Bartolome Grill & Restaurant's 54-seat dining room is handsomely attired in black (tables, chairs, linens, pillars, bar, lofty industrial ceiling, waiters' outfits) and vivid red (seat cushions, bar backlighting, waiters' ties). Two walls are predominantly glass, which lightens and expands the space considerably; the rest are painted a grayish white, a few shades paler than the poured concrete floor. LCD screens on either end of the bar are silently tuned to oldies such as Betty Boop or Laurel and Hardy, while an eclectic mix of piped-in music spans decades and nations. Décor and ambiance here are meant to please, not astonish.
The same is true of the food, an uncomplicated pastiche of pastas, parillada items, and familiar Italian and Argentine dishes — with a couple of other global influences shipped in from left field. Our three starters arrived on long, narrow rectangular white plates, each brightened with sprightly field greens and ripe grape tomatoes lightly misted with lemon and olive oil. Best of the trio were crisp, cylindrical croquettes with mild Gorgonzola centers — the potent cheese mellowed with cream and vibrantly contrasted by a dip into sweet fig marmalade. A mixed grill for two received mixed reviews: Fennel-and-herb-flecked pork sausage and thin slices of savory sweetbreads proved more popular than run-of-the-mill blood sausage and knobs of dry kidney. A cupcake-size dome of tortilla española came properly plied with soft potatoes, but a molten-hot interior suggested an unfortunate stint in the microwave. Slices of tenderly fat-streaked Serrano ham generously accompanied the omelet along with the aforementioned salad — as comforting a trio as soup, sandwich, and afternoon nap.
Although the tortilla española is portioned enough for two to share as an appetizer, it would also succeed on its own as lunch or a light dinner — especially with a predinner basket of warm French rolls and Ak-Mak crackers, and a bottle of wine from a decent Italian/Argentine/Chilean sampling ($30 to $100). Imported and domestic beers are also on hand, but no liquor.
Greens are so prevalent here that ordering a menu salad is a bit redundant. Nevertheless we enjoyed a Bartolome medley of crabmeat, hearts of palm, kalamata olives, grape tomatoes, potatoes, and greens sheened in Peruvian golf sauce (mayo, ketchup, and a splash of Worcestershire).
Bartolome can be hit-or-miss regarding food quality and price. The big hit in both categories are the grilled meats, ranging in cut from skirt to New York strip to filet mignon to a pair of thick, succulent double lamb chops, and in price from $18 to $24 (the chops). We particularly enjoyed a plush Reubensian plank of "flat meat," even if our waiter couldn't explain what it was when we ordered it. A manager visited shortly afterward with a description and the helpful info that Argentines call the steak vacio — at which point we knew what to expect. This cut is part flank, part hangar, and lots of fat tissue, which contributes to a crunchy exterior and chewy, juicy flesh. Bartolome's flat meat was just that, as well as imbued with deep beefy flavor.
Grilled entrées come with choice of one side dish. On the plus side of the ledger were thin, crunchy French fries and loosely puréed sweet potatoes with a hint of honey and a surprisingly effective spike of coconut milk. On the negative side: Creamed spinach gratin comprised what seemed to be a frozen version of the vegetable; notable notes of nutmeg were not enough to offset the chintzy dose of cream and barely heated interior.
Grilled seafood offerings are salmon, mahi-mahi, and fish of the day, the last being "sesame-seared" yellowfin tuna. On a different visit from the flat meat dinner, another waiter couldn't properly describe the dish. Confusion this time arose from whether the tuna was seared, grilled, or, as it turned out, seared on the grill. Part of the problem no doubt stemmed from translation, since Spanish is the staff's first language; the crew is otherwise friendly and accommodating. Part of the problem with the hefty rectangles of bright pink tuna was mealy, defrosted-fish texture. Bland taste was another.
Lobster and seafood "cassolette" boosted our spirits. The big bowl of bouillabaisselike broth teemed with shrimp, squid, mussels, clams, unfortunately shriveled lobster tail meat, and a lusciously moist fillet of poached mahi-mahi. Homemade gnocchi fell somewhere between the highs and lows. The small potato dumplings were soft and smooth, but too gummy (maybe undercooked a tad); the creamy tomato sauce on top was tastily enhanced by Parmesan cheese and a pinch of pesto. At $16 to $26, Bartolome's humble pastas seem high-priced — especially for a casual neighborhood place.
Less than inspiring desserts include a crunchy caramelized apple pancake — thin but not a crêpe — that came plated with enough vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate syrup that one barely noticed the utter lack of fruit. In the case of a Prosecco/lemon sorbet, the fruit wasn't quite as advertised — lime, not lemon, dyed a pistachio-green color, and floating atop a pool of cheap-tasting champagne (which I had misunderstood to be a second sorbet flavor). We were more astonished than pleased with this particular proffering, but all in all, Bartolome is an affable addition to Purdy Avenue — which with Sardinia, Joe Allen, and Ouzo's, is developing into one of South Beach's most gustatorily alluring streets.
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