Med-Iocre

Last year while CocoWalk was still in the construction stages, I wandered around the rubble shaking my head. The three-tier, open-air, Disneyesque complex would go the way of the dinosaur, I was sure. No one with any sense would fight the gridlock of cruising teens and the paucity of parking to patronize cookie-cutter boutiques and restaurants.

Last week my dining companion and I went to CocoWalk on Saturday night, and I was surprised (and a bit chastened) to see how many people had defied my prediction. With a younger and less European fashion-model crowd than on Ocean Drive, the shopping center is riding a popularity wave that would make a South Beach entrepreneur cry in his imported beer.

On our way to the ground-level Cafe Med, we even ran into some friends sipping drinks at an umbrella-covered table in the open-air courtyard. Since a line was already forming at the restaurant's door - reservations are not accepted - I went to put our name on the list for a table while my companion visited with the friends. A wait of 20 to 40 minutes, the harried maitre d' told me, and advised against waiting outside. I sat at the bar, in plain sight of the host, but was still overlooked. No one ever notified me that a table was ready and my companion and I weren't seated until, after a full 40 minutes, we inquired as to our status.

My futile stint at the bar had given me ample opportunity to check out the large, handsome dining room. While the fare here is bargain Italian - most entrees cost less than ten dollars - the look is high-rent. With its French doors, exposed oven, clear glass jugs filled with herbed olive oils and pastas, terra cotta floors, and accents of verdigris-finished metals, the restaurant has the look of a true Italian kitchen: utilitarian yet artfully put together.

Although the decor lends a restful look, Cafe Med is about as restful as a prison mess during a dinner-hour riot. Tables are jammed so closely together that, after we finally sat down, we feared a child climbing on a chair at the table next to us might fall into our pasta. In a room so dense with diners, one would hope the air conditioner could pull its weight. It didn't.

We quickly ordered some soup, the gazpacho (an incongruous staple on an Italian menu) for my companion, and the soup of the day - tomato - for me. Soft, chewy, lightly herbed focaccia and Italian beer (Peroni) satisfied us until the waiter arrived with the enormous soup bowls. If only the quality had matched the quantity. My tomato soup tasted like something poured from a can labeled "Contadina." Lacking herbs, fresh or otherwise, the soup tasted like warm tomato paste. My companion's gazpacho was not dramatically better, although it at least contained the requisite ingredients. Still, with no hint of lime juice or fine olive oil, the soup boasted little more than watery, tasteless tomatoes.

I hoped our luck would improve with the next course - salad for me, and carpaccio for my companion - but I fared no better than I had with my soup. My companion, on the other hand, hit the jackpot with an excellent carpaccio called "Tropicale." This offering is just one of the restaurant's half-dozen adaptions of the dish created at Harry's Bar in Venice in the Sixties and named for sixteenth-century Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio. The presentation of the dish was elegant -paper-thin slices of raw beef encircling abed of avocados and hearts of palm, all topped with Parmesan shavings - and the taste superb.

I had ordered the couscous al basilico, whose name alone piqued my interest, but was instead presented with the "Mixed Chopped Cafe Med Salad." Apparently the waiter was as mixed up as the salad, but I was hungry and so chose to settle for the mistaken dish. In retrospect, I wish I had insisted on the salad I'd ordered. The mixed-chopped affair was mixed - celery, zucchini, carrots, bits of dark green lettuce, sweet red pepper, and onion - and it was chopped. No false advertising here. Unfortunately it had little taste, right down to the forgettable vinaigrette. I eased my disappointment with tastes of my companion's carpaccio, which demonstrated what the chefs at Cafe Med are capable of once they get beyond mix, chop, and puree.

Having already eaten a year's supply of tomato sauce (in my soup), I still couldn't resist ordering my favorite pasta dish, puttanesca. While I was happy to find the dish on the menu, I was distressed to note that the chef seems to have gotten the nity to check out the large, handsome dining room. While the fare here is bargain Italian - most entrees cost less than ten dollars - the look is high-rent. With its French doors, exposed oven, clear glass jugs filled with herbed olive oils and pastas, terra cotta floors, and accents of verdigris-finished metals, the restaurant has the look of a true Italian kitchen: utilitarian yet artfully put together.

Although the decor lends a restful look, Cafe Med is about as restful as a prison mess during a dinner-hour riot. Tables are jammed so closely together that, after we finally sat down, we feared a child climbing on a chair at the table next to us might fall into our pasta. In a room so dense with diners, one would hope the air conditioner could pull its weight. It didn't.

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