Get Caught in Charlotte's Web: Chef Elida Villarroel Dishes on Her New Bistro and the Beauty of Imperfection

Jackie Sayet
Marie Antoinette's gaze beholds the dining room. Behold, Villarroel's muse?
The question is not, is three Michelin star restaurant-experienced Chef Elida Villarroel ready for Coral Gables, but rather, is Coral Gables ready for her?

Pensive and profound, yet uncomplicated.  Calculated with a penchant for impulse. The mother of two and a half year old Andrea at home, whom she refused to name Charlotte (despite a love for the name) since it sounded "too snobby," is a lover of contrasts.

To understand how Villarroel arrived at Charlotte's Bistro, her "other baby," ironically parked on the Mile next to Le Provencal's new home, you need to know a few facts about her journey. It was a sprint to the finish, but to get here, a beautiful story, chapters taking their own sweet time to unfold.

Hailing from Caracas, Venezuela, our Miss Universe has traveled the world, studied the philosophy and literature of its greatest thinkers, and lived in some of its grandest capitals like London and Paris, to now rest her box of souvenirs in Miami a mere six months ago.

Jackie Sayet
Chef Villarroel (on the right) admiring her young team of four in the back, including one pastry, one app and one entrée chef, and dishwasher. "I have only been with them three weeks but I love them."
How to explain Villarroel's chocolate soup...  Well, chocolate -- Venezuelan chocolate -- is an obsession of hers.  But more so of her guests after they sample this dessert that can perhaps best be described as delirium in a ramekin.  But trying to come up with words for what happens when a melting quinelle of chilled homemade coffee ice cream rests on the wafer-like crust of warm chocolate espresso ganache is insanity personified.  In fact, it's worthy of its own rehab center. Perhaps this temptress channels her passion, zapped from fingertip to silken, molten pool, in a powerful electric charge not even tempered chocolate can resist.

Jackie Sayet
Die, and go to chocolate heaven
Most recently, the classically-trained chef cooked privately out of her own home in Caracas at Canta la Mesa ("Sing the Table,") a chef's-table-only restaurant in her garden with room for just one party a night. 

"The client would come in and say 'I have a deer' or 'I have huge lobsters from Los Roques'... 'What can you do with them?'" explains Villarroel, of her ultimate collaboration with diners, where guests are allowed into a space traditionally reserved for farmers and suppliers. Concepts like this -- although Villarroel will be the first to shun the deduction of such an intimate experience into a commercial convention -- are few and far between, reserved perhaps for market-based restaurants abroad.  We're speaking of the spontaneous creations that happen when shoppers can bring their spoils to stalls where cooks improvise a dish to be devoured on the spot.

"I would say 'This is my menu today,'" she recalls of this most exquisite of scenarios. "'We have very beautiful weather there.  It's not too hot and not too cold.  It was romantic, like your own home.  Well, it was my home -- and mi casa es su casa.  Nobody knew about it at first, and then once word got out, everyone wanted wanted to know what it was all about."

What drew parties from eight to 30 per nightly seating is likely the same curiousity -- the allure in both the mystery and the challenge of improvisation -- relished with gusto by Villarreol.

To say Charlotte Bistro opened up on a whim is no hyperbole.  In Villarroel's case, the flitting moment was a stop in Miami on her way back to Paris, escaping disillusionment with politics at home.  But the Magic City is a familiar place, too, where a friend from her days in French culinary school, Angela Garcia of Lovely Daze Dessert Bar, and her two older brothers, live.  It has been her point of arrival and departure in the States over the years, for family holidays to New York, D.C., and Philadelphia.

New Orleans made a bewitching, lasting impression, particularly its French Quarter. Villarroel's playful approach to the culinary craft comes to life in a image recalled from a stroll down Bourbon Street one afternoon. A girl was swinging, legs popping in and out like a pendulum from where she was ensconced in a nook in the storefront facade.  Tick tock.  

Jackie Sayet
Bacon-wrapped shrimp with coconut curry emulsion, specked with sweated white onion dices and ribbons of tender zucchini, will suprise you when subtle anise suddenly enters the picture after enjoying a few bites.
Her style is, well, not over-stylized.  When asked of its most significant influence, she sings the praises of a buttoned-up Michelin-wielding mentor, Michel Bras, with whom she worked at his renowned Laguiole in the south of France.  She would go out into the mountains with fellow young cooks to collect wild flowers for the restaurant.  She finds beauty in the imperfections of nature, and its extraordinary details, letting ingredients speak for themselves. "I don't work too much the food," she shares. "Some one like Adria, you know at El Bulli, he works it, but that can be beautiful, too.  But going natural speaks beautifully to me."

Charlotte Bistro

(305) 443-3003
264 Miracle Mile
Coral Gables
Mon - Fri 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. (daily lunch specials)
Mon - Sat 6 -10:30 p.m. (dinner)

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Jackie Sayet
Special flat bread rulers, no one alike, meet calamata olive tapenade flecked with parsley

Jackie Sayet
The devil and the angel are in the details

Jackie Sayet
Home sweet home

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