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Old-fashioned in all the best ways

If you looked up the word "restaurant" in the dictionary, I'd hope you'd find a picture of Petit Rouge. It's a throw-back, in many ways, chef-owned and operated. There are just eight tables in what sometimes feels like a very crowded dining room.

But its diminutive size creates for each table a kind of instant intimacy — mini dinner parties. Isn't that why we go out to dinner? To visit and connect? I sometimes think people go to restaurants to use their smart phones.

Not at Petit Rouge.

Chef and owner Neal Cooper grew up in North Miami Beach and Hollywood, and for the last 25 years has owned restaurants in north Miami-Dade County. One of his first restaurant jobs, however, was at the now gone La Vieille Maison in Boca Raton. He was on externship while attending the Culinary Institute of America.

While he has mostly cooked Italian, the cuisine of France called when he decided to go out on his own five years ago, without a business partner. Petit Rouge opened in March 2008. The economy was in the tank, and his menu offered a kind of familiar comfort for the sophisticated crowd he hoped to attract.

Judging by the number of orders of soupe a l'oignon gratinee ($11) — onion soup — that came out the kitchen the other night, Cooper serves what his customers want. Their age tell me they remember when French food was novel. Don't get wrong. There were also two tables of families with teenage children. But when's the last time you saw sweetbreads ($16) and chicken liver mousse ($10) offered as appetizers?

The menu is a throwback, of sorts, so it helps that service is also of the old-fashioned sort. By old-fashioned, I mean knowledgeable, warm and welcoming. Servings are so generous, by the way, that two people could easily share many dishes.

Tarte flambee ($14) is the size of dinner plate, with its flaky buttery crust topped with crème fraiche, caramelized onions and applewood smoked bacon. It's a very nice starter with wine from the short, well-priced list. A Romaine lettuce wedge ($14) was a special one night. It was topped with vinaigrette, lardons, tomatoes and thick parmesan cheese shavings. That onion soup ($11) was also very good, served in a traditional white lion's head soup bowl. It was hot, but not so hot that you had to wait 10 minutes for it to cool down. The broth was flavorful, but not so overly rich like many onion soups.

I am a big fan of crispy-skinned chicken, so I jumped on Poulet Rouge ($23) when our server used those words to describe this dish. He wasn't wrong. The portion of semi-boneless was deliciously moist and so big that there was lunch the next day.

Trout with classic French Grenobloise ($25) sauce was another hit. The sauce is a combination of brown butter, lemon and capers. The trout was not overdone, which is so often the case with this delicate fillet. A generous portion of steak tartare ($26) is nicely seasoned with onions, capers and cornichons. It's served with outrageously good french fries.

Although dishes are served with some sort of vegetable — mashed potatoes with the chicken, haricot verts with the trout — there are also seven side dishes. A cheesy macaroni au gratin ($8) was well worth every calorie. There are also potatoes cooked in duck fat ($7) and steamed asparagus ($10).

Watch too for such specials as meatloaf ($19) served with black truffle demi-glace or fish and chips ($23) made with fresh cod.

Dessert changes frequently, but it could be a slice of lemon tart ($8) or a scoop of creamy, house-made espresso gelato ($6).

In keeping the tone of service that Petit Rouge sets, you'll probably also want to finish with coffee. And when you finally do leave, you'll get a warm farewell that will make you want to return very soon.

Petit Rouge

12409 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami; 305-892-7676;

Cuisine: French

Cost: Expensive

Hours: Dinner Monday-Saturday

Reservations: Suggested

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Beer and wine

Sound level: Quietly conversational

Outside smoking: Yes

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Free lot or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.

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