Steaking a Claim

It's easy to criticize the service in South Beach restaurants. Too many waitstaffs are rude and clueless, too many managers uncaring, and too many restaurateurs oblivious to the way an eatery should be run. In short too few people seem dedicated to serving fine food and creating a fine-dining experience.

Such indifference was one of the reasons executive chef Frank Randazzo was reluctant to commit to the Gaucho Room, the sleek, upscale, cowboy-theme steak house with an Argentine edge that opened in late December in the spanking-new Loews hotel on Collins Avenue. "I was leery of working on South Beach," Randazzo admits. "The service is always questionable."

He needn't have worried. But he should be surprised. I certainly was -- repeatedly -- the evening I dined at the Gaucho Room with a companion. Service was exquisite. I haven't experienced this kind of gracious attention since the last time I was in Europe: formal but not stuffy, accommodating but not brown-nosing, obliging but not obsequious. Our server actually gave a little bow every time we requested something. Good-humored waiters move white-linen-draped tables across a polished wood floor, parking one next to your overstuffed, cow-pattern banquette. The table not only holds wines and food, it also functions as a sort of serving station at which waiters hand-carve the restaurant's monumental steaks. A captain oversees and even participates in tasks such as uncorking wines and tossing the Gaucho chopped salad ($12): torn green- and red-leaf lettuce garnished with sunflower seeds, sunflower sprouts, and a sweet-tart apple vinaigrette.

So Randazzo, who worked as executive chef at the Heights in Coral Gables for about eighteen months before signing on at the Gaucho Room, can breathe easy: Service is not "questionable." Still, he harbors concern about something else: that his new venture will be typecast and therefore misunderstood. "Please, please, please, don't classify this as an Argentine steak house," he pleads. "We're so much more than that. Only three out of nine choices [from the parilla, or grill] are Argentine."

I can appreciate his anxiety. Precisely because of the Argentine label I was initially less than thrilled by the prospect of dining at his place. My recent experiences at Argentine steak houses have been more gauche than gaucho. Yet I visibly relaxed when I saw Randazzo's name at the bottom of the menu. Maybe that's because he is so much more than a grill cook. A 1992 grad of the Rhode Island campus of Johnson & Wales University, he has worked as a sous chef at Arizona 206 and as a line cook at Tribeca Grill, both in New York City. At Pacific Heights, the original name of the Heights, he apprenticed under Jonathan Eismann and was promoted to executive chef when partners Eismann and Yves Picot split up their properties. (Eismann kept Pacific Time, Picot wound up with the Heights.) Once at the helm Randazzo introduced Southwestern flavors and fortified his specialties with lots of chili peppers.

A couple of his signature dishes from the Heights are now on the menu at the Gaucho Room, including a seared foie gras appetizer. The supple foie gras medallions were laid over blue-corn arepas (soft, pan-crisped pancakes), and moistened with an almost candied aji-chili syrup. I rarely clean my plate as quickly as I did with this starter. We consumed an outstanding pulled-duck empanada appetizer ($12) with almost as much gusto. A fragile pastry shell encased both plump duck meat and queso fresco, and the empanada was topped with an irresistibly vibrant smoked chili sauce.

Despite Randazzo's claims to the contrary, it's impossible to deny that a South American influence reigns at the Gaucho Room. In particular a seared turbot entree ($35) shows distinctive pan-American touches. The turbot, a European flatfish with a wide, white flake, was excellent, and it arrived with side dishes of tangy pickled beet-brown-butter escabeche (like a savory salsa) and al dente quinoa (a wild grain).

Of course the steaks are the big deal here. And I do mean big. They're served on butcher blocks, oozing juices. You can order a T-bone for two, along with other American cuts such as New York strip and filet mignon for one. But as much as Randazzo wants to downplay it, the Argentine beef, marinated in garlic, herbs, and olive oil before it is grilled, is the menu's star. And rightly so. We couldn't get over the flavorful, exceptionally tender churrasco ($25), and we equally enjoyed the heartier ojo di bife ($35), a sixteen-ounce rib eye. Without question these are the best pieces of meat I've had in this town in quite some time.

You pay for the quality: Prices are astronomical. Steaks start at $25 (churrasco) and top out at $38 (filet mignon). The foie gras appetizer was the most expensive starter at nearly twenty bucks, but none, including salads, is available for less than twelve dollars. And despite the dazzling service (or maybe because of it), I didn't understand why side dishes such as the earthy wild-mushroom tamale or the chorizo-corn stew were not included with the steaks; each will cost you six dollars or more. Desserts, such as a sticky-sweet dulce de leche banana split, will run you another nine bucks, though sugar freaks will undoubtedly find it worth the price. The smartest and most economical approach here may be to order the chef's tasting ($95 for six courses; $65 for three), which includes a cheese course. The wine menu, which features a number of South American vintages for less than $30, may actually offer the best bargains, but Randazzo notes he's in the process of revising the list.

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