Med-Iocre

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 a bed 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 formula wrong. Overloaded with capers but only a few stray olives and anchovies, the dish was far too salty. And though it seems impossible that any ingredient could mask the taste of anchovies, the abundance of capers did just that. Other de rigueur ingredients, crushed red chilies and garlic, were forgotten altogether, thus denying the dish its spicy reputation.

Again faring better than I did, my companion thoroughly enjoyed his pizza "Margherita," a medium-size circle with a crust thinner than a tortilla, and topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and oregano. Although it was a fairly pedestrian choice as pizzas go (other available toppings included smoked chicken and mushrooms, and grilled eggplant and smoked mozzarella) he thought it delicious and not designed to wreck his diet.

Beyond the ubiquitous tiramisu, creme brulee, and lemon tart, a number of desserts sounded intriguing - an espresso concoction with white-chocolate ice cream, and something called "Extravaganza al Cioccolato," described as a "sinful cup" of two ice creams topped with chocolate fudge and cookies. Sounded like the perfect follow-up to puttanesca, but we were far too full to even consider it.

Cafe Med has no huge flaw, and the prices are reasonable - the most expensive item on the menu, paella valenciana, costs only $11.95 - but little things mean a lot. A little too much racket. Tables a little too close for comfort. The room a little too warm. These add up to a place that should try a little harder, even when dealing with a lot of people.

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