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Restaurant Reviews

How Now, Mad Cow?

They're shaped like an awkward string of pale pearls. And they taste of mushrooms, a whiff of the faintest musk, a visceral, mysterious flavor like black magic — with a texture as soft as the inside of a lover's mouth. They're richer than butter, denser than cream, wrapped in a deeply layered caul of reduced Madeira spiked with white raisins. And five or ten years from now, they might just kill me.

But I'm in warrior mode tonight. I want to be the token female in that secret brotherhood of cojones-endowed heroes who'll eat anything — live monkey brains, poisonous puffer fish, bull's balls, gulf oysters in July. And if someday my mind turns into mushy sponge, if I start laughing bizarrely and foaming at the mouth, I'll never claim the French government didn't give me fair and ample warning. Six years ago, as waves of mad cow hysteria swept across Europe, the French government did something so completely out of character — so utterly against the grain of Frenchness — that it rocked the civilized world.

It banned sweetbreads.

Quelle horreur! It was a scandal. Italian farmers literally lined up at the border to prevent the potentially tainted organs from crossing over, as French meat merchants scrambled to unload their inventory. Some of the greatest chefs in the world were obliged to scratch from their menus the very dishes that had made their fortunes: riz de veau, sweetbreads en terrine! Here was a food that spanned the enormity of French history, causing peasant wife and haute gourmet to swoon under its indiscriminate spell, straining the boundaries of the disgusting (offal takes its English name from what "falls off" to the ground when a carcass is butchered), and magically turning this vaguely sinister organ into a truly national delicacy with its own extensive entry in Larousse Gastronomique — a triumph of imagination over repulsion.

Sweetbreads. The ones served at Chez Andrée on the Hollywood Broadwalk are perfectly legal and no doubt utterly safe for consumption. And anyway, they're so divine in preparation and execution that they're worth every far-fetched risk. Not a single soul has ever died of mad cow disease in the United States, but you don't find sweetbreads served in many restaurants here, nevertheless. They're not fashionable these days. And that makes me love all the more their stubborn inclusion on this menu (which also lists the equally passé calves liver Lyonnaise and bjavascript:passCharacter('166')uf Bourguignon).

They have a pretty moniker, but the silken worry-beads I'm forking into my mouth are actually pieces of the veal's thymus gland. They take their name from the ancient Greek thymos, a word with no exact translation. It meant something like life force or soul's breath, and it carried connotations of conflagration and courage, a "rising smoke in the breast." The thymus was the organ that made Achilles and his warriors battle-ready: In Homer's Iliad, Achilles has to quell his anger against Agamemnon by quieting his own thymos, letting bygones be bygones. This small organ, shaped roughly like two lumpy, downwardly dangling fingers, sits just beneath the breastbone in mammals, and it identifies and helps dispense with foreign bodies, from viruses to cancer cells. The thymus is our protective talisman, placed over our hearts. But the thymus gland is also the site where prions gather, and therein lies the difficulty, because prions are particularly associated with mad cow. So the thymus accumulates meaning as readily as it accumulates prions — danger and protection, madness and death, body and spirit.

Nobody seems to know exactly where the term sweetbreads comes from — since the thymus is neither sweet nor breadlike; my theory is, it's a reference to the Greek's "sweet breath" of life.

And there's the sweet breath of ocean air wafting through Chez Andrée tonight, as there is every night. We're sitting — me and my right-hand gal Snoopy — just a few hundred yards from the sea, and the doors are thrown wide open. There's a full moon, and it lights up the breakers. We can hear the water rhythmically turning over. Candles flicker, holiday lights sparkle on the outdoor patio, and I've put away about a quarter of my half bottle of Bordeaux wine (Chateau Tour de Grenet, $19) — a fuel far more likely than any bits of beef to someday turn my brain to sponge.

I'm about as happy as I can be. This dish of sweetbreads ($16.95), of which I've consumed every sauce-infused speck, was one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted. The sweet, silky, tart combination of wine, mushrooms, and grapes in a decadently rich reduction couldn't have been a more ideal foil for the meat, which evidenced not a hint of gaminess. Sweetbreads carry the additional baggage of going "off" easily — they have to be babied — but these were fully on. They were served with a square of butter-laden gratin potatoes, with a spiritedly crisped top, and a many-colored nest of finely julienned carrots, squash, and zucchini.

