You know how when you cross from one time zone into another, it doesn't all of a sudden turn from day to night? Or how when you cross the Mason-Dixon line headed south, everyone around you doesn't abruptly start drawling? Instead, you perceive the differences—in light or enunciation—over a distance.
The same could be said about Miro District Food & Drink's metamorphosis from an Italian restaurant into a French one. It's not like everything went from pizza to grenouille as soon as Miro migrated from one national cuisine to the next. After all, crossing the border from Italy into France is about as subtle as crossing from Central to Eastern Standard Time.
Still, things are different now. A recent return trip to the year-old establishment showed that the much-touted menu migration from Italy to France reflects less about shifting cuisines than about changing prices and position. While the menu still draws from a palette of European flavors and dishes, it is more consistently excellent, the ambiance is more easygoing, and the prices are more affordable. Simply put, Miro is much improved.
Opened last year amid lyrical rhetoric about "the food you'd find in Southern France, Southern Spain and Western Italy"—with an emphasis on the "Italy"—Miro now defines itself as French. But for all practical purposes, a diner would be hard-pressed to figure out which menu—old or new—represents French Miro and which represents Italian Miro. (Imagine standing on an Alp and trying to guess which country it belongs to.) For example, Italian Miro offered steak frites, while French Miro features an exquisite herb gnocchi. Both repertoires feature a salad of fresh tomatoes like a bowlful of jewels, a flatbread, a fish sandwich with celery root slaw, and fritto misto. (When we asked if the gorgeous medley of seafood deep-fried with a semolina coating had changed with the menu overhaul, our server replied impishly, "No, that's from back when we were Italian.")
Arguably, the national defection from Italia to La France was a shrewd business move. At about the same time that Miro launched its vaguely Southern-tinged-Italian-inspired menu (please refrain from saying "Italian with a Southern twist!"), New York-based Giovanni Ristorante unveiled a lovingly old-school Italian repertoire across the street, in similarly splendid digs. Miro, which had sought to fill a void for high-end Italian cuisine in Midtown, was now second fiddle to its own neighbor.
To complicate matters, opening chef Dean Robb got an offer he couldn't refuse from his mentor, restaurateur Frank Stitt. So he expatriated back to Alabama, leaving chef Sean Norton from Watermark in charge of both properties.
It is under the aegis of Norton—who worked at the Charleston, S.C. bistro 39 Rue de Jean for three years—that Miro has developed its French accent. And as is so often the case with French accents, Miro's is positively seductive.
Upon taking our seats and lifting our menus, we immediately noticed a few changes. First, brown butcher paper on the tables instantly took the tone down a notch, to something along the lines of "neighborhood bistro." Second, a Raw Bar section on the menu now offers oysters, clams, crab claws and lobster. (Plans to construct an actual raw bar are in the works.) Third—and most impressive—the prices are significantly lower. Topping out at $29 for a grilled ribeye with bordelaise sauce, bacon and mushrooms, the dinner menu offers plenty to eat in the $9 to $18 range. With those price points, Miro is no longer a landmark for infrequent gastronomic indulgence, but rather a place to pop in for a burger (with cheddar, gruyère and Roquefort for $11), salad (roast chicken with aioli, golden raisins, almonds and arugula for $11), or a bowl of moules (steamed with basil, garlic and white wine for $8 per half-pound).
Of course, it will be hard to pry us away from the herb gnocchi appetizer, which was large enough for a small meal. Pan-seared to a perfect brown, crisp on the bottom and tossed with asparagus coins and sweet tender crab meat, the pillowy gnocchi were made in the Parisienne style with flour, in contrast to the traditional Italian recipe with potatoes. Finished lightly with sherry and butter, the dish was a study in subtlety, layering salty and sultry flavors that complemented but never overwhelmed the delicate seafood. Priced at $10 and available at lunch and dinner, the gnocchi surpassed in every way its $18 predecessor of crabmeat ravioli from the earlier menu.
While the Scene's earlier review of Miro lodged the commonplace complaint that appetizers outshone entrées, that is no longer the case. Across the board, our entrées were stunning. Two daintily seared triangles of tuna over a bed of creamy risotto studded with summer squash and infused with mushroom broth delivered a balanced play of sea and soil. Tender, flaky salmon, served over sweet roasted beets, new potatoes, Vidalia onions and fennel, was infused with smoke and textured with a sandy finish from the grill.
Shrimp Provençal and braised beef Stroganoff employed feather-light homemade noodles to showcase shrimp with capers and tomatoes and tender beef threads with mushrooms, caramelized onions and crème fraîche, respectively. In fact, the combined strength of the noodles and gnocchi could undermine Miro's effort to re-brand itself as French, as long as people equate pasta with Italian cuisine.
If there were one disappointment in our experience, it was the carpaccio. Not only did the recipe make the unfortunate substitution of olive crème fraîche in lieu of a zesty horseradish or aioli sauce, the server omitted to offer fresh cracked pepper, prompting a guest to leave the table to find a pepper mill. But as far as service goes, that slight oversight was the only gap in an otherwise perfect balance of attention and distance, which prompted that same pepper-foraging member of our party to call the restaurant the next day to sing the praises of the staff.
A distinctly French dessert list—berry tart, crème brûlée, profiteroles and ice creams all for $8—peaks with a pot de crème, whose crock of flawless deep chocolate custard is accented by a twee palmier. The assiette de fromage offers unusual value, with three hunks of cheese (chosen from a list of 10) served with marcona almonds, guava jam and figs poached in balsamic vinegar. After a back-of-the-envelope calculation, a guest in our group announced that he could not purchase the same selection of cheese at Whole Foods for less than the $12 menu price.
A few constants remain after the menu overhaul. The august front room remains the most festive place to be seated, the sturdy wooden bar is still a striking cocktail venue, and the $12 fried fish sandwich never fails to impress. But overall, the makeover flatters Miro. And while the migration from Italian- to French-inspired cuisine may be subtle, the changes in consistency and pricing are improvements in any language.
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