Cafe of the Day

Another South Beach restaurant. Opened just under six months ago in the nether regions of South Beach by some of the owners of The Strand's successful Living Room, Cafe Tabac might be just another pretty cafe. It's as stylish as Joia, as moderately priced as Big Pink across the street, as cozy as the Blue Door, as eclectic as Van Dyke, and as packed with hipsters on a Saturday night as Tantra. Unfortunately like so many Beach eateries, the food ranges from delicious to mediocre. What distinguishes this newcomer from others of its ilk are the generous portions and friendly service staff. Even when challenged with the annoying complexities of the English language, each of the mostly foreign waiters still manages to smile, nod, and mime everything.

There was the afternoon, for example, when a girlfriend and I sat beneath a sexy indoor canopy on a plush, terry-covered divan. The day was hot but an overhead fan kept us cool. We sipped herbal iced tea and pinot grigio. It would have been perfect except for the wall-mounted speaker just inches from our heads. So we listened to the sultry beat of an extended version of "The Girl from Ipanema" instead of to each other. From across the room our busboy, a shaggy-haired Italian, noticed we were suffering under the pounding decibels and cupped a hand to his ear as if it were a megaphone. We realized he was asking us if the music was too loud. We nodded our heads enthusiastically and in a moment the sound subsided. This, as anyone who dines on South Beach knows, was an extraordinary occurrence, one that set the tone for my subsequent visits.

And though the food was less remarkable, it was generally good. The pleasantly abbreviated menu is focused on Mediterranean (especially Italian and French) cuisine with a few aberrations. For starters, along with the melon and prosciutto, steamed mussels, fried calamari, beef carpaccio, and nicoise and Greek salads, Tabac also serves up tuna tetaki, chicken satay with peanut sauce, and black bean soup.

Other surprises include an all-day breakfast menu with oatmeal, granola, fruit salad, bagels with lox and cream cheese, a variety of omelets, and pancakes.

The simplest things on the menu are the best, starting with the bread. A basket of warm slices of French-style baguette was delivered to our table with a citrusy herb olive oil. Paired with any of the generous salads this could have been a meal in itself. The curried couscous and lentil salad was a great choice, though it didn't taste of curry, nor was there any couscous in evidence. But the simple mound of olive-color legumes was a masterpiece in understatement, dotted with coarsely chopped sprigs of parsley and minced shallots. A dash of black pepper and a splash of oil made it a fantastic appetizer.

A plate of fried calamari was even better. The tender tentacles were gently battered and quickly flash-fried so that not a trace of oil remained, even when I dropped one of them in my lap. The two dipping sauces, a marinara with a dose of hot pepper and a mellow tartar sauce spiked with tarragon and onion, were equally good but not necessary on these perfectly golden ringlets. The small order was more than enough for two to share.

Main courses span the globe, with chicken prominently featured. The fowl can be marinated and kebabed, pounded and grilled (paillard), soaked in wine (Marsala), covered in red sauce and cheese (parmigiana), or breaded and fried (Milanese). There are also more than a half-dozen pastas from which to choose, including veal or vegetable lasagna, as well as angel hair with tomatoes and penne alla vodka.

On another afternoon I decided to try one of the two seafood entrees. I flirted with the curry until I discovered it was made with halibut, one of my least favorite fish. Instead I tried the tuna. An unfortunate decision. The anemic fish was as unattractive as it was tasteless. A thin gray fillet, the size of a paperback novel, arrived propped up against a pile of neon-yellow rice with not a sprig of parsley or lettuce to brighten it. One bite revealed a grisly and cloudy center. I was thankful the professional and pleasant waiter asked no questions when I requested that he take away the plate. It disappeared without a fuss as did the charge from our bill.

A better choice is any of the simple pastas, especially the vegetarian lasagna, which was smothered in a rich Bechamel instead of a heavy red sauce. Thick and tender noodles were layered with slices of squash, tomato, carrot, eggplant, and spinach, and then topped with a generous helping of slightly crusty Parmesan.

The sandwiches were a mixed bag: the pain bagnat was fantastic while another, the prosciutto and Parmesan, was disappointing. The first was stuffed with tuna salad, raw onions, anchovies, boiled egg slices, and olives, and was served with a huge side of classic French fries. The other was layered with slices of salty and fatty prosciutto, cut as thick as Canadian bacon on eggs Benedict. The paper-thin slices of cheese were fine but undistinguished. The sandwich was saved by the hot and crisp fries, which may be the best on the Beach.

The key lime pie was tart but not mouth-puckeringly so and was countered by a subtle sweetness. It was topped with Persian lime zest (in place of the more authentic yellow key lime) and a smooth layer of fresh whipped cream. A cappuccino and a slice of tiramisu were somewhat reminiscent of afternoons spent overlooking the Adriatic, but far from the real thing.

Okay, so the view from the terrace may be of construction cranes and double-parked cars instead of teak sailboats and Vespas. Nonetheless Cafe Tabac has plenty going for it: gorgeous decor, a simple menu, large portions, handsome and friendly waiters, and moderate prices. This is, after all, South Beach, not Sardinia.

Cafe Tabac
136 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-695-8411. Open Daily 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.

Curried couscous and lentil salad $4
Fried calamari large $11/small $7
Prosciutto with shaved Parmesan sandwich $9
Vegetarian lasagna $11
Tuna steak with balsamic, red wine reduction $14
Key lime pie $



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