Miami is a city of excess. On any given day, you can enjoy miles of beach, have drinks at dozens of chic cocktail bars, and expand your literary horizon at a small but excellent bookstore chain. For those of us who still like the feel and smell of an actual paper tome, Books & Books is pretty much the only game in town. The good news is that it more than makes up for Miami's alarming lack of decent independent (or even chain) booksellers with its good selection, author series, and cafés. In fact, it has been named bookstore of the year by Publishers Weekly, with the esteemed insider publication noting, "the biggest surprise about this year’s PW Bookstore of the Year Award is that it didn’t happen earlier." High praise, indeed.
The bookstore, whose first location opened in Coral Gables in 1982, doesn't just have the obligatory place to grab coffee while perusing that travel guide to Venice you purchased. Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan partnered with one of Miami's most beloved and tenured chefs to create his menus. And Allen Susser has turned the Café at Books & Books minichain into great stand-alone places to eat in such a way that you're never sure if you're dining at a bookstore or if you're reading at a café. It's a very good marriage.
The newest Café at Books & Books quietly began business inside the Carnival Tower at the Adrienne Arsht Center at the tail end of 2014, in time for the winter theatrical season. But it recently celebrated its official opening. The menu at this location is rich in locality, with Chef Allen saying the menu "sprouts from farm-fresh inspiration. As a result, the menu is very focused on classic Miami Latin flavors. Uniquely, at the Arsht location, we are focusing on wonderfully flavored artisan tartines, which are delicious open-faced sandwiches inspired by the French classic. Our South Florida version includes, for example, the grilled shrimp and avocado tartine. Served on toasted Zak's bread and with a side of lightly dressed watercress, this light and bright dish showcases the tender, wild Florida shrimp contrasted by the creamy texture of the freshly mashed avocado base, which is finished with our signature saffron aioli."
For instance, Zak the Baker multigrain bread is used for morning toast, and seasonal tropical fruits are served with mint-honey-lime dip for a breakfast plate ($12). The tartines are also available with prosciutto, mozzarella, green olive tapenade, and roasted peppers ($14) and smoked salmon with Pink Lady apples, Brie, and preserved lemon ($13). Main dishes include West Indian lobster potpie with pumpkin, shallots, coconut milk, and thyme ($24); grilled cauliflower steak with coconut curry, capers, and pine nuts ($14); and Chef Allen’s Urban Pickles ($8), battered in cornmeal, fried, and served with fresh dill tzatziki.
The venerable Miami chef says that although most people will think of the new location for a pre- or post-theater bite, it's a great spot for everyday dining. "Non-theatergoers should come because this particular location was created for the community. We had the opportunity to revive this historic tower, the Carnival Tower, by cultivating a neighborhood staple where theatergoers, families, tourists, businessmen, etc., would have the opportunity to enjoy a delicious menu every day, where our focus on farm-fresh ingredients and locally sustainable food would be apparent.
"This particular location showcases more of the café as a food destination. We are excited to be a part of such a vibrant, rapidly growing, artistic neighborhood. Here we have been able to develop community relationships through our food and hospitality. Also, we are the only location, not only in Miami but on the entire East Coast, to sell Metropolis Coffee, straight our of their roasting and distribution center in Chicago. As a café and bookstore, we take our coffee very seriously because our guests take their coffee very seriously, which is why we chose to go with this top-tier, fair-trade, organic-coffee company that never ceases to amaze with their delicious roasted blends."
The Arsht Center Café at Books & Books is also the only location to feature a full liquor bar, with cocktails inspired by literary greats (because writing and drinking go together all too well). Susser explains that the proximity to downtown Miami and the arts districts called for a complete cocktail experience. "As a result, we have launched a successful happy hour where our cocktails and snacks complement each other wonderfully. Some examples of what you may expect to order are our signature Chef Allen's Urban Pickles, our longhorn beef sliders, spicy mahi-mahi ceviche, and our coconut-milk-drizzled avocado toast. All of these options pair with one of our signature cocktails, all of which have been inspired by famous writers and their poison of choice, such as our Gin Fitzgerald, which is Baywater Gin, orange peel, fresh thyme, and Indi tonic water. How could you not relax with such a concoction in hand?"
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Look for a Fleming martini, named for James Bond's creator. It's a take on a vodka martini, with dry vermouth, yuzu, simple syrup, basil, and ginger (presumably shaken, not stirred). There's also a Hemingway cocktail featuring white rum, melon, ginger ale, coconut water, and lime juice; and Kerouac’s sangria, crafted with white tequila, Campari, pineapple juice, and soda.
And in much the same way Books & Books hosts special author events, the café will host a series of culinary events. Every Monday evening, Chef Allen will host a five-course farm-to-table dinner showcasing produce he procured from the Arsht Center's Monday-afternoon farmers' market. Susser, known for his seafood dishes, will launch a quarterly sustainable-seafood dinner series this spring. Other events planned include a guest chef series, spirits tastings, and panels featuring guest chefs.
The Café at Books & Books is open Sunday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to midnight, with extended hours on show nights.