When I moved to South Beach seven years ago, I instantly learned the drill. There are two strolling streets: Tourists hang on Ocean Drive; locals hang on Lincoln Road. This wasn't a rigid rule. It was occasionally fun to walk the Drive after dark, when all the Deco hotels and cafes were neon-lit. But locals knew to stay strictly on the less sardinelike beachfront side of the Drive, and keep walking. It only took one meal at any of the glam cafés where all the models hung to realize there's a darn good reason why models are so skinny.
Lincoln Road, meanwhile, had antielegant, fun food spots like Gertrude's and Lyon Freres, where one could eat gratifyingly healthy veggie-oriented dishes as well as satisfyingly unhealthy pastries, and, even more important, hang out with no hassling for hours. With the Road's renovation, however, came drastically raised rents, tons of tourists, and rapid replacement of places where waiters knew everyone's faces with places where waiters insist on telling everyone their names. Lincoln for locals seemed an idea of the past.
Then, on a recent visit to the barely year-old Icebox Cafe, just a few steps off the Road: "I probably know just about every face in here," offered our casually cordial waiter named Steven. (He didn't tell. We asked.)
When this small, concrete-floor storefront eatery was opened by Robert Siegmann, a former New York caterer (one repeat client was Martha Stewart), it was just a light-lunch/brunch place with an emphasis on homemade baked goods. And a glance through the Icebox's picture windows at its massive bakery counter proves that pastries are still a major draw here. Where else could you find, daily, an almond/praline/buttercream dacquoise so rich but so light? Where else could you find (ever, these days) an old-fashioned pink coconut layer cake? Pink! (I loathe coconut cake, but I'd kill for this moist not-too-sweet one.) There's always some sort of pound/Bundt cake and it's always perfect, but definitely don't pass on the tart lemon poppyseed. And, of course, there's the namesake icebox cake, even better than my grandmother's chocolate-overkill masterpiece.
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For the past nine months or so, the Icebox also has served dinner. Menus for all meals change daily -- another plus for regular diners, not so great for reviewers. Food, though, generally falls into a sort of "satisfyingly simple-yet-sophisticated counterculture cuisine" category, the sort of healthy, tasty treats one yearned to find in Seventies hippie restaurants but never did. There's always some sort of tasty pepper-perked vegetable stir-fry, for instance, and if sautéed shrimp is an additional option, go for it; chef Randy Heltsley cooks his crustaceans impeccably. Count on some sort of curried item with an unusual twist, such as one brunch menu's spicy Indian omelet with apricot, almond, and cinnamon hash plus raita. Ravioli one night could have used less cooking, less (nonoptional) grated Parmesan, and more spice in the sauce, but a risotto flavored with duck confit and marinated dried cranberries was simply succulent. A salad subtly dressed with soy/sesame was what one hopes for -- in vain -- in Japanese restaurants. And carnivores have no complaints; there's always a roast pork tenderloin, a rack of lamb, or a classic steak.
Prices are higher than in Gertrude's day (approximately $4 to $9 for appetizers, $11 to $17 for dinner entrées, $7 to $9.50 for lunch/brunch entrées, $3.50 to $4.50 for a piece of pastry), but so are Road rents.
There are no reservations and no liquor license, but this is no problem, says the staff. "We encourage people to bring their own wine and beer. Or margaritas!" And, though the Icebox does better business than many SoBe spots off-season, owing to its locals orientation, one of its ten tiny tables usually is free. Don't tell tourists.
Icebox Cafe. 1657 Michigan Ave, Miami Beach; 305-538-8448. Open every day except Monday, 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (lunch/brunch) and 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. (dinner); on weekends open till 1:00 a.m. for pastries.