beef carpaccio and caprese salads all make fine starters, too.
A sink-size bowl of tiny, tender black mussels is a dreamy main course doused in white wine broth so rich and savory that even my normally generous 5-year-old was stingy with handing them out. Next time, I'll order my own with the curry sauce instead. The broth was perfect for dunking the golden nuggets of French baguettes that come to the table along with disappointing foil packets of Sysco brand butter.
A subtly spiced chicken tagine with ginger, cumin and coriander and preserved lemon is another comforting dish spooned over a lovely puff of couscous spiked with golden raisins. The filet mignon, which is surprisingly the only steak cut offered, is fine by itself, but with its green peppercorn and brandy demi-glace it's a hit. Don't forget the side of luscious milky, cheese-laden potatoes au gratin that would obviate the need for therapy.
I am surprised my daughters will agree to dine anywhere else after they tasted the Nutella pizza, really more like a calzone, served hot, crisp and toasty, rolled up and covered with powdered sugar alongside a cup of thick whipped cream.
It's the best of the other sweet offerings we tried, which include a dense chocolate volcano cake, passable tiramisu, a lively raspberry tart. Sadly, the mango tarte tatin was not available on our several visits.
Keep an eye on the blackboards that surround the open kitchen for such delectable specials as a mixed seafood en papillote stocked with salmon and shellfish we tried a few weeks back.
You'll also find news and soccer scores scrawled in chalk. Up next? Live kangaroos coming soon. Yes, says Farge. They'll close the streets some time in September for the event. Not really surprising when you consider that anything is possible when Farge is around.
Speaking of which, for those who like their perfectly prepped steak tartar with a little less brouhaha, come on Sunday. It's Farge's day off.
George's in The Grove, 1345 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove; 305-444-7878; 9 p.m. - midnight, Saturday, 9-11 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; appetizers $6-$15, entrees $20-$28, sides $5-$10, desserts $7-$8.
FYI: Reservations suggested; wine and beer only; corkage $15. Metered street parking, valet $10-$20. AX,
DN, DS MC V.
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The naughty Nutella pizza. Yum!