Catching a movie at CocoWalk always presents a problem. I'm not talking about parking, either, though that is also problematic in Coconut Grove. Where to go for a good pre- or postshow meal is the real dilemma. While the CocoWalk neighborhood is hardly lacking in eateries, the food at the dozen or so I've tried is, at best, kinda fun.
Over the years my most frequented snackery has been Café Med, not because I was crazy about the food but because I liked the view. The expansive indoor/outdoor restaurant is located across a small passageway from Victoria's Secret, on CocoWalk's bottom courtyard level. Friends who favored a panoramic vista of the Grove invariably argued for Café Tu Tu Tango upstairs, but I found that looking at windows full of see-through bikini underwear while I ate at the Med was a useful reminder that pigging out on food that's just kinda fun isn't ultimately much fun. The Med's simple olive oil-dressed carpaccio on arugula was a light enough meal that after dinner I could still fit into a size S or M instead of an L.
Then last summer I began noticing ads touting a wood-burning pizza oven, homemade pasta, and a new chef "from the Bicce family" at the Med. Since the only Bicce I know is a rock band on the Subrock label, I immediately Googled the word and found that Bicce is an acronym for Big Island Country Club and Estates, in North Kona, Hawaii. It's also a computer game character (along with the Enchanter Nambel and Defender Kellenfire), and it is the Old English spelling of "bitch," that also means "to botch or bungle." I therefore figured the ad was a misspelling of Bice -- and got pretty excited, because that family of restaurants turns out some solidly creative Italian-inspired specialties. Two Tu Tango-ing friends and their kid agreed it was worth descending the stairs for a taste test.
Just as the ad turned out to be a bit misleading (the Bice connection, I discovered, dates from 1991), a promising starter of frittura di calamari, zucchini, and mushrooms was named a bit misleadingly considering that it was almost all squid, with just a few slivers of zucchini and two mushroom slices no bigger than my thumbnail. The calamari was somewhat too chewy, but the batter encasing it was crunchy and not too heavy. Two sauces came on the side, a slightly tangy mayonnaise-based dip and an oddly concentrated marinara that wasn't bad but had little of the garden-fresh tomato taste that balances fried-food grease better than cooked-down sauces.
Black mussels came bathed in a superior and spicier tomato sauce. And the sizable serving was especially generous since some of the mussels were actually Manila clams, which are considerably more expensive.
Insalata della Modella was a mountain of arugula garnished with artichoke pieces, cured mixed mushrooms (several varieties of sliced and whole pickled 'shrooms brined just enough to be piquant without overwhelming the natural earthy flavor), and ricotta salata. The last, which is firmer than ricotta, more like farmer's cheese, often tends toward chalkiness. But Café Med's was dairy-fresh enough to make me regret there were only a few very small dots of the cheese in the salad. A drizzle of lemon dressing on top was pleasant, smooth and citrusy without sourness, but again, was too spare a serving. We left about a third of the arugula untouched because the greens were undressed.
Only five of the Med's dozen and a half pastas proved to be homemade. Since one was pappardelle, a wide, flat noodle that's hard to find, we tried Pappardelle a Telefono. Unfortunately the pasta did not have pappardelle's characteristic slippery tenderness. In fact the top layer of noodles was so dry and the lower layers so mushy that the dish tasted as if it had been assembled much earlier and reheated in an oven -- for a long, long time. A pink sauce of tomato, cream, and mozzarella was gloppy and dull.
Linguine alle Vongole, a nonhousemade pasta, was nicely al dente, and came with plenty of Manila clams in a thin but flavorful white wine sauce. But the dish was marred by the inexplicable absence of an ingredient featured on the menu, arugula, which would have transformed it from a regulation preparation to something unusual. Were we being punished for the uneaten leaves in our salad?
Missing elements also marred a Cobb salad. Historically considered the first main-course salad, the Cobb is a classic Hungry Man's meal because it was invented by a very hungry guy: Bob Cobb, owner of Hollywood's Brown Derby. Famished one night after work circa 1930, Cobb raided his restaurant's fridge and came up with a combination of avocado, celery, tomatoes, bacon, roast chicken, chives, hard-boiled eggs, Roquefort cheese, and just a little lettuce (some say watercress) for crunch. Without these classic components, a Cobb is not a Cobb. Café Med's travesty had no celery, no bacon, no chives, no egg, and no cheese of any kind; it was basically a big pile of romaine lettuce with dry grilled chicken chunks, some confettilike squares of smoked turkey roll, and a few wedges of avocado and unripe yet mealy tomato. Less is not more.
Pizzas were a mixed success. On one visit a traditional Margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella, and fresh basil) was somewhat sparse on cheese and uncalled-for dried oregano added a jarring note, but the crust was fabulous: thin, crisp, blistered just enough by the Med's wood oven. But on a second visit a "create your own" pizza I ordered with buffalo mozzarella, pepperoni, and arugula added after baking came with a crust that was merely rigid -- no charcoal flavor, no burn bubbles. The buffalo was an improvement, but there were only four small splotches of it. And charging $2 for the sparest sprinkling of arugula was highway robbery.
Sapori di Mare, described as "our signature dish," was more like a limp handshake. The linguine was overcooked, as were the tough squid, rubbery clams, and dried-out shrimp. The marinara sauce was watery and bland.
At least a warm cioccolatissimo soufflé -- rich, runny, and not cloyingly sweet -- ended the meal on a high note. Well, higher. Whipped cream would have been a more satisfying accompaniment than the crystal-filled vanilla ice cream that came on the side.
The view from Café Med was still good. The carpaccio was still reliably edible. But the truly good news is that I found a trove of free street parking, only four blocks from CocoWalk -- which I naturally have no intention of sharing.
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