The 900 Club
In 1991 Hectór Rolotti opened a modest little café in New York City called Novecento Soho. A few years later he instituted a more extensive bistro menu there, and since that time has added four more Novecentos in Argentina and Uruguay. Two months ago the sixth branch premiered on Alton Road in South Beach -- not exactly a Soho-ish street. In fact I don't believe the traffic-jammed, strip-malled Alton has ever housed a really successful nonchain restaurant, but crowds have been pouring into Novecento as consistently as Argentine pesos into Miami.
Refurbished furnishings from old Argentine restaurants conspire with ceiling fans, antique glass sconces, wooden blinds, and rustic wood flooring to lend an almost turn-of-the-century café ambiance to the 49-seat dining room. Novecento's simple, handsome coziness is not unlike that of Joe Allen's -- nor, for that matter, is its solid comfort food, good value, animated social scene, and desire to cater to the local clientele. Might just be that the best way to describe Novecento is as a Latin version of that favorite neighborhood restaurant.
The kitchen is headed by former Novecento Soho chef Gabriel Medici, whose influences come mostly from his native Argentina, especially the Rio de la Plata region that borders Uruguay and is noted for its Italian-Mediterranean foods. Yet perhaps because Novecento's menu includes a sprinkling of tropical and Asian dishes, the cuisine is referred to not as Argentine, but "Nuevo Bistro." There is absolutely nothing new about any of the seven appetizers -- quesadillas, empanadas, ceviche, fried calamari, sweetbreads, shrimp tempura, and a "Caprese" of tomato and mozzarella -- but those we tried (most of them) were fresh and tasty.
You can sample all the seafood starters in a combo plate called picada del mar, which included crisply fried calamari rings, marinated strips of raw salmon, a pair of lightly battered tempura shrimp highlighted by a spicy wasabi cream sauce, and a dry but tasty salmon ceviche set on tostone croutons -- an impeccably prepared plate, perfect for sharing.
Getting it delivered to our table was another matter. The clientele here is largely Latino, as is the waitstaff. They're a friendly group, and fulfill the basic requirements expected of them, but ability to communicate smoothly in English is not their strong suit. So when we informed the person who delivered a picada criolla (a combo of the meat-based appetizers) to our table that we had ordered the seafood picada, he replied that yes, this was the meat platter. When we repeated that we wanted the seafood, he proceeded to identify the individual meats -- "This is chorizo sausage, these are pan-roasted sweetbreads ..." Another worker swung by, and after again repeating our request, he told us that this was indeed the picada criolla, and a very good one at that. Our waitress then came by to let us know that if we wanted to we could keep the meat platter, and that she was sure we'd enjoy it. We finally did get the proper plate, and everyone was exceedingly amiable throughout the ordeal, but the linguistic mixups made me feel as though I were trapped inside an episode of Fawlty Towers.
We would, on another visit, sample a pair of beautifully browned empanadas, one filled with creamy chicken, another with sweet corn. Tender, pan-roasted slices of sweetbread in velvety demi-glace were likewise gratifying, but soup of the day, "carrot with curry," was cut with more allspice than curry, and lacked the most appealing characteristic of carrot soup -- the bright, sweet taste of carrots.
The menu comprises ten main courses, four pastas, and a nightly special, which on both our visits was grilled tuna with soy sauce and ginger. The regular-menu tuna sounded more tempting with yuca, jalapeños, avocado, and chimichurri salsa, but we opted for what turned out to be a deliciously moist wedge of pan-roasted grouper -- topped with a trio of shrimp, sided by a mound of maduros, and splashed with diced tomato, onions, basil, and lime juice.
Brown rice risotto sounded suspect, and was -- as in one of those lifeless vegetable dishes that causes one to suspect a hostility toward vegetarians. The brown rice wasn't risotto, of course, but regular brown rice. Routine vegetables included eggplant, tomatoes, carrots, onionzzzzzzz.... Positive impressions picked up again with the meat selections. Rib eye steak, filet mignon, and rack of lamb looked appealing at others' tables, but on our waiter's suggestion (assuming I understood correctly) we went with a steak au poivre. The demi-glace glazing on the steak was properly peppery, French fries on the side cleanly cooked, the meat darkly caramelized, full flavored, and thickly succulent -- about one-and-a-half-inches high. No bistro can boast a better steak/frites, and at $21 it puts to shame most of the $36 N.Y. strips found around town. An assertively grilled skirt steak with light, vinegary chimichurri sauce was another good choice, though accompanying mashed potatoes were watery and as bland as Dick Gephardt.
Many main courses come vegetable-free, but pasta entrées are packed with them -- fettuccine with spinach, arugula, and zucchini; penne with wild mushrooms; and farfalle with green peas, artichoke hearts, and shrimp. A simple spaghetti Caprese was delightful, the noodles firm, the tomato sauce slightly spicy and fearlessly flecked with fresh basil.
Dulce de leche-filled crêpes, like much of the food at Novecento, possessed a just-made freshness that elevated it beyond most variations on this popular Miami dessert. And while I'm confident that the warm chocolate cake with chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce will please fanciers of chocolate, I'm just as sure that nobody will be happy with banana panna cotta, a gray, inedible custard matched with an equally awful, mushily grilled banana.
A compact wine list features well-priced bottles from mostly Europe and Argentina, but Novecento has more going for it than just good food and wine. The restaurant exudes the spirit of a lively social club, the effervescent crowd bubbling to a mix of world music, lite house, Brazilian jazz, and lounge tunes programmed by Argentine DJ Carlos Alfonsin. On weekends, belly dancers flap about the room like exotic birds caught in a mild whirlwind.
You can look at Novecento as a bistro, parillada, supper club, or local hangout. I see it as being just what an ideal neighborhood restaurant should be -- a comfortable place to enjoy satisfying food at affordable prices.
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