Late in the afternoon, look at the sky: cerulean blue, marred like a bruise with the portent of thunderstorms. A sure sign of summer. But how can that be when the tourist season hasn't ended yet?
Daylight Savings Time, a marker that to most of the country signals spring but to us foreshadows the long and longer dog days, has reset all our clocks. But eating season is far from over. Every restaurateur, every chef, every publicist I've spoken to lately has told me the same thing: This has been the busiest season in memory. Mark's Place is thriving. Astor Place is kicking butt. As far north as Neal's on Miami Gardens Drive, as down south as Tropical Chinese Restaurant, no matter where I go there seems to be a line, a waiting list, a chance in Hades of securing a table.
But that's not how I know the season hasn't ended. I know the season is still going strong because out-of-town guests have not stopped their assault-weapon breach of my privacy. A steady parade of 'em, northerners young and old, bleached by months of snow and cold winds. And all of them coming to stay in my condo.
The problem isn't what to do with these people during the day: Having seen to it that they've slathered every exposed bit of flesh with SPF 25 sunscreen, I escort them the few blocks from my place to the beach. The difficulty comes later, particularly with the ones who have babies: where to dine. I'd like to go to the outdoor cafes on Lincoln Road, but even the mediocre ones are packed. Same for the open-air establishments on Ocean Drive, Washington, and Collins. If seating is by some chance available, high chairs aren't.
The logical answer is to depart South Beach for baby-friendly climes, but after a day in the sun with a burning tot, buckling said crisp infant into a car seat and driving to the suburbs, where so-called "family" restaurants cluster together as if for safety, is an unappealing prospect. So with my sister and her one-year-old daughter, the most recent interlopers of this let's-end-it-soon season, I compromised. I searched out the Intracoastal Cafe on Collins Avenue mid-Beach, where all generations gather to dine indoors or outside on the lip of the ocean, where the child of the host is likely to be playing on the deck with a ride-'em toy, and where if you ask for a high chair management comes back with, "Oh, we have those. But we also have something better -- a sassy seat."
Incidentally, when I say searched, I mean it. When I called to ask whether the restaurant was in a hotel, I received a resounding "No!" along with the correct address. What the staff neglected to tell me was that the Intracoastal Cafe lies deep in the bowels of a condo building and has no sign out front. To actually locate the 90-seat eatery (there are an additional 20 seats outside), you have to valet-park your car, then wind your way through a marble-floored lobby whose only furniture consists of a grand piano and a reception desk, a handsome pool room with upholstered wing chairs and a great big billiards table, and a luxurious-looking community room in which elderly residents are likely to be playing cards. One of the proprietors, Dana Abramson, was living in the building when the cafe space became available.
After that the cafe's homey lemon-yellow paint job stenciled with blue and white teapots and its sun-colored chairs come as somewhat of a surprise. As does the main feature of the decor: photo after autographed photo of rock musicians courtesy of Dana's father Roger Abramson, the other restaurant partner and an erstwhile concert promoter. The overall effect is rather disturbing: Martha Stewart meets Janis Joplin.
This was my first hint that the Intracoastal aspires to be more than a family joint. (In truth, I'd already gotten a pre-hint: a fax and a follow-up phone call from the management, touting the two-year-old restaurant.) The next clue was the specials board, which advertised items like fresh grilled salmon with artichokes, and the printed menu, which offered rainbow trout amandine, New York strip steak, and Szechuan shrimp with peanuts, as well as the reminder that "all food at the Intracoastal Cafe is prepared to order." Clearly the kitchen, in the person of executive chef Robert Harrison (who was head hat at the now-defunct Piola), is reaching out to a sophisticated -- even demanding -- clientele.
It's also reaching a bit too high, unfortunately. Many of the half-dozen so-called specials were actually entrees pulled from the regular menu; the ones that weren't were identical on two successive visits. And while some elements, such as salad dressings, looked and tasted homemade, others, such as "fresh" lemonade, were not. ("We mix it up fresh from the powder," our server said.) Needless to say, when this cutting of corners can be detected in the fare, it works to the restaurant's overall detriment.
