Miami has a great many things — sun, sand, spectacular ocean views, trolling celebutantes with more plastic parts than an Xbox.
One thing Miami doesn't have much of is great bread. Sure, some of the upscale so-called gourmet markets do a passable variation on the classic baguette, ciabatta, pan au levain, Pugliese, and the like. Of course, we're ground zero for Cuban bread, a soft, insubstantial loaf that makes excellent sandwiches but on its own is about as interesting as Uncle Fidel's beard trimmings.
So where is the great bread that can be easily found in just about all of America's premier food cities? The heavy, crusty, golden loaves that slice open with a crunch, revealing a rustic, coarse crumb with a nutty, yeasty, perhaps faintly sourdoughy taste. The kind of bread that, with a hunk of good cheese and a few slices of artisan Salumi, is a substantial meal in itself, that with a drizzle of olive oil or pat of sweet butter (or, in the Catalan manner, a vigorous scouring of a cut tomato) can be as satisfying as a book-size slab of molten foie gras.
Where is that bread?
I'll tell you where: at La Provence. If you've come across bread at some of our better local restaurants (Sardinia, for one) — bread that's every bit as flavorful and exciting to the palate as the appetizers and entrées — chances are it's from La Provence's giant bakery in Miami Beach, also retailed at a satellite shop at the corner of Giralda Avenue and Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables.
And there's more than just bread: flaky croissants, pastries, jaunty little fruit tarts, plus a roster of sandwiches, salads, quiches, and even empanadas. With a sidewalk table and a glass of wine, you can almost imagine you're dining at some quaint backstreet Parisian bistro, if Paris in July were hot enough to make the Eiffel Tower wilt.
At La Provence in the Gables, you'll have to imagine the sidewalk table and glass of wine, though the narrow, sunny-color shop does have a handful of indoor tables and a long counter facing the street. Still, with a hearty yet refreshing salad niçoise or prosciutto and mozzarella-stuffed panini, the civilized midday meal that is one of the best European traditions can be yours for a modest tariff.
The niçoise is a nice salad indeed, one that even travels well back to the home or office. It's a mound of quality mesclun greens gilded with cucumbers and tomatoes, red onions and peppers, briny olives and hard-boiled egg, and crowned by big chunks of tuna. A sprightly dressing, almost like an Italian vinaigrette, adds flavor without heft. The panini, on La Provence's chewy, flat loaves, is generously portioned with the two salient ingredients and tweaked with tomatoes and a tangy pesto.
Individual quiches are a filling meal in themselves, whether all-American ham and cheese or the more Mediterranean tomato and mozzarella. What makes them delectable, of course, is the pastry — light, crumbly, buttery, and just right. The pastry, too, is the star of the empanadas, fist-size packets that range from vegetarian-friendly spinach and cheese to hearty cumin-scented ground beef.
For dessert try one of the individual fruit tarts, raspberry perhaps. Split between two people, it's a manageable taste of something sweet — more of that flaky pastry, with a smear of raspberry jam on the bottom, creamy custard in the middle, and a pile of modestly ripe raspberries on top.
And don't forget to take something home — perhaps a long, skinny baguette with a fine, sweet crumb, or its lustier big brother, with a coarser texture and faint sourdough tang. Or a croissant for breakfast, plain or laced with nuggets of dark chocolate. No matter what you walk away with, it will surely be more interesting than Fidel's facial fragments.