Diners at La Petite Maison may find a certain similarity between their table and a Cezanne still life, with a loose lemon and two tomatoes arranged next to a knife and bottle of olive oil. The server will explain that the produce is yours for the cutting, and that he can bring some “very good balsamic” vinegar to drizzle on a plate if you so desire. The produce looked stylized and artful atop a crisp white tablecloth, in a chic, high-ceilinged dining room where servers roam in striped, black-and-white aprons and bartenders wear fitted black vests over white dress shirts.
“We’re supposed to slice the tomato right on the tablecloth?” I asked.
“Yes, go ahead,” the server said.
I looked at my tablemate, shrugged and proceeded to make a splotchy, bloodlike mess. So much for French formality or fussiness.
The rustic touch is an amusing amuse-bouche. It is a signal from the house that a meal at La Petite Maison will be an exercise in unstuffy elegance, a playful romp on the Riviera. Yes, there will be a $50 appetizer of tuna tartare topped by a spoonful of Osetra caviar and $160 whole grilled turbot, but there’s no sense getting tied into a Windsor knot about it. Provided, of course, you have the means to pay.
There is nothing small about La Petite Maison, not the ambitions nor the prices. But this budding, international luxury dining brand has its heart in the right place — that is at the small, informal tables found at family dinners in French homes, where plates are shared and nobody minds a few stray bread crumbs (although the servers here will do their best to scoop them up between courses).
“I’m from Cannes, and I remember my grandmother’s table at Sunday suppers,” says Loyd Loudy, director of operations for La Petite Maison. “By the end, it looked like a battlefield.”
The Miami outpost of La Petite Maison, which opened 18 months ago, looks more like a playground for the 1 percent, a place where everyone appears scrubbed and polished and vaguely familiar, perhaps a model from the French edition of Vogue or a financier who just beat an insider-trading rap. It is a place where high-quality ingredients and simple preparations of French and Mediterranean fare shine, where cooks labor with choreographed precision in an open kitchen and where service is polished and professional yet not perfect.
The food — particularly seafood — is excellent, enough to make the bumps a bit smoother and enough to make a meal here a splurge that is worth it. A scallop carpaccio special ($25) truly was special, with thin, pristine slices of North Atlantic scallops from the Scottish coast drizzled with olive oil and topped with golden raisins, dried cranberries and sliced Marcona almonds. I don’t usually like fruit with seafood, but the tart sweetness worked beautifully with the scallops’ supple brininess. The tuna tartare with caviar was a mound of diced, creamy sea indulgence. Warm prawns ($22.5), sliced thin, bathing in golden olive oil and topped with wisps of fresh basil, were simple and wonderful, a menu item from the Nice original.
That olive oil, by the way, is from Italy, not France, a testament to the restaurant’s ethos of quality trumping all. “It pains me to say as a Frenchman, but the best olive oil is from Italy, so that is what we use,” Loudy says in a followup interview.
Other excellent Italian touches are seen with pastas, including housemade pappardelle with a satisfying veal sauce ($22.50), and a smoked eggplant puree that accompanies grilled lamb cutlets ($48), which arrived charred on the outside and perfectly medium-rare inside. Classic French dishes also get tasty turns, including turbot barigoule ($44.50) a hunk of fresh fish with backbone poached in white wine and olive oil with artichokes.
La Petite Maison opened nearly three decades ago in Nice and is still going strong. Globetrotting restaurateur Arjun Waney liked the eatery so much he bought the concept and is globalizing it, bringing an outpost to London 11 years ago with others following in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Turkey. Another will soon open in Hong Kong. (The owners of the original Nice restaurant have nothing to do with the global expansion.)
La Petite Maison’s Miami outpost opened in Feburary 2017, the first U.S. entry point for the brand. New York and Los Angeles are in sight.
What Waney has done for upscale Japanese cuisine with Zuma and Peruvian cuisine with Coya (which shuttered its Miami location last year), he hopes to do with La Petite Maison for French-Mediterranean cuisine. So far, it seems to be working. After 18 months, the Miami location is doing so well it can remain closed on Sundays and does not need to take part in the summer Miami Spice promotion.
With its terrace overlooking Biscayne Bay amid gleaming, new high-rise condos and a clientele that seems impervious to triple-digit entrees (including a family-style chicken dish that costs $160 and rack of lamb that costs $175), La Petite Maison is part Cote D’Azur and part “Miami Vice.”
At prices such as these, it would have been nice if my six-dish dinner for two was coursed with two plates in three courses, not three plates in two courses. And it would have been nice if I did not have to ask for fresh plates and silver between courses. The pileup of dishes in the early going made things feel a bit rushed, as did the notification when reservations were made that diners are supposed to be done in two hours.
Was this a high-end meal or a New York parking meter? Thankfully, the time limit is not strictly enforced. My meal with wine, dessert and coffee ran 2 hours and 20 minutes, but no tow truck came to cart me off. It’s a good thing, because otherwise I would have missed two great desserts, the artfully arranged chocolate mousse ($13.50) and French toast ($13.50), which may be the best dessert bite I’ve had all year. Brioche is poached in milk and butter, then slowly caramelized, and served with a scoop of housemade spice ice cream. The interior of the toast tasted like creamy custard. It was a marvel how something so simple could be so sophisticated.
The time-limit warning before the meal began was about the only bad taste of the night. It gave the impression of a global corporation looking to turn tables quickly and hit their revenue projections, not a homey villa in Provence where you can smudge the linen with fresh-cut tomatoes.
C’est la vie. It’s still very good stuff.
La Petite Maison
1300 Brickell Bay Drive, Miami
Cost: Expensive to very expensive. Appetizers cost $5-$49.50, mains $20-$175, sides $6-$8.50, desserts $13.50. Service charge of 18 percent (20 percent for parties of six and above) added to check.
Hours: Lunch noon-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 12:30-3 p.m. Saturday; dinner 6-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sundays.
Reservations: Recommended, by phone and online
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full liquor with craft cocktails and large (23 page), expensive (few bottles under $65), French-centered wine list. No outside corkage permitted.
Noise level: Conversational, loud when crowded
Wheelchair access: Ramp or four steps to entrance from street
Parking: Valet ($5 lunch, $15 dinner) or metered street