More than Cool
There are cakes. Carrot. German chocolate. Cinnamon bundt. Coconut buttercream. Cakes, cakes, and more cakes. Plus cupcakes, and cookies the size of hubcaps, and chocolate ganache truffles piled like miniature cannonballs, and six types of brownies all rich, fudgy, and gooey. Did you say pies? Key lime, pecan, apple streusel.... Dozens of desserts fill two illuminated cases, more rest on cake stands atop those cases, and a separate showcase freezer is exclusively reserved for a host of ice-cream cakes. Here's the kicker: These glossily iced, candy-color temptations are in full sight of Icebox Café's customers as they attempt to concentrate on dining!That's not right. While I should have been perusing the starters and deciding between vegetable spring rolls or baked Brie, my eyes were inexorably drawn instead to the dazzling display of decadent delicacies. Which set me thinking: Would ordering a preappetizer petit four be considered tacky? This is the reason restaurants do not wheel out the dessert cart until after dinner.
Icebox is a bright, modern cake box of a space, the minimalist recipe of lofty white walls, industrial ceiling, and poured cement floor an attractive testament to less being more. Those alluring desserts form a wall of sugar separating the 40 seats in front from a stainless-steel open kitchen in back. Another slab of stainless steel clads a bar that sits to the left of the sweets, and there's seating for twenty more patrons outdoors. A little lounge area by the entrance holds a couch and a couple of ottomans centered by a coffee table.
The clientele is mostly local and in the evenings tends to encompass a fair share of pretty people dressed in the sort of sloppy outfits that cost a fortune. It's a laid-back yet energized scene with new-agey background music all but drowned out by the chitter-chatter of a lively crowd. But Icebox is more than just cool: It's one of the very best neighborhood restaurants in South Beach. The cuisine is freshly prepared and fully flavored. The staff is cordial and competent. There are refreshing, innovative alcoholic beverages, and refreshing, innovative nonalcoholic beverages. Plus those aforementioned desserts which incidentally have made Oprah swoon. Yes, that Oprah. This past May she anointed Icebox and three other national bakeries as having "The Best Cake in America" and highly recommended the café's confections to her viewers although presumably not to those following the Oprah Diet.
I hope I'm not giving a false impression that only hipsters are hep to this place; there are plenty of dweebs like me seated at the tables too. An eatery needs all sorts to make it in South Beach for eight years, which is how long it has been since owner Robert Siegmann first unwrapped the Box on Michigan Avenue just off Lincoln Road. Restaurant longevity requires captivating cuisine as well, and Icebox is stocked with a daily-changing menu of solid American eats or "New American," by which I mean dishes such as Greek salad, Argentine-style skirt steak, veal Milanese, and Thai-style ribs. Free wireless Internet service has probably not been integral to Icebox's success it's just icing on the cake.
Chef Andrea Landini formerly worked at the Grand Bay Hotel under the direction of one of Miami's finest chefs, Pascal Oudin, and she brings a nice breadth of fresh ideas to the table. There are just a handful of starters available on any given evening, which might include baked Brie, coffee-rubbed scallops, or a succulently seared duck breast, slices of plush pink flesh pooled in a subtly sweet pineapple sauce tinged with basil. Light, crisp vegetable spring rolls were tasty too, but the ponzu sauce they sat in possessed all the depth of melted orange juice concentrate. Alternative means for beginning one's meal include soup du jour, a well-balanced quartet of artisan cheeses (for one or two), and caesar or Greek salad, the latter an underdressed, underwhelming affair.