Entrees come with a choice of soup of the day, house salad, or caesar salad. The house salad was a wonderfully fresh assortment of chopped romaine and iceberg with julienned carrots, sliced cucumbers, and quartered tomatoes, topped with a choice of blended dressings that included tangy basil vinaigrette and creamy lemon-dill. But we didn't care for the pasta e fagioli, a watery mixture of red kidney beans and bow-tie noodles. (A hearty chicken barley offered on a subsequent visit was better, if a bit greasy.) Nor did we like the caesar, garnished with astoundingly oily croutons and lacking flavor despite the presence of a genuine anchovy.
Matters didn't improve with the main courses. Grilled yellowtail snapper, which won a rave from the waitress, came as two hefty fillets, fresh, crisp, and sweet. The problem was the sauce, a citrusy beurre blanc that was far too tart, riddled with slices of sauteed lemon rind. A perfectly baked potato -- chosen from a list of starches that also includes rice, steak fries, mashed potatoes, and pasta -- perched alongside, soaking up the lemon-butter in a less palate-puckering fashion. A medley of verdant broccoli, string beans, and snow peas that composed another appealing (if too-well-buttered) partner was served with all entrees.
Given the snapper's freshness, we were disappointed by a fishy piece of pan-fried salmon, which was flaky and moist inside but too salty and drenched with butter outside. An artichoke heart topping was mushy and far too potent with leaves of sauteed tarragon, as if to disguise the pungency of the fish. And a pair of Louisiana crabcakes could hardly claim authenticity. Inches thick and fluffed up by an eggy, soufflelike interior, the cakes were deep-fried and lidded by battered and deep-fried onions and green peppers. But they were so rife with fake seafood that even my husband -- who actually likes the stuff -- couldn't swallow them. A basmati rice accompaniment was colorful with diced carrots but unevenly cooked, resulting in some grains that were hard, some soft.
On our first visit we arrived a little before 8:00 to find that the kitchen had only one special left -- meat loaf. (The Intracoastal Cafe closes at 9:15; it seems the restaurant is attuned to the schedules of building residents, who tend to dine early.) The beef was interspersed with a chunk of carrot or two, the thick, tasty slices permeated by a flavor reminiscent of smoky barbecue sauce. But the traditional sidekick of mashed potatoes was gluey to the extreme, despite some lumps that remained for texture.
Another homestyle dish, eggplant Parmesan, was huge: four slices of eggplant topped with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. The drawback was an abundance of grease in the coating, from overfrying. A side serving of spaghetti with marinara sauce was mediocre, barely worth comment.
But another pasta, which we chose from a list of seven and shared as an appetizer, was tasty despite a mixup on our server's part. We ordered ravioli with four-cheese sauce but received the other option: with mushrooms and a pink sauce. Four round cheese-stuffed ravioli were blanketed in a flavorful tomato-cream mixture, with plump mushrooms adding a distinct musk. A good option for a starter, given that appetizers are few here.
We tried two of the remaining three starters, and they were good as well. Freshly coated with crumbs and fried, chicken fingers were served sizzling with a homemade honey-mustard sauce. As ubiquitous appetizers go, it was delicious. A quesadilla was also appealing, eight quarters of buttery griddled flour tortillas stuffed with melted jack cheese, sharp scallions, and salty black olives. Lime-drenched tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and sour cream garnished the dish with some style.
Dessert, though, proved as uninspiring as most of the entrees. We settled for a slice of almond cake, a fluffy meringue pastry layered with whipped cream and chewy almond slices. Chocolate sauce and fresh strawberries perked this up a bit. But overall, dining at the Intracoastal Cafe was a bit like playing host to a baby for a week. Plenty of things -- the cuteness, the honest effort, the nurturing friendliness -- recommend both endeavors. But it'll probably be a snowy day in Miami before I try either again.
Clearly the kitchen is reaching out to a sophisticated clientele. It's also reaching a bit too high.
5600 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 866-3666. Open Wednesday -- Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. (open for lunch on Tuesday, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.).
Ravioli with pink sauce and mushrooms
Grilled yellowtail snapper
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