JWB Prime Steak and Seafood, the fine-dining restaurant at the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, bears the initials of resort partner James William Buffett, better known as Jimmy. The place is great, but before I get into the details let me dispense with the obligatory groan-inducing tribute to Mr. Buffett, who turns 70 on Christmas Day.
You won't find any cheeseburgers in paradise here, because those are across the street at the resort's 5 o'clock Somewhere Bar & Grill on the Intracoastal. You might find a son of a son of a sailor slurping down briny Blue Point oysters, and on the menu you'll also find the name and location of the diver who spear-caught the featured fish of the day, Dickenson from Jupiter in the case of our grouper. The simple and delicious food, polished service and relaxed resort casual setting — solid oak tables instead of white linen, hardwood floors, ceiling layered with teak wood and black soundproofing — will bring positive changes in latitude and attitude (although perhaps a negative bank balance). And at one point, I really was searching for a lost shaker of salt, because my porterhouse was a bit underseasoned, and they don't keep salt or pepper on the tables. Our server quickly fetched a sleek, push-button grinding set.
OK, I'll stop now. You don't have to be a Parrothead, as Buffett fans are known, to enjoy this restaurant. You just have to be willing to drop some major coin. Fortunately, this was one of those splurges that left everyone in my group smiling, even after we reached into our own pockets for a triple-digit bottle of Gaja and some specialty cocktails.
Perhaps that's because JWB Prime Steak gets all the little details right. The bread basket features warm, fresh olive rolls, crusty sourdough and soft butter. Our wine guide, manager Ian Falcone, was helpful and not snooty. After he opened the 2013 Gaja Promis from Tuscany ($125), he poured a drop for me to taste, and he also offered a taste to the lady at the table. Stylish Sambonet steak knives are delivered for the main course. The valet parking at the resort entrance is free for restaurant patrons, a welcome touch. If there's one thing I hate after paying nearly $500 for food alone, it's getting nickel-and-dimed on parking. Just don't forget to get your ticket validated, and don't forget to tip the valet.
The Margaritaville Resort has been open for just over a year, looming high above the quaint Hollywood Broadwalk band shell at Johnson Street. The place turned out well. The JWB restaurant, like the resort, is elegant without being stuffy. To get there, you have to walk past the giant, blue flip-flop sandal sculpture near the check-in desk, past the lobby with a lighting fixture of upside-down margarita glasses.
Once inside, you'll pass a bar decorated in high-beachfront-cabana style, walk past impressive display cases of monstrous lobsters and other sea creatures on ice, and stride into the comfortable main dining room. The wood ceiling is 17 feet, the walls are red brick, and there are cobalt-blue glass mosaic tiles lining the wall beneath the open kitchen. Blue drapes cover the tall windows. The ground-level eatery was built on the A1A side of the resort, overlooking the resort driveway, so you're not missing any view.
The diners on a recent Saturday night were a healthy, diverse mix befitting Hollyweird. There were older locals from high-rise condos, well-dressed couples on dates and families in shorts and T-shirts staying at the resort. One group looked as if they had just wandered off the set of "Duck Dynasty." And yes, flip-flops are allowed.
We started with brilliant Kumamoto oysters from the West Coast ($20 a half dozen), a classic jumbo shrimp cocktail ($19), steamed clams ($15) and lobster bisque ($14). My only quibble was with the shrimp, from Indonesia, which had the requisite steakhouse bigness and firmness but little flavor. And the tail meat stuck to the shells, meaning they were either too old or too cold. All was forgiven, however, with the lobster bisque. This wasn't the usual pink-colored, cream-and-flour bisque. This was deep crimson, with a dollop of crème fraiche and chunks of fresh Maine lobster in the middle, and it tasted as powerful as the sea. It's made from a labor-intensive lobster stock and brandy, and it's a bit fishier than some people are used to, but I loved it.
That lobster stock also serves as the base of the seafood paella, which we didn't order but coveted when we saw delivered to a nearby table. It's served in the cooking pan and placed atop a wicker trivet. It made diners gasp with its gorgeousness. Next time.
Our waiter, Tommy, an old pro from Queens, handled matters with perfect aplomb. He didn't tell us his name until I asked on the way out (more bonus points for that). When I told him I was from Brooklyn, he shot back, "Luger!" as in Peter Luger steakhouse. Like Luger, JWB aims for beauty in simplicity. Carlo Sernaglia, the concept chef for Margaritaville resorts, says his philosophy is to get high-quality ingredients and let them shine. Chefs Andres Teran (recently promoted to food and beverage director for the resort) and Johnny Tucker (the executive chef at JWB) are smart and restrained enough to get out of the way.
A prime example is the spear-caught fish program. It's an original way to promote local fresh fish, and it's only available on days when the diver can get into the water. Sometimes, it's too choppy, and sometimes, the fish are too small to legally catch. "We might go two weeks with that menu box being empty," Sernaglia says. But when it's filled in, it's worth every penny.
Typically, the restaurant likes to feature lionfish, the ugly invasive species that has become a menace to the local sea population. Grouper ($40) was offered on the night we visited. It was the best fish I had this year, pan seared in olive oil to crisp perfection on the outside, moist inside. It was served atop a mound of crisp bok choy. Simple and beautiful.
Other entrees were stellar. A grilled lobster ($58) was split in half, served with brown butter and filled with crabmeat stuffing, light and almost airy with hardly any panko-breadcrumb filler. The Colorado lamb chops ($48) were the best I've had in a while, served with an addictive chutney made from apricot, dried cranberry, apple-cider vinegar and mustard seed. The veal chop special ($49) was beautiful.
The weirdest part: Of a near perfect meal, the weakest link was the steak. I had a special porterhouse ($65), and it came out undercooked, closer to rare than the ordered medium-rare. I was so busy with the other tasty bites, I didn't send it back. It lacked char, texture (a bit chewy) and also flavor (fixed by a little salt). On the way out, I ran into some acquaintances, and they were disappointed with their rib-eye.
Teran, who comes from a steakhouse background, seemed pained when I told him about this, and he cooked me a much better steak when I returned for a photo shoot. The steaks are certified Angus beef, wet aged for 28 to 35 days. A place where pricy steak is the star needs to get it right every time, and it's the only reason I didn't award JWB a top rating of four stars.
All was forgiven with dessert. We had a towering fudgy (but not overly sweet) chocolate cake ($12), and a Key lime pie cocktail ($15), a tart, liquor-infused drink with cream, lime and graham cracker that was an inspired liquid ode to the original. We also had the showstopper, banana cream pie ($10). The graham cracker crust has soft bananas folded into it, and the whipped, velvety interior will make you love bananas even if you don't. I'm still dreaming of it. I'm also dreaming of hitting a nice trifecta at Gulfstream, so I can make it back to JWB soon.
JWB Prime Steak and Seafood
1111 N. Ocean Drive, Hollywood (at the Margaritaville beach resort)
954-874-4462 or JWBrestaurant.com
Cuisine: Steaks, chops and seafood
Cost: Very expensive
Hours: Open 6-10 p.m. nightly (until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday). Bar open 5-11 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted and suggested Friday-Saturday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar, with specialty cocktails and wide-ranging wine list
Sound level: Conversational
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free valet parking with validation at restaurant