Entrées are equitably divvied into fish, meat, poultry, and pasta dishes a little something for everyone. Daring diners can delight in peppercorn-crusted venison tenderloin, the mildly gamy meat spruced with rosemary and offset with the sweetness of roasted onion cream. Those seeking something more sumptuous might lean toward lobster ravioli ruffled with white truffle butter. The meat-and-spuds crowd can choose grilled rib eye or skirt steak, each served with chimichurri sauce, roasted potatoes, and vegetables. There is a low-carb "pick of the day," usually something on the order of tilapia in Portuguese yellow pepper sauce, and a vegetarian special each night as well. We sampled the latter, a big white bowl bottomed with soft kernels of wheatberries and sautéed purple kale (a healthy but challengingly chewy green), topped with "Vietnamese-style" vegetables known to most diners as tempura. The large cuts of eggplant, squash, and sweet potatoes were crisply battered, but Icebox should have noted the nature of this dish in the menu description; customers less enthusiastic than I over fried food will undoubtedly be in for an unpleasant surprise.
A different visit brought the same tempura vegetables, this time properly labeled as such on the menu and served alongside meaty baby-back pork ribs slathered in sweet, zestily spiced Thai barbecue sauce. An almost unbelievably fat and juicy grilled chicken breast luxuriated in a slightly spicy sambal-coconut curry sauce. What should have been accompaniments of "cilantro rice" and "braised vegetables" were disappointingly plain white rice and a sautéed mix of zucchini, squash, and eggplant, but the chicken was so smoothly smoky and succulent that it was beyond reproach. A recommended wine pairing is printed below every main-course offering, which is extremely helpful to diners, though including the price would have been even more efficient. Another friendly touch: Organic wines are available by bottle or glass.
Pasta du jour was less suggestive of Italian cuisine than the sort of meal one might assemble from leftovers found in the fridge hefty hunks of grilled chicken breast, diced ham, mushroom quarters, and skinny, crunchy snippets of asparagus spears, all tossed in a sea of creamy tomato sauce. Still, as sometimes happens with these happenstance concoctions, the flavors turned out fully gratifying although the pasta was so oversauced that enough liquid lingered in the bottom of the bowl to serve as a sating cup of cream of tomato soup. The portion of pasta was generous too, which led me to pause halfway through: If I finish it all, I might not have room for dessert. That's insanity! I had the leftover pasta packed to go.
By the way, no need to fret over the prospect of predinner bread dampening your postdinner appetite, because none is served unless you order a warm, crusty square, with one of three toppings, for $5 or $6. If you wish to tempt fate, you can try the truffle-oil-and-Brie variation, which was mostly truffle oil and pretty darn lip-smacking good although still pricey for bread. A simpler $3 baguette, the skinny sort that's shipped par-baked and finished off in the oven, is served with shallot-rosemary butter. I recommend demurring on the basis of a little-known axiom: Every ounce of butter eaten is an ounce of buttercream uneaten.
Icebox began as a bakery and still is one; many patrons traipse in just to take out a whole cake or pie. Oprah thought The Bomb was the bomb, a rich chocolate cake layered with bittersweet chocolate mousse, cheesecake brownie, and bittersweet chocolate ganache. She apparently also liked the cinnamon bundt cake with candied walnuts, but I prefer the classic German chocolate cake with brown sugar custard lustered with walnuts, coconut, and sizable chunks of Belgian chocolate. Carrot cake was a little on the dry side, but cappuccino ice-cream cake whet our cravings via layers of intensely flavored chocolate and espresso. One of my quibbles concerns consistency of portions. The ice-cream cake was a crookedly sliced, extremely slender sliver, but another time we were treated to a slab of chocolate mint ice-cream cake that was at least twice as fat.
Icebox also shines for breakfast and lunch, and dishes an exceptional weekend brunch with à la carte selections such as home-baked granola; steel-cut Irish oatmeal; creative variations on pancakes and French toast (sometimes too creative, as in the piña colada flapjacks); a whole mess of egg dishes (frittata, scrambled with cheese, and so on); freshly baked biscuits; and a shortlist of lunchtime comestibles (grilled skirt steak, pan-seared salmon, barbecue pork panini). The ambitious eatery also boasts a dozen types of teas, and coffee three ways espresso-based, French press pot, and American brew served in a soup-bowl-size cup (but, take it from me, it's still not large enough for dunking a whole slice of chocolate cake). In short, Icebox is filled to the brim with good food, good drink, good desserts, good company, and good intentions. Very cool.
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