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By Candace West
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"We have rights too, ya know," a would-be smoker grumbled as he was escorted directly past our table at the Gourmet Diner in Weston and out the front door. He shot a glance that could spark a match at my father, the tattletale who had first spied the other customer trying to light up.
My dad's reply coincided with both the manager's and my own: Not here, you don't.
The Gourmet Diner, the first sibling to the legendary dining institution in North Miami Beach, is officially a "smoke-free diner." Willful disobedience aside, patrons should have difficulty at either location notknowing this, since the phrase is inscribed everywhere from the plate glass on the door to the cover of the menu. Owners Sia and Nicole Hemmati designated it that way, as is their prerogative, when they purchased the NMB location from its original owner, Jean-Pierre Lejeune, a few years ago and converted the venue in Weston, a former fast-food restaurant, a couple of months back.
Regardless of the Hemmatis' preference -- unlike setting age requirements, choosing to have a nonsmoking establishment is perfectly legal -- the potential lung-cancer victim may soon be saved despite himself. The amendment to outlaw smoking in public places is on the November 5 ballot, and the only side I see campaigning is the health patrol. I won't be voting for the mandate, primarily because I don't want our hotels and eateries to lose the resort business from European and South American visitors, many of whom smoke prolifically. (Also because as far as questions of self-destruction go, I prefer personal choice to governmental mandate.) Unfortunately for the restaurant industry, my gut feeling, not to mention the sensation in my heart and lungs, is that this too shall pass -- and stay.
The amusing thing is, pro-smoker or anti-, not many of us frequent the Diner for the "breathe friendly" atmosphere. We go for the little-bit-of-everything mixed salad with traditional French vinaigrette; the simple but always excellent roasted half-chicken and skinny, greaseless pommes frites; the countless blackboard specials that rotate often enough that you can find your favorite veal Bolognese rigatoni almost every visit except one, during which -- poor darling -- you're forced to order the linguine and white clam sauce, aromatic with the essence of seafood. We go because both children and elders are welcome, with no detectable impatience (usually) on the part of the staff at the antics of either. We go for consistency (fresh, crusty baguettes with plenty of sweet cream butter) and reliability (half bottles of wine for solo diners always in stock) and because they finally accept credit cards (all major).
And we visit repeatedly, albeit in spurts. With its French-American bistro fare, mostly reasonable pricing, and you're-obviously-a-regular service, the Gourmet Diner is the girl/boy-next-door on whom you get a proverbial, lifelong crush. Your attention may be diverted by the freshest pretty face on the block, but in the end, you always return to your first love.
The Gourmet Diner has unequivocally earned such status. The first of its kind in South Florida, the upscale diner began in north Miami-Dade County in 1983 as kin to a wooden shack, located next to railroad tracks, that would threaten to crumble every time a train passed. Despite its almost immediate popularity, when it was a decade old, the restaurant was forced by the redevelopment of Biscayne Boulevard (and eminent domain) to relocate to a prefab stainless-steel structure, which Lejeune positioned across the street from his original site. The traditional rail-car dining décor begged the question, Why did the Gourmet Diner cross the road? To prove that all that glitters really is gold, apparently.
One of the few restaurants in the history of South Florida restaurateuring to move and change its look completely but maintain old clients while developing new ones, the Gourmet Diner went on the block when Lejeune decided to retire. Happily for him and his followers, the restaurants' current proprietors have maintained his standards, retaining certain key recipes like the one for the opulent custard-fruit tart, which you must order at the beginning of the meal if you want to be assured of a slice.
Indeed, in some ways, the Gourmet Diner has become even more savvy and market-oriented. I couldn't think of a more perfect town for expansion than Weston, with its custom-designed community and comfy Stepford values. The residents may like conformity, but for the most part, they're sophisticated, educated clients with enough disposable income to dine out even in this uncertain economy. A geometric tiled floor, set with tables in the center and surrounded by booths, seems deliberately uncrowded; the spacing allows intimate spots for couples and large spaces for families or groups.
Quality has also not only been carried over but built upon. Even with the decade of expectations I carried into the Weston link, I was impressed by such basics as the crabmeat salad, pure lumps of mild, white crabmeat juxtaposed against red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, fleshy but not mushy, and hunks of iceberg lettuce -- cool, crisp, refreshing -- that justified its moniker. Shaved red onion added potency, along with the perfectly balanced, Dijon-scented dressing.
Soups as well resonated with the necessary knowledge of cookery. One night, I sipped at a tasty puree of broccoli that was based solidly on the vegetable rather than dairy products; another visit yielded a smooth split pea that had the satiny texture of having been passed through a food mill. If soup and salad don't seem all that exciting, look for appetizers such as garlic-driven escargots, oysters Rockefeller that actually taste like shellfish rather than creamed spinach, and whole California-raised artichokes, which are large and tender and boast leaves that don't poke your palate with irritating little points.
If I'm not ordering my roasted chicken mainstay for an entrée (as a cook myself, I'd love to know how they get that skin so crunchy but keep the poultry so slick and juicy underneath), I usually opt for the osso buco. I've had this white wine-braised veal shank here on and off over the years, but I've never had it more redolent with carrots, tomatoes, mushrooms, and onions than I did a few evenings ago. Though rather large, as if purloined from a cow rather than a calf, the veal was unbelievably succulent. I was most thrilled with the fact that, old-fashioned though it might be, the center of the bone featured a marrow fork, which I employed to extract the pearly, fatty, wonderfully rich interior of the shank.
Granted, the regular menu can seem a little dull in comparison to the numerous dry-erase board specials, which boast fish and shellfish prepared in ways that range from curry to scampi. I found the blackened salmon, which carries a warning of spicy!written in red pen next to it, more highly flavored with a host of spices than zippy with cayenne. But there's no denying its expert execution, the large flakes of fish separating easily from one another, pink-red and supple. Whole trout meunière also pleased us, primarily for the succulence of its boneless fillets, which separated from the skin without a fight, but also because of the restrained nature of the buttery sauce. A tuna fillet, dressed with tangy-sweet mango salsa, showed some pedigree as well; though not sushi-grade, the tuna, requested rare, was seared white on the outside and was red and juicy on the inside.
The cooks do make an occasional misstep: On one such occasion, beef Burgundy was dried out and stringy, and a recent sampling of meat loaf revealed a pasty, slightly lumpy sauce. But even when the main course is not to one's liking, the vegetables and starches can't be faulted. Broccoli and asparagus remain this green only in one's own kitchen usually, and mashed potatoes and basmati rice are authentic and satisfying. A third side-dish alternative, the nightly vegetable soufflé, is worth the indulgence; the night I tried it, the zucchini soufflé was light and fluffy.
The Weston location has yet to become as busy as the North Miami Beach one, a plus for the custard-tart devotees; the creamy pie, topped with impeccable blueberries, kiwi, and strawberries, is usually still up for grabs by the end of the meal. We would have preferred an apple tart served as is, since a stint in the heat caused the pastry crust to wilt. Still, the warm, thinly sliced apples passed muster with the pickiest Northeastern pie lovers at my table. No doubt the Gourmet Diner will do the same with every member of its newly acquired community, Marlboro Man excepted, of course.