I was equally impressed with the trout meunière ($19.95) being avidly consumed next to me — when I finally got a forkful. Snoopy had her back half-turned, executing a body block. There's no way to improve on a whole fresh trout, pan-fried until its skin crackles and the moist interior emits clouds of steam, doused in what is essentially butter and cream (the same butter used to cook the fish, which gives the sauce extra punch). The first time I tasted this dish was at Galatoire's, and I'll tell you, Galatoire's can just move the hell over.

As you may have noticed, the prices at Chez Andrée are of the kind that allow for multiple visits. There aren't many places where you can have a gourmet meal right on the beach for this kind of dough. The first time we went — a Saturday night — this cheerful little bistro was packed with Canadian tourists, a group of people notoriously difficult to part from their currency. On our second visit — a weirdly blustery Tuesday night — the doors were still thrown open, tablecloths and votives madly fluttering, and the place was nearly empty. There was an American family in beachwear, ordering crème brûlée for the tykes. Another rambunctious table of six Americans was getting into multiple bottles of wine. Two single men at separate tables were eating their long, leisurely meals alone and chatting in French with the servers. And that was it. But on both nights, the slow and the busy, we were charmed.

We had bjavascript:passCharacter('166')uf Bourguignon ($16.95) our second time around — they'd run out of it before. This classic beef stew is made with Bordeaux rather than Burgundy, presumably to honor the owner's provenance. Bruno Barnagaud took over Chez Andrée from his friend and fellow Bordeaux native Franck Chaumes around four years ago, and he's kept refining the menu along with two French cooks and one of the head chefs from Miami's Cordon Bleu cooking school, who comes in to help on weekends. This Bourguignon was slightly marred — parts, but not all, of it were heavily oversalted. It's hard to reckon how that happened, exactly. The stew starts with marinated beef (the pieces sit in wine for up to three days), then cooks slowly stir in a stock of wine, onions, carrots, and herbs until the sauce is reduced to practically a brown paste. Even beyond the saltiness, though, the flavor of this stew was so layered, it was like, well, drinking excellent wine. You could quite literally talk about things like nose and finish without sounding hopelessly full of merde. There's a kind of fruitiness that comes from the wine that tastes almost like sweet prunes, and bits of pepper and smoke, and the fragrant, faint lemonness of thyme leaves. It's just lovely, and so good with the herby, buttery noodles that we could barely believe our luck.

Continuing down my offal and bjavascript:passCharacter('166')uf-strewn path to perdition, I also tucked into a fine calves liver Lyonnaise ($16.95), so delicate it was practically simpering, pink as a new rose in its narrow center, doused with a thoroughly reduced brown sauce in which sweet sautéed onions curled like exotic foliage in a murky pond. I eat calves liver — fattening, cholesterol-laden — about once a decade, and I'm so glad I saved myself for this one. This is grownup food. Calves liver in the hands of a good cook is as decadent as cigarettes and whiskey and practically as destructive to good health. There's a reason the tots won't touch it: They intuitively recognize the flavor of sin.

Chez Andrée has plenty of Floribbean-inspired dishes to appeal to one's tropical inclinations — there's all kinds of fish with fruit sauces, skewered shrimp and calamari, green salads, and rare seared tuna. But honestly, this is a French bistro, with the old-fashioned, heavy, sauce-obsessed fare you've got to miss and mourn and yearn for. I recommend starting with a competent and pleasant onion soup ($6.95) or the escargots ($8.95), progressing along with paté or the moules mariniére, and then going for broke with the richest, most abominably caloric nightly special the kitchen is offering. Only when you feel that you have fallen entirely, your diet and digestion as thoroughly ruined as the reputation of any Flaubert heroine, can you console yourself with a few bites of tarte tatin ($6.95). Someday you'll be able to say, at least there was a method to your madness.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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