Learning Curve

A typical criticism of postsecondary education is that it proves impractical in the real world: Cramming for a Rocks for Jocks final does little to prepare one for an entry-level position in today's crowded job market.

A compromise for those who seek both idealistic theory and hard-core practicality is the culinary institute, where future chefs and restaurateurs can gain the academic knowledge necessary to keep them from grinding their eateries into the ground while sharpening their skills at so-called practicum properties -- on-site facilities that serve full-course meals to an intrepid paying public. Providence, Rhode Island-based Johnson & Wales University, which opened a Dade campus in December 1992, unveiled such a restaurant, Chef & Apprentice, this past month. Though it undoubtedly will prove a boon to the students currently enrolled at the school (as well as to the guests who dine there, one can only hope), the facility made its debut too late to benefit Ralph Salvador, a member of Johnson & Wales's first graduating class of December 1994.

Unfazed, Salvador went straight from school into business: He and P.J. Flaherty, formerly a chef at Shula's Steakhouse, opened their own restaurant, the 55-seat Basilique Cafe in Miami Lakes. But while this two-month-old Italian/Mediterranean eatery already attracts a sizable clientele, a recent dinner there indicated to me that the kitchen needs just a little more seasoning.

Bypassing the omnipresent offering of beefsteak tomatoes and bufala mozzarella, we got off to a good start with the orgy of cheeses A mozzarella, provolone, gorgonzola, and Parmesan A that were melted onto a round, olive oil-rich focaccia. Strips of prosciutto complemented the mixture from the top, while a "Basilique" sauce made from diced tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, and fresh basil oozed underneath. Sturdy enough to be dinner, this appetizer vied with the hefty garlic-and-cheese bread served as a gratis starter. Both were delicious, if potent -- munch them with someone you know well.

And then split an order of pasta. Rigatoni rusticcio matched the breads for pungency, combining the tubular noodles with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, onions, portobello mushrooms, gorgonzola and mozzarella cheeses, and fennel-spiced sausage. Salvador and Flaherty attempt a Latin accent by also adding chorizo. The Latin touch works well here, but fails in other dishes, particularly the main courses.

We'll take the blame for ordering an appetizer of tostones di mare, a well-prepared but incompatible companion to focaccia and pasta. Flattened rounds of deep-fried plantains were covered with a tasty ceviche made from squid, grouper, conch, and shrimp. Chilies, lime juice, and cilantro provided the marinade, "cooking" the pearls of raw fish to tangy tenderness.

Too bad the entrees didn't live up to such early promise, causing the overall quality of the meal to plummet like a grade-point average after a lousy semester. Though we liked the sound of a special tuna entree our server described as "mango-barbecued," the actual item didn't live up to its billing. A thick meaty fillet, pink in the middle, had been grilled, then doused with a commercial-tasting barbecue sauce into which mango had been sliced. Had the sauce been a bit more cohesive and less intrusive, this would have made a quite suitable Caribbean pairing. As it was, the flavor of the tuna was almost completely obliterated by what seemed like amateur guesswork, a dish that would have been thrown out of a practicum facility by any professor worth his salt.

A potent barbecue sauce would have come in handy, however, to mask the distinct iodine flavor of the half-dozen crustaceans that adorned a plate of linguine in a preparation called Gulf shrimp Provenaale. Sadly, the less-than-fresh shrimp beat the other strong flavors -- whole kalamata olives, plum tomatoes, sliced garlic, and artichoke hearts -- to the taste buds; mushy, overcooked pasta didn't help. We were likewise unsuccessfully challenged to find something truly positive about chicken Octavio, a dish that bears Salvador's middle name. He might want to rethink this particular honor. A boneless chicken breast was wrapped around a filling of spinach, portobello mushrooms, and ricotta cheese, then brushed with a glaze of port, raspberry, and rosemary. The result was fragrant but too-sweet competition for the stuffing.

Falda del diablo was far more diner-friendly. Flank steak was first marinated in port, onions, balsamic vinegar, peppercorns, thyme, and rosemary, then pounded and sliced widthwise like a baguette. Prosciutto, provolone, and serrano chilies (hence the devilish name) were layered inside the spiced beef, which was then grilled and served with a hefty dollop of pico de gallo for added flair. The sole flaw here was the twin tenderizing of marination and pounding. Flank steak, which has a reputation for being tough but flavorful, should retain just a touch of resistance; the double treatment had broken down too many of the fibers. But while I wouldn't sell my soul to order this dish again, I'd certainly fork over the $10.95 menu price for such a generous, highly seasoned dish.

Any disappointment caused by the entrees was nearly nullified by dessert. The kitchen had run out of one intriguing item, a mocha java cake, but my chocolate addiction was aptly fixed by a dense chocolate raspberry creation over which we shamelessly dueled spoons. Basilique prepares all its own breads and pastries on the premises, a tribute to the talent that sometimes surfaces in the kitchen.

Stylistically, the cafe in no way resembles a first-time effort. Salvador and Flaherty, who designed the space from scratch, crisscrossed the ceiling and walls with attractive cedar beams, around which dried plants and flowers cling everywhere. Handsome, comfortable rattan chairs were handmade in Venezuela. The effect is cozy, country charm, all the more warming and surprising considering that no light escapes the Venetian-blinded window into the parking lot.

In other areas, Basilique evidences some kinks that need to be exercised out. The hostess tried to seat us before our table was ready. The server was sweet but not exactly suave, returning to ask us again which wine we had ordered (a Cune rioja chosen from a small list of decent California and Spanish vintages). And a busboy attempting to replace silverware between courses was completely in over his head; frustrated, he wound up proffering his tray for us to choose the appropriate utensils as if we were selecting chocolates from a box.

Still, Salvador and Flaherty's initiative is commendable, as are their accomplishments. And once they've flexed their staff into shape, they might consider bringing one element of the classroom right into their restaurant: a blackboard to replace the printed menu, so that mistakes can be erased and corrections made. That would be practical.

Side Dish
I might not be willing to allow an apprentice electrician to rewire my fuse box, or a mechanic-in-training to tune up my car, but I'll let just about anyone practice their cooking on me. That includes the students at Johnson & Wales University's new classroom restaurant Chef & Apprentice, located at 1701 NE 127th St. in North Miami. Every other week the facility rotates a menu featuring New World cuisine. Entrees average $11 to $13 (served with soup or salad). The restaurant is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., and for Sunday brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Reservations are required; the phone number is 892-7001. Just remember, popular Floribbean flavors notwithstanding, the overall dining experience still can be somewhat potluck. Be patient.

If you demand that your training-meals dollar buy more of a sure thing and you're up for a drive, Cafe Protege at the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach might be the ticket. Chef-instructors offer "dinner labs," in which patrons can sample the results of a five-course demonstration while seated at stainless-steel worktables. The price for the dinner lab is $35 per person excluding tax, tip, and drinks. The address is 1126 53rd Ct. (at Australian Avenue); call 407-687-2433 for reservations.

And beginning in early April, the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale's department of culinary arts will serve lunch and dinner at its own practicum establishment, a former Olive Garden restaurant. For information call 463-3000 and ask for the department of culinary arts.

Suggestions? Write me at New Times, P.O. Box 011591, Miami,

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