French Provincial

France today possesses what is probably the most intelligent collective palate. [Whatever] France eats she does it with a pleasure, an open-eyed delight quite foreign to most people.... There is a gusto, a frank sensuous realization of food, that is pitifully unsuspected in, say, the ... corner cafe of an American town. -- M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating (1954)

When the late M.F.K. Fisher wrote about French restaurants, it's almost as though she was referring to something way too wonderful to be of this planet. In Fisher's France the oysters are plumper, the beef rarer and more succulent, the butter sweeter, the chocolate more meltingly voluptuous. Even simple bread is more substantive than the stuff baked elsewhere on earth. A bad meal in France? Incroyable!

No eatery is more appealing in her estimation than the classic cafe. Fisher's favorite: the Deux Garcons in Aix-en-Provence, a.k.a. "the 2Gs." It "nurtured various phases of our varied souls," she explained in Map of Another Town in 1964. "It was a solace and refuge from everything: wind and blasting heat and rain, disasters, anxieties, too much noise or silence." With a slice of quiche, you got a slice of life.

Fisher's expectation of experiencing fine meals in tiny-town dives all over France, alas, can no longer be met. For me the first clue came back in the early Eighties in an authentic French "homemade cuisine" joint in which I ordered a saucisse provencale, usually a fresh beef sausage in a spicy yet subtle fresh tomato sauce with orange peel and saffron, among other ingredients. What arrived was chunks of sawdust-like hot dog -- dead ringers for other chunks I empty daily from my kitty's litter box -- in a sauce consisting primarily of boiled bottled catsup.

All of which makes it totally impossible to know what to think when a place is touted -- regardless of the number of exclamation points -- as "just like in France!!!!!" That's what I've been hearing about Cafe de France, which opened more than a year ago on Thirteenth Street, between Collins and Washington avenues, in South Beach. And painted right on the restaurant's window is the proclamation "homemade cuisine." Uh-oh. Fortunately, Cafe de France is the sort of place that made me feel, as did Fisher's favorite spots, like a regular midway through my first meal there. By my second visit proprietor Jean-Pierre Reba (who is, interestingly, from Aix) recognized me, welcoming me as if I'd been coming in forever. With the exception of four small alley-side bar tables, seating is indoors, although two oversize picture windows provide a typical open-air-cafe feel. And that feel is relaxed: no pressure to eat fast and split. Rather, it exudes an ambiance conducive to lingering, reading, and watching live SoBe soap opera in the street.

The food is most accurately described by the common Brit restaurant reviewer term "good value for money," meaning a typical portion here is large enough to feed, roughly, the entire population of Rhode Island. This ain't a place for food wimps, quantity-wise. Nor is it a place for gourmets, quality-wise. Fancy-food folks would be far happier at one of the glam spots that have been displacing SoBe's low-rent local hangouts for the past half-dozen years. What Cafe de France does have is decent cheap eats, offered from 9:00 a.m. "till closing," which means they cook and pour as long as patrons want to dine and drink.

At breakfast, an egg with bacon, toast, and salad costs an astonishing 99 cents. One of the high-ticket ($4.99) breakfasts is the scrambled croissant: egg, bacon, cheese, potatoes, and a mixed salad. Really formidable? Oui. It fills a plate nearly the size of Pro Player Stadium. Really good? Non. The egg is so overcooked that it crumbles; the salad disappoints owing to a thin, overly acrid mustard vinaigrette dressing, and, worse, the inclusion of soggy string beans and several similar canned veggies.

But a Brie omelette (cheese inside and out) with "homemade potatoes" -- home fries, albeit minus the greasy onions diner denizens crave -- is significantly better. Also, an almond creme crepe filled with nut paste and surrounded with chocolate is very tasty, and coffee is satisfyingly strong.

Breakfast and lunch are offered a la carte, but dinner pricing is based on four "formule" meals: two single-course "solos" ($9.95 for a large portion of any appetizer on the menu or a salad bar pig-out, or $12.95 for any main dish); a $16.95 "duo" (any two items from three menu categories -- appetizers, main dishes, or desserts); and the $20.95 "trio" (any three items chosen from the three categories, plus a white wine kir). Opting for the max, my partner in life and dining and I started with tartellette de legumes, listed singular on the menu but actually three vegetable minitarts. These light, delicate, buttery pastry shells, each with a veggie quiche filling, are topped with tangy tomato sauce and sit on a humongous salad. In an attempt to try the most French appetizer on the menu, we also ordered escargots de Bourgogne, kind of kissing cousins to our native garden pests. These are perfect for snail neophytes: reassuringly small, mildly nutty in flavor, totally unslimy in texture, and bathed in melted parsley butter. The dish could have used more garlic, though, and some nonstale bread to sop up the juices would also have been nice.

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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