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Highwood's favorite son delivers another culinary epic with Miramar

For the last 22 years of his life, Ernest Hemingway did a few things. He lived in Havana by the sea. He completed his most ambitious novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. And he made almost daily sojourns to his favorite watering hole some 200 meters away from his home. That 1930s bar, El Floridita, has become legendary over the years for its dishy Daiquiris, its celebrity clientele, and of course, it's mystic literary patron.

Like Hemingway, restaurateur and chef Gabriel Viti is creating a bona fide epic of his own in Highwood, where his other eatery, Gabriel's Restaurant, is well-ensconced in Chicago's fine-dining hall of fame. His second venture, which opened in June is the Cuban-influenced French bistro Miramar. Inspired by El Floridita on one of his many visits to Cuba, Viti named Miramar for the neighborhood in which that famous bar still resides. And it has fast become the hottest place to be any night of the week, not only for its frenzied Friday night dancing, but for its flavorful, authentic food at extremely reasonable prices. And the atmosphere ain't bad either, folks.

Compared to its fine-dining predecessors, Miramar is a more casual and accessible dining destination. The decor vaguely reflects the Old World grandeur of Cuba, but ultimately, save for the hoppin' Latin music and the whirling ceiling fans, it's much more classic French bistro than pre-Castro hideaway. Whatever the confusion, its' a magnificent sprawl. Since miramar doesn't take reservations, you will often find droves of couples, North Shore sugar daddies and occasional celebrities (former Bulls player Toni Kukoc towered above the crowd on one of our visits) packing in the lively zinc bars imported from Paris, sometimes waiting more than an hour for a table. But there's plenty of eye candy to pass the time. The walls are lined with vintage New York subway tile and showcase large antique mirrors that have been oxidized for that extra touch of vintage authenticity. Ornate tin ceilings are rustically aged, while chalky gray candles on the tables appear as though they've accumulated a hundred years' worth of wax drippings. If you arrive early enough (before 7PM), you can usually snag one of the Italian red leather booths that line part of the restaurant's perimeter. Or enjoy closer quarters with the newfound strangers at the communal table (also good for large parties). This European-style camaraderie is extended all the way to the bathrooms, which share a common washroom where both sexes lather up over large plaster hand basins.

Miramar's bread basket makes for an excellent jumpstart to the forthcoming meal. You'll be brought an ethereal assortment, including crusty baguette, five-grain and olive varieties, all perfect for pairing with several of the menu's stellar appetizers. A case in point: the Moules Mariniere ($8.25). These mussels are plump, meaty and expertly seasoned in a white wine sauce so delicious you'll be tempted to gulp down the buttery broth after you've exhausted the bread-dipping possibilities. You'll also want to hoard some extra slices of pain for the highly addictive Country Pate & Chicken Liver Mousse ($7.95), which comes with traditional Dijon mustard and cornichon (gherkins).

It's hard to decide which is better, the rustic, fat-studded pork rillettes or the silky chicken mousse. Thank goodness there's a generous serving of both. For those who enjoy the fruits of the sea, you can arrange your own a la carte Plateaux Fruits de Mer medley - fresh oysters ($2.55 each), clams ($1.50 each), snow crab claws ($2.70 each) and lobster ($18.50) that arrive on a gleaming mountain of ice. Fans of a good Brandade de Morue ($7.50) will not be disappointed. Viti prepares this classic Provencal staple to the letter: a robust balance of pureed cod, potatoes, garlic, olive oil and heavy cream. (Save some of that bread for this dish.) For those who prefer a lighter dinner, Miramar offers a smattering of salads and sandwiches, although the portions are still of the doggy-bag variety. A lovely Salade Lyonnaise ($8.95) gets extra points for not having overly dressed greens, only an appropriate slick of vinaigrette laced with mustard and a nice poached egg on top. There is also a very good, salty Croque Madame ($9.95) sandwich, the Croque Monsieur ($8.95) ham and cheese version topped with an egg. All the sandwiches come with a mound of crispy thin pommes frites.

Entrees round up the usual suspects, such as the Steak Frites Maitre d'Hotel Butter ($18.95), which hums to a tasty tune with a heaving dollop of chopped parsley and lemon-tinged butter. It's worth paying a few extra dollars for the excellent Entrecote au Poivre Frites ($22.50), a more tender cut of New York strip that oozes with tangy creme fraiche and cracked pepper. The Braised Lamb Shank ($19.95) is huge and practically falls of the proverbial bone. Delicate mashed potatoes work well with the shank's heady richness. Although the Roast Rack of Lamb ($20.95) tasted just a tad dry on one occasion, it was still quite savory and paired well with crisp haricot verts. While fish selections like the Grilled Samon Provencale ($18.95) and the Skate Beurre Noisette with Lime and Croutons ($18.50) are solid choices, the Tilapia with Buerre Blanc ($18.50) and the Shrimp de Jonghe ($19.95), which is also available in an appetizer portion, are both sure things. The mild tilapia is browned to a light crispiness and served over sauteed spinach, celery, carrots and potatoes in a heavenly marinade. There's yet another bread-worthy sauce in the de Jonghe - the amount of garlic is not outrageously racy but the flavor's all there.

If you've saved room for dessert, tread carefully. The only shortcomings at Miramar can happen on the sweet side. The forgettable Lemon Tarte ($6.50) tastes neither lemony nor tart, a shame since its fresh raspberries and whipped cream are so good. The Apple Tarte ($6.50) is slightly better, but still lacks the wow factor you expect after such a fetching meal. On the other hand, the Profiteroles ($6.50) are spot-on. They are plump and fresh and come with a trio of vanilla, chocolate and coffee ice cream. Magnifique!

As far as drinks go, pay attention to anything your very efficient and knowledgeable waiter recommends, including a good selection of wines and cocktails like the potent but scrumptious Mojitos ($7.50). They're a deceptive tease, make sure to stir them constantly so you don't get ambushed with only a wallop of alcohol and a mouthful of mint at the finish. More traditional aperitifs range from Pernod and Pastis (both $6.50) to the famous Hemingway Bacardi Daiquiri ($7.50).

Whether or not Chicagoans find a trip up to Miramar orth the hike (it is), one thing's for sure: Viti has tapped into a niche that Highwood should be enjoying for a long, long time. With inspired, lively decor, great food at good prices and warm, friendly service that makes up for the sometimes long table waits, Miramar is well on its way to enjoying the same success as Viti's other nearby restaurants. It's probably only a matter of time before all the locals start calling him Papa.

© 2009 Gabriel Viti & Miramar Bistro

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