Taster's Choice

Imagine not appreciating food.
Imagine not savoring the creamy delicacy of a room-temperature Brie. Not admiring the ruby redness of a perfectly ripe springtime strawberry. Not delighting in the aroma of a roasting turkey, or salivating over a crisp spear of asparagus smothered in silky Hollandaise sauce, or treasuring the texture of a cocoa-rich chocolate truffle. Imagine eating only because the human body requires fuel or it'll die.

I'm always astounded by people who are immune to life's culinary pleasures, who are unimpassioned about the palate. I feel sorry for them. On those rare occasions when I mistake them for food lovers and eat with them, I make sure never to do it again.

But now there's hope: Gourmand Syndrome.
Recently diagnosed by Swiss neurologists (really!), Gourmand Syndrome exhibits itself as a newfound ardor for fine food and drink. The condition often arises after a trauma (stroke, tumor, hemorrhage, or injury) occurs in the right front quadrant of the brain and is distinguished from other eating disorders like bulimia or pica (an insistent craving for one particular food or for nonfood items, such as dirt or paint) by the absence of binging. The afflicted -- if they can be called such -- aren't gluttons; they simply suddenly begin insisting upon quality fare, whereas prior to their injury they showed a distinct lack of concern for what they ate.

I have yet to meet anyone with Gourmand Syndrome. There's a suspicion that certain people who do appreciate fine cuisine -- restaurant critics, for example -- may have experienced brain damage early in life that went undiagnosed, but my mother insists she never once dropped me on my head. So I'm still searching for an explanation for the version of the malady I'm convinced I do have: Oggitis.

I came down with Oggitis more than four years ago, when I reviewed the 79th Street Causeway restaurant Oggi Caffe. Having become addicted to the exquisite hand-cut pasta owner Eloy Roy churned out in his casual little joint, I pretty much stalked the proprietor as he made improvements to his digs and sought to expand into Miami Beach. After several false starts (a share in a restaurant on 41st Street that went sour and a brief run in a condo building on the Venetian Causeway), he and partners Alex Portela and Eduardo Gaguine saddled me with a twist on my affliction in 1995 when they opened Caffe Da Vinci on Kane Concourse in Bay Harbor Islands. A couple of months ago they finally made a proper go at Miami Beach itself. And with their newest venture, Sambuca, I'm stricken once again.

Located on the unfashionable western end of fashionable Lincoln Road -- i.e., on the other side of Alton Road -- Sambuca succeeds where Cafe Soleil, the site's previous tenant, failed. Renovations helped: One homemade sponge-painted dining room became two chandeliered, carpeted chambers separated by a wall complete with archways, dark wood accents, and elaborately framed mirrors. The overall picture is one of busy elegance, complemented by service solicitous enough to make you forget you're on South Beach.

Signature notes from Oggi and Da Vinci -- romaine salad with tangy shredded onions and sliced tomatoes in a superb champagne vinaigrette, freshly baked rolls -- also appeared here, to our great delight. And as at those two older siblings, the management served forth a delicious gratis bruschetta, crisp bread rounds topped with garlicky tomatoes and shreds of basil. Insalata Sambuca was another excellent starter, a whirl of baby greens topped with hearts of palm matchsticks, chewy sun-dried tomatoes, and triangles of shaved Parmesan cheese, united by a citrus-clean dressing of olive oil and lemon.

A fabulous polenta ai funghi di bosco was a more substantial appetizer; it also comprised half of the regular menu's hot-appetizer choices. (The other option was a dish of mussels steamed in wine and garlic.) A square of the cornmeal concoction was garnished with earthy sauteed mushrooms and nutty toasted garlic -- a good choice for the polenta lover.

If mussels and polenta aren't favorites of yours, listen closely to the list of specials, because a squid appetizer is often offered. We enjoyed the baby calamari, which had been sauteed in a smoky balsamic vinegar sauce, even though it was slightly chewy. Garlic and sun-dried tomatoes were by now a seemingly obligatory inclusion.

Pastas made a perfect first plate, particularly the stuffed varieties. Sambuca uses more main ingredient than filler in the filling: Porcini ravioli, for example, were bursting with ground mushrooms and just lightly touched with Parmesan cheese, a good match for their fresh tomato-basil cover. Veal tortelloni Madonna were even better, featuring al dente spinach noodles blossoming with savory meat (just slightly too salty) in a smooth tomato-cream sauce.

Fans of longer noodles should twirl spaghetti integrale primavera around their dinner forks. Whole wheat spaghetti was blanketed with grilled squash, zucchini, and broccoli, and doused in a fragrant olive oil-garlic sauce. One quibble I've had with the kitchens at Oggi and Da Vinci is the extreme degree to which they tend to brown the sliced garlic; here, this problem seems to have been overcome. Fettuccine Alessandra was yet another pleasure, a rich, delightfully unfinishable dish. Homemade egg fettuccine was tossed with sauteed onions, bits of crisp pancetta, cream, and Parmesan cheese.

Victims of Oggitis might have a hard time getting past the pastas, but entrees are worth the investment. Pollo Donatello, pounded twin chicken breasts dredged in flour and sauteed, were juicy and tender, coated with a wonderful sauce of Marsala wine and sliced portobello mushrooms; grilled baby squash and fragrant roasted rosemary potatoes did the side dish honors. Veal Parmesan was a large, flat portion, breaded and fried like Wiener schnitzel, but greaseless -- among the best I've had. Matched with a gently acidic crushed-tomato sauce and melted mozzarella, the veal was accompanied by a side of linguine marinara.

For a heartier veal dish, check out the chop. We skipped the menu-billed veal chop and portobello mushroom recipe in favor of a special stewed version lidded with melted Gorgonzola cheese, a lovely feature. A brown jus moistened the bed of sauteed spinach upon which the chop lay.

Fresh raw spinach was a beautiful mattress for another special, dolphin sauteed with a champagne-orange sauce. The light, buttery sauce was terrific, softening the spinach underneath and highlighted by sections of oranges. The fish itself was delightful, a fillet so appealingly tasty and juicy that we felt compelled to finish it even though our appetites were by then quite sated.

We felt the same way about dessert. A meal at Sambuca could end with a shot of that licorice-flavored liqueur and a satisfied, discreet belch -- were it not for the mousse Concorde: two crumbly meringues, dripping bittersweet chocolate syrup, that sandwiched a dense chocolate mousse. Okay, now belch.

Brain damage, for the most part, is irreversible. But no one seems to mind being afflicted with Gourmand Syndrome, as long as they have the ways and means to treat the disease. I, certainly, have no desire to recover from my trio of maladies.

Caffe Sambuca
1233 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 532-2800. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m.

Insalata Sambuca
$6.50
Fettuccine Alessandra
$9.95
Pollo Donatello
$13.95
Veal chop
$23.95

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