Argentine Glory

It may not be the World Cup, but Novecento boasts a Beach winner

Argentina and asado (beef barbecue): synonymous?

Not only in Miami but also everywhere in Argentina — with the exception of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires — it seems that nation's cuisine consists of grilled beef, more grilled beef, the occasional pizza (often grilled, on the same parrilla as the beef), and then back to the grilled beef.

But not at Novecento. When the warm little SoBe bistro (one of a small but expanding chain that originated in Manhattan) opened in 2002, the idea was to represent a range of the contemporary Argentine cuisine that has slowly been developing in the South American country's capital city since the early Nineties. That means the menu goes beyond beef to casual but rather elegant dishes with international influences — major ones from elsewhere in Latin America plus Italy and the U.S., and less prominent but intriguing accents from Japan, Thailand, and France.

More seafood is offered here than at the average Argentine steak house, most notably a delicately battered fried calamari that rates among the town's best. True, there are no tentacles, just rings, but there is also no overly heavy marinara; the dish's dip is a tingly sweet-sour chili salsa. Equally effective with regard to creative simplicity is a grouper ceviche. Lime-marinated modern-style — meaning with subtlety rather than supersoaking — bits of jalepeño lend heat to the dish, while watermelon adds refreshing sweetness to the thin slices of fresh fish.

Originality and refinement are also apparent in Novecento's relatively large list of salads. An ensalada de palmitos featured fresh, not canned, corn kernels and hearts of palm. These ingredients' respective natural sweetness and crispness made all the difference in quality, as did the light tomato dressing — as opposed to the "golf sauce," Worcestershire-spiked Russian dressing, that normally glops up Argentine salads.

For diners craving carbs, all pastas were properly al dente. Not all were equally tasty, though; a sparely tomato-sauced spaghetti, albeit fresh, lacked zest. But agnolotti de cangrejo, ravioli squares stuffed with crab and bathed in rich saffron sauce, were sinfully good.

Naturally, beef is served, but not just in big chunks. Especially appealing was the signature ensalada Novecento, flavorful skirt steak (cooked almost as rare as ordered) on mixed greens dressed with a rich mustard vinaigrette. Excellent fries came on the side. Flaky-crusted empanadas stuffed with hand-carved beef chunks were also good, despite a bland pot-roastlike gravy; spinach-and-cheese empanadas were superior.

Not recommended beef options include a lomito sandwich, whose tenderloin was overcooked and unnecessarily pounded to the consistency of a cheap cube steak, and what Novecento calls a milanga — a breaded milanesa that was juicy on one occasion, dust-dry on another. Consistency, of cooking and sometimes in service, is this restaurant's main problem.

Well, except during the World Cup. Then the main problem is noise, from the hordes of alarmingly enthusiastic soccer fans gathered around the eatery's large-screen TV set. But no worries. There are a few outdoor tables, where fans of food can direct their enthusiasm to dishes that are almost always winners.

 
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