Sobe It

Next door to the refurbished Century Hotel on the 100 block of Ocean Drive, the Century is giving folks a reason to stray from South Beach's beaten path. With a sleek look and menu, the restaurant is a welcome - and increasingly popular - addition to the SoBe scene. The emphasis here is not on seeing and being seen, but on the food and service - perhaps because the avid oglers and cruising caravans that populate the preening promenade have not yet ventured this far down the boulevard. But then again, why ask why? Whatever the reason, my dining companion and I found the Century to be one of the most pleasing restaurants around.

Though not a SoBe stomping ground, the place is stylish. A dozen or so tables cram a sandstone deck-like area out front, and there are a few more inside and in a narrow courtyard that separates the hotel from the restaurant. Whether you opt to dine inside or out, an airy, spacious feel is imparted by the giant, unadorned glass doors, stark white walls, and a textured limestonelike material that comprises the flooring, bar, and tabletops. Exotic flowers in bottle-green vases on each table, canoe-shape light fixtures - vaguely pre-Columbian in design, like the restaurant's lizardlike logo - and a smattering of classical statuary soften up the sharp edges and save Century from malignment as a miniature of the Coral Castle.

This minimalist flair extends to the menu, where you'll find a soup-of-the-day and a narrow variety of appetizers, salads, and pastas, plus a half-dozen entrees and an equal amount of desserts. Oddly, there's a quite extensive selection of beverages, both alcoholic and non, among which are French, Italian, and Californian dinner wines, aperitifs, champagne and sparkling wine, ports, dessert wines, imported beers, bottled waters, fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices, an iced-tea-of-the-day, espresso, cappuccino, and wonderfully rich coffee made and served in plunger carafes.

Over nibbles from a generous bowl of green olives and bites of soft, chubby bread sticks smothered in paprika-and-cilantro-flavored butter, we debated the merits of the starters. Grilled marinated vegetables ($6) failed to pique our interest, but we were undecided among the remaining choices: grilled cilantro shrimp with creole remoulade ($8), grilled wild mushrooms with parmesan polenta ($6), and cold sesame soba noodles with Oriental vegetables ($6). We finally settled - wisely, as it turned out - on this last.

Beautifully presented, the soba noodles were lightly dressed in a refreshing marinade with just a hint of lime, and nestled in purple cabbage garnished in turn with bibb lettuce leaves. Julienned carrots, chayote, and bright green asparagus lent color and crunch, and even my dining companion - who has yet to move beyond the vegetable-hating stage of infancy, culinarily speaking - had no regrets, although he did gaze longingly at a big glass bowl of the grilled cilantro shrimp as it was whisked to a neighboring table.

House salads accompany main dishes, so we didn't sample the caesar, the tomato, arugula, and ricotta, or the bibb with wild mushrooms and leek. Admittedly, we paused for a while to peruse the pasta portion of the menu, where entries range in price between $8 for fusilli with grilled wild mushrooms and plum tomatoes and $12 for linguine served with fresh fish-of-the-day. A temptation to be sure, but since entrees come with sides as well as salads, we moved on to the main event.

Though not exactly a health food restaurant, Century offers no red meat, and on the evening of our visit, the only flesh foods available were two chicken preparations and a special turkey entree, which my dining companion ordered. Mainstays include grilled swordfish ($19), sesame ginger tuna ($17), and grilled Cajun mahi mahi ($15) - not uncommon fare in these parts, but the proper method can set even these subtropic staples apart from renditions found in numerous other establishments both on the Beach and the mainland.

The mahi mahi, for example, was expertly grilled, remaining sweet and moist within, and was enhanced - not masked - by the peppery smokiness of Cajun seasonings. Alongside it were a huge scoop of moist, slightly crunchy wild rice, and an equal amount of black beans rife with cilantro, cumin, and other complementary seasonings. These sensationally rendered legumes are reason enough to make a return trip to this restaurant. Providing a cool, crisp contrast in texture and flavor to the warm, spicy beans and rice was a fresh house salad of mixed greens, thin rounds of purple onion and cucumber, and a ripe tomato half, all doused with a tasty sugar-tinged vinaigrette. My only complaint is that it was a bit on the skimpy side.

Suprisingly pleased with his turkey, my dining companion never once uttered his second-favorite four-letter words: beef, lamb, and duck. Hearty chunks of turkey in a not-too-cloying Marsala sauce disappeared from his plate in record time, as did a dollop of whipped potatoes, which tasted ever-so-subtly of garlic, as though a single fresh clove had been waved over them during their preparation. Like the beans, the potatoes were complex and heavenly. Any attempt to enhance their flavor through the use of salt, pepper, butter, or gravy would have been a waste.

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