Slight In Shining Armor
The bright, minimalist, metallic-cool interior of Café 71 stands out in this grim, brown Biscayne block like a comic strip plunked smack-dab in the middle of a James Joyce book. Motorists going by the corner of 71st Street look over at the contemporary cafe with disbelief in their eyes: What's this doing here?
It is, in fact, the shiniest signpost yet nailed down along this neighborhood's ever-slow road to respectability. Some envision the day when upper Biscayne has all sorts of neat little eateries, kind of like South Beach without the beach. Café 71 not only looks SoBe-slick, but boasts other similarities to restaurants in that area as well, like a passion-fruity-but-passionless faux-Floridian menu, and service performed by those who can kindly be described as well-intentioned.
Café 71 is busier during the day than at night -- I suspect a beer and wine license might spur more dinner action. We stopped by for lunch (same menu is used for both meal periods) and sampled some sandwiches, like a grilled, herb-marinated chicken on grilled sourdough (also the house bread at dinner), with tomato, avocado, watercress, "applewood" bacon, melted fontina cheese, and chipotle-lime aioli. What sounded delicious descended to decentness, the fontina dryly stuck to slices of bacon that could just as well have been "non-applewood," the aioli possessing no more pizzazz than mayonnaise. On the plus side, fries were crisp and pleasantly salted.
I won't begrudge use of the term "rosemary focaccia" to describe the bread sandwiching fresh mozzarella and prosciutto, as it may very well have been, technically, just that. But it was dull and dry, with tomato, arugula, slices of red onion, and a mostly balsamic "balsamic reduction basil oil" not nearly moist enough to compensate.
The dinner menu is short and sweet -- meaning limited selections and use of sweet ingredients. The arugula salad alone could stock a fruit stand, with pears, raspberries, and a mango-passionfruit vinaigrette mixing it up with candied walnuts, red onion, and Gorgonzola crostinis. Other salads are savory, though not necessarily successful. Caesar was least praiseworthy, so-called "baby" romaine turning out to be leaves of brown-edged "senior citizen" lettuce barely covered in an apparently anchovy-and-garlic-less "light Caesar vinaigrette."
A Greek salad sampler, one of four available starters, featured sprightly tabbouleh flecked with fresh mint and parsley; a flavorful clump of feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and kalamata olives; softly grilled pita triangles; and overly dense hummus with an off-putting taste. Didn't try the beef carpaccio or steamed mussels and clams, but conch fritters were neatly fried and festively nested in fried tortilla strips, baby greens, and tomatillo salsa.
Entrées were better. Pappardelle 71 was particularly pleasing, wide strands of chewy noodles tossed with gently grilled chicken, "oven dried" tomatoes, wild mushrooms, and wilted greens. A rich sherry-veal glaze and softly melting goat cheese added a smooth depth.
The kitchen didn't fare as well with Oriental pasta, overcooking the buckwheat noodles in our rock shrimp and pork stir-fry. Still the sweet balsamic, ginger, and soy-based sauce napped the noodles nicely, and likewise enhanced numerous nuggets of shrimp, tiny strips of roast pork, and "Asian" vegetables -- carrots, scallions, a little bok choy.
Curried, sesame-seared ahi tuna receives an Asian treatment as well, with sticky rice and a pungent lemongrass ponzu sauce. The menu's only red meat, two medallions of beef tenderloin, is sensibly sided with truffled mashed potatoes; asparagus spears sautéed with pancetta, shallots, and tomato; and a green peppercorn sauce spiked with brandy.
A generous wedge of warm apple tart, with caramel swirled on the plate and a scoop of toasted coconut ice cream alongside, combines the heartiness of American apple pie (big and thick) with the delicacy of the French version (wispy custard nestling thinly sliced apples) -- a tasty, heartwarming dessert.
Café 71 is, at this time, a mixed blessing. It brings a new attitude and welcome ambiance to the neighborhood, which in itself is no small contribution. The staff is friendly, the room comfortable, and with main courses ranging from $13-$22, prices, too, are favorable. Yet the food merely satisfies one's hunger in an unobtrusive manner, the menu seemingly culled not from the heart, but from some food magazine's false sense of what modern restaurant cuisine should be. In other words, a little too South Beach for its own good.
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