Having eaten at my share of bookstore cafés over the years, I must admit that while the melding of good books and good food is sometimes a great notion, the result usually is more bone in the throat than budding prospects.
As restaurateurs, most booksellers are great ... booksellers, typically dishing up food the culinary equivalent of Chicken Soup for the Soul (dumbed-down roughage for the masses) or The Crying of Lot 49 (ambitious but utterly indigestible).
So it was with no great expectations that I sat down to dinner at the three-month-old Café at Books & Books amid the bright-lights, big-city bustle of Lincoln Road. Executive chef Bernie Matz's menu was promising though, covering all the usual café soup-salad-sandwich bases but also offering a variety of dishes more commonly found in restaurants -- ceviches, interesting appetizers, grilled entrées.
And the new café's pedigree is good. After all, Books & Books in Coral Gables is one of the best bookstores in South Florida, known both for its selection of literature of all brows and its own casual, unpretentious café. Proprietor Mitchell Kaplan has done as much as anyone to shake Miami's reputation as a place whose residents' reading habits are mostly confined to designer labels.
Which is why I'm pleased to report that, though most bookstore cafés may inspire only fear and loathing, Kaplan's South Beach bistro is its own little garden of earthly delights. Fresh, light, simple, modestly inventive dishes, priced to be affordable to the prince and the pauper, served up in a pleasant, 'tude-free atmosphere -- maybe not food of the gods, but plenty good enough for us mere mortals.
I really enjoyed our two appetizers, a nutty black bean "hummus" with avocado salsa and crisp pita chips, and a delightful salad of grilled calamari with chorizo sofrito on a bed of baby greens dressed in balsamic vinaigrette.
The salad was a surprisingly sophisticated mélange of tastes and textures -- the bland but meltingly tender calamari rings picking up the salty-spicy-savory character of crusty bits of chorizo, with added crunch from diced onions and peppers and a contrasting flavor note from the sweetish vinaigrette.
Entrées tend to follow a basic but hard-to-beat formula, one particularly suited to eating outdoors in the heat and humidity of Miami summers. Take your salient protein -- meat, fish, poultry -- give it a marinade or glaze or simple sauce, and then slice it and fan it out with a different starch and/or salad on stylish triangular white plates.
What that means in your mouth is mojo-marinated skirt steak cooked a precise medium-rare and paired with pungent blue cheese slaw and (sadly) limp, mealy fries. It means coconut-crusted tuna, seared on the outside and rosy-raw within, arranged around mango-pepper slaw and greens tossed with an Asianesque vinaigrette. It means the consensus dish of the night: guava-glazed pork tenderloin with a suave boniato mash and sprightly corn salsa.
What to drink with all of this can be something of a conundrum, which is actually an excellent wine. Conundrum, that is. The 2003 vintage is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Sémillon, and Viognier that plays well with all kinds of food, as does the less pricey 2003 Pierre Sparr Alsatian Riesling.
Save half a glass for dessert, especially the rich, creamy coconut-cream cheese flan. Each spoonful is an unctuous taste of luxury and proof that, as a bookseller, Mitchell Kaplan just might be a pretty good restaurateur.