Coming Up Roses

Newly licensed drivers are accidents waiting to happen. At least that's how insurance companies think of them. In theory, the fewer miles a driver has logged, the more likely he or she is to err on the road and damage persons or property. So companies are probably justified in charging inexperienced motorists high rates. And in their defense, insurance agencies make the occasional concession. For instance, if you've taken a driver's education course, sometimes you can get a discount. Or if you remain accident-free for a specified number of years, your rates may go down. Meanwhile, novice drivers and those who come in contact with them are, if not safe, at least protected.

Insurance companies should offer a similar policy to first-time restaurateurs, who in turn should be required by law to purchase it. Just as any coordinated idiot can be awarded a license (and in Miami many residents seem to have skipped the "licensing" part), any amateur with enough money can open a restaurant. Such insurance would require restaurateurs to pay for that privilege, with premiums decreasing as they prove their culinary worth. That way the neophyte proprietor is cushioned against the possibility of failure.

Andres Magaldi might have appreciated that kind of policy when he opened his first restaurant, the 240-seat Black Rose in Buenos Aires, seven years ago. At age twenty Magaldi had no culinary experience, nor did his partner, the then-36-year-old Alberto Lopez-Segura. "It was risky," Magaldi admits. "But we learned from our mistakes."

Apparently those fender-benders are well in the past. Not only did the Buenos Aires Black Rose gross seven million dollars last year (according to Magaldi), but the second Black Rose -- 180 seats, indoor and outdoor combined -- located on the ground floor of Bal Harbour Shops, already seems to be popular with local diners after only three months in operation. The upscale restaurant, with its dramatic vaulted ceilings and vibrant still lifes on the walls, is, as one of my guests mentioned after our recent meal there, "everything a restaurant in Bal Harbour should be."

Magaldi, who vacationed in Bal Harbour frequently before deciding to open a restaurant there, chose the area for its well-to-do residents, whom he compares to the wealthy Argentines who frequent the Black Rose in Buenos Aires. His new restaurant certainly has tony neighbors, including Gucci, Chanel, and Nieman-Marcus. But while Magaldi places himself among the best, he's humble enough to credit his executive chef Takehiro Ohno for the restaurant's success.

The Japanese chef was formerly top toque at Zuberoa, a Michelin three-star restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. Magaldi and Lopez-Segura lured him away in 1994. Ohno's Spanish experience serves him well in the Latin market; his menu is upscale Argentine, influenced by neighboring South American countries and Italy. (The only discernible Asian influences are the beautifully designed plates and the eatery's trend toward low-fat cuisine.)

We encountered only a couple of obstacles during a recent dinner, and these were more like speed bumps than roadblocks. A sirloin steak, listed on the menu as "grilled to perfection," was bloody rather than the medium we'd requested; we returned it for more fire. It didn't matter. The beef, imported from Cabana Las Lilas, an Argentine steak house, was flavorful but fibrous as old socks. The baked potato served alongside the steak was dry, and the accompanying creamed spinach was dark with age and disintegrating. (By contrast, an "empanada of knife-carved sirloin," which we'd enjoyed at the start of the meal, featured supple hunks of beef in a flaky crust.) Because South America is known for its meat, I'd be willing to give another cut -- the pounded tenderloin or, say, the filet mignon -- a try on a future occasion.

Lamb chops au jus, on the other hand, were overcooked -- at least in our waiter's estimation. He refused to serve them to us, asking the kitchen to prepare a second order. I appreciated the gesture, even if it meant waiting a bit longer. The five tender chops were worth the wait; their terrific quality set the tone for the rest of the main courses. Gristle-free lamb was surrounded by a salad of fresh field greens dressed with a balanced vinaigrette, less oily than most. A dollop of mild pureed pumpkin and another of tangy pureed apple provided great textural notes.

Ohno performed brilliantly with an entree of chicken with avocado sauce. Three boneless and skinless breast halves were dusted with paprika, sauteed, and laid on a cool and creamy avocado sauce. Eggplant marinated in garlic, a room-temperature side dish, was a nice contrast in temperature to the juicy poultry and its sublime, slightly earthy avocado sauce. Fattening avocado sauce is unusual for Ohno, who holds a degree in chemistry applied to nutrition; he uses his knowledge to create meals with as few fats and sugars as possible. This sensibility was apparent in the fruit-flavored pork tenderloin. Ten trim medallions surrounded a salsa of chopped sauteed fruit that included kiwi and apple. A concentrated blueberry sauce, sweet but not overpoweringly so, napped the pork.

Black Rose also offers a main course of low-fat swordfish in endive sauce. Delicate rather than hearty, the fish was saturated with a light broth and blanketed with quartered sea scallops, hunks of red-skin potatoes, and diced endive. Salmon fingers, a cold appetizer, also incorporated healthy greens in the recipe. Minced lettuces and aromatic basil were molded with chopped marinated salmon (more the shape of fingernails than fingers), white onion, and capers in a terrine. A lemony vinaigrette perfumed the mixture, the sharp tones of which were mellowed a bit by olive oil.

Of course, no chef can extract fat from ingredients such as the mozzarella di bufala that filled the handmade raviolini. Nor should he try -- this main course was delightful, proving why Argentines make such good Italians. The velvety cheese leaked from a dozen half-moons of springy pasta, blending with the topping of fresh tomato sauce laced with shredded basil.

An appetizer of breaded Camembert was equally indulgent when it came to fat content. French poet Leon-Paul Fargue once described this much-loved cheese as "the feet of the Lord." Had he tried this dish, he might have upgraded Camembert to the hands of the Almighty. Four chunks of the rich, ripe cheese had been rolled in breadcrumbs and flash-fried. Pan-fried tomatoes, heightened by a slightly sweet tomato puree, garnished the squares.

A key lime cake could have used more fat and less gelatin; the wedge jiggled a little too much for my tastes. I was initially appalled at the price tag attached to an order of rice pudding: $9.50. I soon changed my mind. This sweet was more like a plate of desserts. The excellent rice pudding spilled from shortbread cookie layers that had been blasted with confectioners' sugar. A scoop of cinnamon ice cream and rectangles of chocolate marquise -- like flourless chocolate cake -- partnered the pudding.

Our server also brought two complimentary bowls of sorbets and ice creams, his way of apologizing for the uneven grilling of our meats. The staff in general is exceptionally well trained, refilling iced teas, for instance, with both ice and tea, and replacing silverware as needed. This attention to detail makes a meal at the Black Rose that much more rewarding, and is evidence of Magaldi's managerial abilities. He may be a mere 27 years old, but when you have his track record, you sure don't need insurance.

The Black Rose
9700 Collins Ave (in Bal Harbour Shops), Bal Harbour; 868-5902. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

Sirloin empanada
$3.50

Breaded Camembert
$7.50

Chicken with avocado sauce
$14.95

Swordfish with endive sauce
$18.50

Lamb chops au jus
$23.95

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