French Provincial

Entrees include four pasta dishes (pesto, carbonara, bolognese, vegetarian), the pasta cooked, thankfully, al dente in the Italian/Provencal style rather than the pablum style inexplicably preferred in most of France. A smattering of the usual bistro suspects is also here, including boeuf bourguignon and crevettes Provencal. The latter is a dish that is to Provence what chop suey is to China. I've seen it in many American "Mediterranean" restaurants, and nowhere in Provence. (Nor, for that matter, have I seen it in Larousse Gastronomique or any of Julia Child's cookbooks.) Here it consists of about a dozen shrimp, not overlarge but also not overcooked, in a creamy, mildly peppery tomato-based sort of sauce Americaine.

Steak can be ordered three ways: au poivre, roquefort, or shallot. The au poivre preparation was as tasty as I've had in a number of places that charge twice the price, although the cream sauce was a bit one-dimensional, lacking any discernible trace of the customary brandy. But it was perfectly peppered, unlike many chefs' poivre overkill. Additionally, while the steak contained an ample amount of gristle, which one would expect for the price, it did come "bleu" as ordered -- an astonishing timing feat when you consider the shoe-size (about a women's 71U2) piece of meat was only about a quarter-inch thick. All entrees come with a vegetable (very tasty ratatouille) plus a choice of rice, potato, or pasta.

For dessert apple pie is a welcome taste of traditional France. This isn't our soft-chunk-style pie, but rather authentic tarte tatin layered with crisp, thinly sliced apples. (Reba will happily top the tart with vanilla ice cream, which works. Other garnishes -- chocolate drizzles and spurts of canned aerosol whipped "cream" -- do not.) The cafe's cold creme brulee -- not the light flan hiding under a crackling caramelized crust one often finds in tonier eateries -- is just the sort of solidly comforting custard one imagines French grandmothers made back in Fisher's time.

Wines are reasonably priced at $18 to $33, with the list including a few unusual selections, such as the smooth yet surprisingly full-bodied $29.90 red Cellier de Quatres Tours Cote de Provence (from Aix). Well, surprising to those of us who are accustomed to signature superlight Cote de Provence roses. An anise-flavored pastis is a perfect way to end the meal, as well as a perfect way to prolong the evening on nights when the Cafe de France's cool and competent live jazz group performs (usually Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday).

The bottom line: The food is fine, though not SoBe's best by a long shot. What makes this place notable, by both South Beach and South of France standards, is its classic cafe spirit. That is what will make us want to return -- and make M.F.K. Fisher want to come back, were she able to -- again and again and again.

Cafe de France
227 13th St, Miami Beach; 672-8169. Open everyday from 9:00 a.m. "till closing.

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