Family Fair

Late in the afternoon, look at the sky: cerulean blue, marred like a bruise with the portent of thunderstorms. A sure sign of summer. But how can that be when the tourist season hasn't ended yet?

Daylight Savings Time, a marker that to most of the country signals spring but to us foreshadows the long and longer dog days, has reset all our clocks. But eating season is far from over. Every restaurateur, every chef, every publicist I've spoken to lately has told me the same thing: This has been the busiest season in memory. Mark's Place is thriving. Astor Place is kicking butt. As far north as Neal's on Miami Gardens Drive, as down south as Tropical Chinese Restaurant, no matter where I go there seems to be a line, a waiting list, a chance in Hades of securing a table.

But that's not how I know the season hasn't ended. I know the season is still going strong because out-of-town guests have not stopped their assault-weapon breach of my privacy. A steady parade of 'em, northerners young and old, bleached by months of snow and cold winds. And all of them coming to stay in my condo.

The problem isn't what to do with these people during the day: Having seen to it that they've slathered every exposed bit of flesh with SPF 25 sunscreen, I escort them the few blocks from my place to the beach. The difficulty comes later, particularly with the ones who have babies: where to dine. I'd like to go to the outdoor cafes on Lincoln Road, but even the mediocre ones are packed. Same for the open-air establishments on Ocean Drive, Washington, and Collins. If seating is by some chance available, high chairs aren't.

The logical answer is to depart South Beach for baby-friendly climes, but after a day in the sun with a burning tot, buckling said crisp infant into a car seat and driving to the suburbs, where so-called "family" restaurants cluster together as if for safety, is an unappealing prospect. So with my sister and her one-year-old daughter, the most recent interlopers of this let's-end-it-soon season, I compromised. I searched out the Intracoastal Cafe on Collins Avenue mid-Beach, where all generations gather to dine indoors or outside on the lip of the ocean, where the child of the host is likely to be playing on the deck with a ride-'em toy, and where if you ask for a high chair management comes back with, "Oh, we have those. But we also have something better -- a sassy seat."

Incidentally, when I say searched, I mean it. When I called to ask whether the restaurant was in a hotel, I received a resounding "No!" along with the correct address. What the staff neglected to tell me was that the Intracoastal Cafe lies deep in the bowels of a condo building and has no sign out front. To actually locate the 90-seat eatery (there are an additional 20 seats outside), you have to valet-park your car, then wind your way through a marble-floored lobby whose only furniture consists of a grand piano and a reception desk, a handsome pool room with upholstered wing chairs and a great big billiards table, and a luxurious-looking community room in which elderly residents are likely to be playing cards. One of the proprietors, Dana Abramson, was living in the building when the cafe space became available.

After that the cafe's homey lemon-yellow paint job stenciled with blue and white teapots and its sun-colored chairs come as somewhat of a surprise. As does the main feature of the decor: photo after autographed photo of rock musicians courtesy of Dana's father Roger Abramson, the other restaurant partner and an erstwhile concert promoter. The overall effect is rather disturbing: Martha Stewart meets Janis Joplin.

This was my first hint that the Intracoastal aspires to be more than a family joint. (In truth, I'd already gotten a pre-hint: a fax and a follow-up phone call from the management, touting the two-year-old restaurant.) The next clue was the specials board, which advertised items like fresh grilled salmon with artichokes, and the printed menu, which offered rainbow trout amandine, New York strip steak, and Szechuan shrimp with peanuts, as well as the reminder that "all food at the Intracoastal Cafe is prepared to order." Clearly the kitchen, in the person of executive chef Robert Harrison (who was head hat at the now-defunct Piola), is reaching out to a sophisticated -- even demanding -- clientele.

It's also reaching a bit too high, unfortunately. Many of the half-dozen so-called specials were actually entrees pulled from the regular menu; the ones that weren't were identical on two successive visits. And while some elements, such as salad dressings, looked and tasted homemade, others, such as "fresh" lemonade, were not. ("We mix it up fresh from the powder," our server said.) Needless to say, when this cutting of corners can be detected in the fare, it works to the restaurant's overall detriment.

Entrees come with a choice of soup of the day, house salad, or caesar salad. The house salad was a wonderfully fresh assortment of chopped romaine and iceberg with julienned carrots, sliced cucumbers, and quartered tomatoes, topped with a choice of blended dressings that included tangy basil vinaigrette and creamy lemon-dill. But we didn't care for the pasta e fagioli, a watery mixture of red kidney beans and bow-tie noodles. (A hearty chicken barley offered on a subsequent visit was better, if a bit greasy.) Nor did we like the caesar, garnished with astoundingly oily croutons and lacking flavor despite the presence of a genuine anchovy.

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