Variety Show

At 11:00 on a recent Saturday night, the long, broad stretch of Lincoln Road Mall looked more like a ghost town than a commercial neighborhood only blocks from busy South Beach. B.C. Chong's, the Grove transplant in Johnny's old digs, and Espresso Bongo, a new bohemian nightclub with live music and light fare, showed signs of life, but for the most part the storefronts were dark and a bit foreboding. We had almost despaired of finding a place when my dining companion and I saw the courtyard (complete with ornate fountain) in front of Sencle's.

In marked contrast to the pedestrianless pedestrian mall outside, Sencle's was filled with people obviously enjoying themselves. Not a great throng of people - the six-month-old restaurant is small - but people nonetheless. The interior resembles a sleek, Eurotech bistro, with black-and-white photographs lining the cream-color walls, accentuated by track lighting from a black ceiling with exposed pipes. Black-and-white tile covers the floor, stark white linens dress the tables, and hunter-green banquettes run along one wall. A large floral arrangement and smaller bouquets on each table provide the only color accents.

Despite our late arrival and lack of reservations, we were treated like the restaurant's most loyal patrons. A woman, who later revealed that she and her husband own the eatery, seated us and also came over to our table several times during the evening to see if everything was satisfactory. It was.

Sencle's menu changes daily and celebrates what I call "fusion cuisine" -New American with colorful tropical riffs. With fresh seafood as its mainstay, the repertoire here extends beyond the usual grouper, yellowtail, and dolphin, including dishes such as Everglades frog legs with a glaze of honey, scotch-bonnet peppers, and basil, Dungeness crab in ravioli, with mozzarella, tomato, asparagus, and yucca, and another we ultimately couldn't pass up - jerked alligator.

Innovation abounds, as evidenced by key lime pasta with fresh clams, asparagus, red pepper, and scallions tossed in a citrus-chive oil. Because Sencle's offers the homemade pastas as either appetizer or entree, diners can satisfy their curiosity about many of the creative dishes, some of which will please even die-hard meat-and-potatoes types. Grilled breast of chicken on pepper coulis with corn relish and baby vegetables, or a sirloin of veal grilled and topped with goat cheese and a mix of whipped garlic and malanga are sure to please the adventurous carnivore.

From a half-dozen intriguing appetizers, I chose a comparatively tame tropical clam chowder. At once velvety and bold, the gumbo-thick broth was enriched by smooth white clams and chunks of tomato, carrots, lima beans, celery, diced boniato, and fiery peppers. With some crusty French bread, this hearty brew could have been an entire meal.

No sooner had the chowder disappeared than the salad arrived - a variety of greens (and purples), grated carrots, and wedges of red tomato. Lightly doused in a vinaigrette jazzed up with a smattering of ground pistachios, the mixture held only one disappointment: the tomatoes had that mealy taste of the unnaturally ripened, supermarket variety.

My dining companion paid no heed to the asterisks next to menu items low in cholesterol and saturated fat. He wanted the jerked alligator (one of only three dishes not marked with an asterisk), and remorse did not prevent him from eating every bite of this exotic delicacy. More assertive than the usually bland alligator, the tender meat had been jerked, or marinated, in lime buerre blanc. Flanked by a row of grilled star fruit, jackfruit salsa, and a stir-fry of broccoli, snow peas, carrots, corn, and shiitake mushrooms, the chunky gator morsels made a striking arrangement on the platter and an even more striking impression on the palate.

The grilled Key West yellowtail served atop a tropical tuber stew is one of only two absolutely sensational seafood dishes I have tasted in the past year in Miami (the other was at A Fish Called Avalon). A word of warning, though, to those who do not have an asbestos tongue: When Sencle's bills an item as "tropical," bank on the fact that it's going to be spicy hot, even if nothing fiery is listed among the ingredients. The chef is as generous with everything as with spices - my plate held a huge portion of yellowtail sprinkled with scallions and served on a bed of melon-color salsa thick with tender, diced yucca. The grill-marked fish had a woody aroma, like mesquite, and would have tasted marvelous even without the salsa; but the piquant sauce made this sweet succulent fish better than many of the fanciest meat dishes I've ever tried.

For the record, the restaurant has a wine list full of labels from France, Italy, Oregon, Washington, and California. At $16, a California blush represents the the low end of the price range, and a William Hill Cabernet Sauvignon and a Val du Cave are at the high end, each costing $47.

Like the rest of the menu, Sencle's dessert offerings change daily. From a list that included a praline tart, a fruit compote, and a key lime pie with mango sauce, I chose the last - a slice of whiter-shade-of-pale perfection that melted in the mouth and almost caused the lips to pucker. We congratulated ourselves on having found such a bright spot in an otherwise dark span of Lincoln Road.

630 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 538-7484. Hours: Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday, and Monday from 6:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 6:00 p.m. to midnight. Reopens for lunch next month.


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