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A commercial on TV for an eyeglass boutique makes an interesting connection between authenticity and value. A female customer points out to the clerk that she just saw the same pair of frames in another store for less money. He replies that the frames aren't exactly alike because his "speak French." At which point he begins to mumble pseudo-French phrases out of the corner of his mouth, pretending that the glasses are actually vocalizing. Whereupon the viewer makes the leap to the idea that both frames and clerk are neither genuine nor worthwhile.
Replace the eyeglasses with a restaurant and the viewer with a diner and you'll get an inkling of how I feel about Brasserie Mon Ami, which "speaks French" about as much as a pair of spectacles.
The website bills the Boca Raton eatery as "South Florida's first French-casual restaurant," which managing partner Burt Rapoport says "delivers an authentic and creative interpretation of Parisian brasseries." Pay attention to that key word "interpretation," because unless you take rushed, incompetent service into account, Brasserie Mon Ami isn't nearly as much of a Parisian property as you might be led to believe. Aside from the lapful of ice water I got to wear, courtesy of a clumsy waiter, and the dirty dishes that managed to stay on the table from appetizers clear through to dessert, little else actually felt genuine.
Starting with the name: While Brasserie Mon Ami might sound exotic and poetic to those of us who haven't studied French, the one or two of us in South Florida who did take the tongue-twisting language in high school can translate the moniker as "My Friend Restaurant." Were someone to open an eatery here with that appellation, we'd roll our very American eyes and suggest a language course.
Or, at the very least, maybe a decent proofreader. Half the French words on the menu are correctly accented, the other half conspicuously bare. So while "à la Provençal" is appropriately marked, "pate" may as well just be some bald guy's head. And misprints like "maitre de butter," instead of maître d'hôtel butter (beurre à la maître d'hôtel,if we want to be really precise), imply that Brasserie Mon Ami is more of a dining concept awaiting franchise than a single -- and not even great -- pretender.
Granted, the familial crowds that grace the indoor and outdoor tables in this gargantuan, 7,000-square-foot space, framed on one side by P.F. Chang's and the other by J. Alexander's, are not looking for a Michelin moment. They likely don't want to be transported to anywhere except beyond the unremitting heat of their own kitchens. In this sense, Brasserie Mon Ami succeeds, supplying diners with a wide selection of Americanized French country dishes that one could make at home if one had a good couple of hours to stew a piece of beef in a pot of wine.
Not that a meal here might go any faster. Given the fact that the restaurant doesn't take reservations for parties of fewer than six, you might have to wait your turn for a seat on the planked floors under the vaulted tin ceilings. After that, a three-course meal can take as many hours. It doesn't help that servers don't inform customers about the unavailability of certain dishes at the outset, obliging the diner to change an order two or three times before hitting the mark.
Still, some of the fare, as ethnically sterile as it can be, is solid and tasty, particularly an assortment of fresh shellfish. Oysters on the half shell offered clean and vibrant flavors, and bouillabaisse was laden with shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, and snapper, served in a savory if unchallenging tomato-wine broth.
You can also order pots of mussels steamed in a variety of ways -- Belgian-style, Thai, or Bruxelles, for example -- for toothsome variations on a theme. The Alsatian preparation provided a light, buttery broth accented with Riesling, practically that region's official wine varietal, and a fair amount of sautéed shallots and herbs. The mussels, incidentally, can be turned from starters into main courses with the addition of crunchy pommes frites (add $1.95) or a bed of linguine (add $4.95).
The menu has a half-dozen or so other categories from which to choose items, including "Salades," "Quiche and Crepes," "Specialties," "Bistro Classics," and "Plats du Jour." For the lip-nibbler, it can be quite torturous. Sticking to basics is kind of a cop-out, but fortunately it's also an acceptable maneuver: Escargots are plump and garlicky; the French onion soup is a just-sweet, slow-simmered stock laden with soft, caramelized onions; and the duck liver-and-truffle mousse is familiar, comfortable, and vibrant at the same time. The only complaint we had regarding the last dish was the stale croutons that accompanied the foie gras, as tough and old as the starch in the bread basket, which was as far from a baguette as South Florida is from the South of France.
Although I'm not an enormous eater, I'm always worried that portions will be skimpy when it comes to ordering crepes. No need for anti-anxiety pills here -- the pair of roast duck crepes was bursting like burritos with soft, stewed duck meat, mushrooms, carrots, and a pleasant red-wine sauce. As far as texture went, however, they were of little intrigue.
A skirt steak entrée was the precise opposite -- great weight and mouth-feel in regard to the meat itself, but as far as flavor, the completely unbalanced marinade reeked of inexpensive red wine. A baked, stuffed chicken "chop" filled with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and wild mushrooms suffered from the overwhelming pungency of the cheese. A bit more on the mellow side, a version of chicken cordon bleu was pleasant but unremarkable, except for the portion size, which like most of the other dishes was quite large.
The dessert menu is yet another adventure into detailed decision-making: The cheese plate, a choice of two out of six French imports for $9.95 or three for $12.95? Crème brûlée or éclairs from the pâtisserie category? Baked Alaska from the glacé section? A whole charlotte russe for $28 from the celebration cakes? We ordered a variety to share, finding the profiterole pastry a little on the tough side and the "Mon Ami crème brûlée," made with pecans, chocolate chunks, and sliced bananas, heavy on the fruit. But it was hard to argue with the velvety classic treat of a hot fudge parfait or the lighter finish of a sorbet basket, an assortment of fruit flavors perched over fresh berries in an almond tuile.
Brasserie Mon Ami may not speak French, but in the end, a dining experience here can still be at least a little sweet for the average American.