Boats, beaches, bingo, and beer would all make the lengthy list of "Things Floridians Like More Than Books." Yet while we are not, overall, the most literate of Americans, here and there are signs of intelligent life. For proof you need look no further than Books & Books, both on the Beach and in the Gables, where owner Mitchell Kaplan not only sells books but holds readings that consistently feature authors of impressive stature, and, more important, provides a meeting ground where writers and readers can converge and say smart things to one another. Over cappuccino.
When in 2001 Books & Books moved from its quaint, beloved shop on Aragon Avenue to the less nostalgic but bigger, newer, handsomely wooded bookstore up the block, it premiered The Café At Books & Books, and brought in Lyon & Lyon caterers to provide the food. Ten years ago Lyon & Lyon operated an excellent gourmet shop on Lincoln Road and was, along with Books & Books, a pioneer in that street's revitalization.
The café is located in an airy corridor, its clean, stylishly streamlined décor containing only what is functionally necessary. A long banquette stretches across one wall, with a dozen small, square, black granite tables lined up in front of it. The opposite wall features bookshelves (sensibly including the cookbook section) interspersed with windowed doors opening to a courtyard with outdoor seating.
The Caf at Books 305-448-9599.
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Starters include a house mix of European olives; small "noccelini" mozzarella balls with olives; and a cheese board of Brie, Gruyère, French blue, Montrachet, sliced fruit, and ficelle. Other appetizers are Middle Eastern -- a lemony hummus of properly pasty consistency; a sparkling roasted eggplant salad flecked with onions, capers, and bright red peppers; and a dry couscous salad whose only moisture came via green olives and grape tomatoes.
Bookstore cafés are obviously great places to dine in the company of a good book. As the snacks, salads, and sandwiches here are decidedly light, I'd recommend balancing your meal with heavy reading. Crime and Punishment would certainly do, though anything would be better than my choice, which was Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Learning that Dannon strawberry yogurt and Ocean Spray pink grapefruit juice derive their red color from pulverized Peruvian insects didn't exactly whet my appetite. And take it from me, you don't want to be delving into the history of Chicken McNuggets while eating a Pan-Asian chicken salad, even if, as in this case, the salad features an appealingly sweet honey-soy dressing over thin, tender slices of some tortured bird's breast, crisply counterpointed by a crunchy combo of carrot and daikon sticks, snow peas, alfalfa sprouts, chopped peanuts, and black sesame seeds. Other salads are standards prepared freshly: Greek, cobb, niçoise, caprese, curried chicken, and poached salmon.
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Sandwiches were fresh as well, all served on ficelle. Now anyone who knows that ficelle is just a nice name for very skinny French bread also knows that you can't fit a whole lot of filling between two slices. But even taking this into account, the snippets of grilled portobello mushroom, aptly augmented with arugula and aioli, were shockingly skimpy. French ham with herb butter and roasted turkey breast with mango chutney were much better.
A suggestion concerning take-out salads and sides of salad that accompany take-out sandwiches: Rather than dress these, pack the vinaigrette in little plastic cups so the greens don't become soggy in transit.
The Café serves half a dozen hot dinner entrées each evening -- the courtyard is an ideally quiet spot to sit with a Sunday paper and hot drink. Choose from Tazo and chai teas, or a Starbucks-style coffee menu of short, tall, and grande-sized Illy espressos, cappuccinos, iced mochachinos, etc. Soy milk and Rice Dream are thoughtfully provided for those who've read Fast Food Nation.
Beverages take on an inflated importance in bookstore eateries, as people like to frequent these places and simply nurse an espresso -- or sip some wine, of which there are seven reds and six whites to choose from, all Italian or French, most available by glass, 1/8 or 1/4 litre, and bottle (the last priced within a friendly $20 to $31 range). In order to select the wine that best complements your meal, ask yourself: What goes well with field greens and Dostoyevsky?