Good As Gold

Amber has a brick oven, put to excellent use for the preparation of pizzas. Some examples: fresh tomato and basil, and roasted pepper and Italian sausage, both made with the traditional mozzarella topping; prosciutto and portobello mushroom, smeared with Boursin cheese; and grilled eggplant and olive tapenade, made with no dairy at all. We ordered the barbecued duck and scallion pie, another cheeseless choice. The meaty chunks of duck were a pleasure, accented with snipped scallions, sesame seeds, and a visible touch of roasted garlic, with a gingery plum sauce underlying all the ingredients. Plum tomatoes with Parmesan sprinkled over the top added an odd but successful Italian tinge to the Asian palette.

As with the pizzas, pasta dishes fuse influences. For a plate of tortelloni, mellow ground veal was stuffed inside wide, lazily joined sheets of pasta -- more like ravioli -- abetted by sauteed oyster and shiitake mushrooms and chunks of artichoke hearts in a barely creamy brown sauce that looked and tasted like a demiglace. Fried chips of parsnips garnished the top, sugaring the tortelloni as they melted into the sauce. An outstanding pasta.

I have little doubt that sea bass encrusted with pepitas (pumpkin seeds) would have been a winner. Red snapper, the substitution mentioned above, was probably a little less flavorful than the sea bass, but there was no real cause for complaint about this dish, which was delicately handled, laid gently over a bed of cavatelli drenched in a buttery sauce. The range of mild ingredients all complemented one another here, with red bell peppers contributing real appeal.

The evening's only true letdown was a foray into genuine bistro fare -- grilled skirt steak. Though thick, juicy, and generous, the beef was tough and chewy; ordered medium rare, the steak had crossed the line from char-grilled to just plain charred on the outside, and a coalish flavor reminiscent of a dirty grill overwhelmed a horseradish bordelaise that tasted more of red wine than horseradish. Fortunately a huge tangle of skin-on, shoestring pommes frites was an ideal side dish. Crystalline with salt and grease-free, these fries were exceptional. The skirt steak has since been replaced on the menu by a New York strip; perhaps that cut will fare better.

Despite overordering, we pushed on to dessert. That persistence was rewarded with a double slab of chocolate mousse cake, a flourless molded mousse (nothing cakey about it, except maybe its shape) dusted with cocoa, napped by a tart raspberry sauce, and garnished with fresh raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries.

Even as I extend my sympathy to my colleague, who felt compelled to return twice to her bistro in order to confirm her initial opinion (as I too often have had to do myself), I rejoice in my own good fortune. I don't have to go back to Amber. I will, though -- because I want to.

Amber is a beautifully conceived surprise, especially given that seen from outside it looks like a pool hall.

Amber Restaurant
16145 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami Beach; 949-4964. Dinner Monday -- Thursday from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to midnight; and Sunday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.

Prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella
Barbecued duck pizza
Veal-stuffed tortelloni
Chocolate mousse cake

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