Sirloin Spoken Here

It's that time again.
Every year some local incident reignites the Great Language Debate.
Who should speak English and risk miscommunicating? Who should speak Spanish and risk offending others? Clearly the issue will never be resolved. But it's too juicy a piece of meat to leave uncut, so year after year the media make sure we get a blow-by-blow of the warfare the dilemma inspires.

As long as we're all in an arguing mood, let me posit a debate: Latin steak houses vs. American steak houses. Are Latins betraying their roots when they cross over and patronize American steak houses? Are Americans who frequent Latin steak houses more tolerant than their compatriots, or do they just like a good steak?

I took my divided loyalties to La Rosada, a six-month-old Argentine steak house located in the Mare Grande Hotel on Ocean Drive.

A raised porch set away from the sidewalk offers outdoor seating, but inside is where the fire is. Literally: Toward the back of the 180-seat restaurant, a glassed-in parrilla houses quebracho blanco, natural white wood coals that glow with lavalike intensity. Although cool blue halogen overhead makes diners look slightly hypothermic, the grill has the tendency to warm the place up. Consider sitting near the open veranda doors.

The restaurant, which is named for the historic Argentine landmark and presidential residence La Casa Rosada (also used as a backdrop for scenes in Evita), suffers from more than climate problems. We were halfway done with our appetizers when the waiter informed one of our party that the baby back ribs he'd ordered were unavailable. Taking it in stride, my guest asked for the lamb chops instead. He only began to get a little peeved when the server returned after the appetizers had been cleared with the news that there were no more lamb chops. As he pondered a third choice, we realized our main course would almost certainly be delayed.

It was. Fortunately, those starters had been hearty. The two best were a plump, golden-brown empanada filled with savory ground beef and chopped egg white ($3.00), and an order of mollejas (veal sweetbreads). The latter delicacy was billed on the menu as grilled but arrived looking more deep-fried, a crunchy, buttery, and altogether rich treat.

Chorizo, seasoned pork sausages, were also tasty, bursting out of their crisped (if a bit greasy) skins. But morcilla, which was euphemistically dubbed "specialty sausage" on the menu (it's flavored with blood), was underdone; the warm, mushy interior had a dark scarlet hue and a metallic aftertaste. An oily chimichurri, dark with aging, clumpy parsley, didn't help matters.

Entrees are typically Argentine -- i.e., a lot of grilled beef. We thoroughly enjoyed the quality of a delectably tender filet mignon, perfectly medium rare and glistening with juice ($25.50). It didn't, however, need the mushroom sauce that blanketed it, a strange, grayish concoction apparently assembled from a reduction of red wine and sauteed mushrooms. A casserole side dish of oven-roasted potatoes au gratin, which accompanied meats listed under the "specialties" section (French fries or a baked potato partnered other main courses), was good if a little bland, overwhelmed by cream. A dose of salt and pepper improved things significantly.

I appreciate Latin American steak houses because the cuts of meat are slightly different from American versions and are often richer in flavor and texture. This predisposition might account for my double disappointment in a 23-ounce bife de chorizo. Translated as "New York steak," which Americans might interpret as the well-known strip steak, this was a much thicker cut than we're used to seeing, and from the underside of the rib rather than from the loin. And it was impossible to chew, a complete failure despite its char-grilled crust. A three-peppercorn (black, pink, and white) sauce made with equal parts brandy and demi-glace was zippy but heavy.

On the other hand, the substitute for the lamb chops, a pounded, breaded tenderloin topped with slices of ham, tomato sauce, and provolone cheese, proved first-rate. The enormous steak was succulent inside the crumb coating, while the ham added just the right touch of salt, offset by the tangy marinara. A generous sprinkle of oregano was a reminder that Argentina is almost as well-known for its Italian dishes as Italy.

Oddly enough, the eighty-sixed lamb chops also showed up at the table, confusing everybody including the server, who couldn't decide what to do with them. He finally left the plate in the center of the table with a mumbled suggestion that we "pick at them." We did just that, cutting the musky but unsuitably well-done meat away from the bones. These chops were from a mature lamb, so they weren't as delicately fleshed as we would have liked, but the herb crust and whole-grain mustard sauce complemented the gaminess.

Though vegetarians are out of luck here, there are two seafood dishes. In the interest of clean flavors, we chose baked red snapper over salmon in cream sauce ($15.00), but the snapper turned out to be just as rich. An exceptionally meaty fillet, more reminiscent of grouper than snapper, was covered with sauteed red and yellow bell peppers. The dish would have been aromatic and delicious, steaming from the wood-burning oven, had not an overzealous hand dressed the fish with a thick coating of olive oil, utterly masking its character.

At La Rosada vegetables must be ordered as side dishes. Whole mushrooms baked in the wood oven were spiked with garlic, olive oil, and parsley, but were greasy and flavorless. Creamed spinach, a nod to the American steak-house palate, was a gloppy whole-leaf version, dosed mightily with Parmesan cheese. A better bet might be the $5.50 a la carte salad bar, which, while laughably spare, featured fresh frisee and watercress.

Desserts include another Italian touch: a variety of homemade gelati. We refreshed ourselves with a wonderful mango sorbet, then moved on to an alfajor, a lacy pastry filled with chocolate, covered with powdered sugar, and garnished with luscious caramel ($6.50).

And as for the Great Steak-House Debate, a Brazilian steak house with a misappropriated Argentine name -- Evita! Grill -- has opened just a block away from La Rosada. Forget Spanish. Perhaps it's time for us all to not learn Portuguese.

La Rosada
524 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 674-0411. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 6:30 to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight.

Red snapper
Filet mignon with mushroom sauce


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