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Review: Bubbles and Pearls sparkles in Wilton Manors

 

★★★½

The roasted bone was nine inches long, halved and hollowed and filled with the essence of life: strong, unctuous and creamy marrow, with bits of farro crunchy from blistering heat. A slick puddle of oil pooled around its base, served on a black slate. Most places that offer marrow serve it with toast or bread, a way to cut the richness. Not at Bubbles and Pearls. A sprinkle of shaved Parmesan and a colorful splash of microgreens are on top, a smear of sweet potato puree is below, but chef Josie Smith Malave wants diners to focus on that essence. You are feasting on soul.

“What kind of bone is this?” I asked the server.

“Vegan bone,” she shot back with a straight face.

Bubbles and Pearls is my kind of place. Even though it is cramped, with high-top tables and uncomfortable metal stools and an impossibly small kitchen, there is room for everyone. Including vegans. Vegans may not appreciate that plate of beef femur and marrow ($14, served with a side tickle of funny bone), but surely they’ll dig the roasted shishito peppers ($7), a mound of bright-green goodness coated with a sheen of oil, oven blistered with black spots, sprinkled with salt, miso and lemon zest. So simple. So good.

Carnivores and vegetarians alike can enjoy the miso-cauliflower steak ($16), which is a misnomer. This isn’t some inch-thick slice of cauliflower cut to resemble a steak. This is a hulking hunk of cauliflower, a full head presented on a plate, its brainlike exterior roasted golden with miso sauce and studded with sesame seeds. Dig in, swipe through the black garlic puree on the side and smile. It is brutish, and delicious.

Therein lies the culinary playfulness of Malave. Marrow is savored daintily with a small fork, and diners can bring a caveman’s club to the cauliflower. Bubbles and Pearls, which opened last September, brims with joy, a casual effervescence that spills from the personality of the chef-owner into the glasses at nearly every table. It is named Bubbles and Pearls because Champagne, sparkling wine and fresh-shucked oysters are featured, meant to be indulged every day instead of reserved for special occasions.

You can see that exuberant spirit reflected in the staff, the decor that features rotating artwork, and even the restaurant’s state-registered corporate name: Eat Well Live Happy LLC. A recent meal was my favorite in Broward County this year. The excellent food was paired with a vibe that perfectly matches the live-and-let-live spirit of its Wilton Manors surroundings.

Malave, a Wilton Manors resident who grew up in Hialeah, says she wanted to create a place where everyone could rub shoulders and be comfortable: “Democrats, Republicans, independents … gays, straights, trannies.”

Head to the unisex restroom, and you’ll see a sign on the door that reads, “Whichever.” Fiscal conservatives should admire the generous entrees featuring portions that can last for days, and a daily happy hour (5-7 p.m.), with $1 Gulf oysters and $5 beers and sparkling wine.

Malave cut her culinary teeth in some of New York’s finest kitchens, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong, Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 and Andrew Tarlow’s Marlow & Sons. She has appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” as a contestant, and in followup specials. She returned to South Florida and decided to open her first restaurant in Wilton Manors because she thought it would be a good fit. Malave says the owner who ran the previous restaurant in this small space on Wilton Drive warned her that the neighborhood “won’t pay $30 for a pork chop.” Malave says she just nodded and thought maybe patrons would, if the food were good enough.

Malave doesn’t have a pork chop on the menu, but she does have $13 pork belly on a biscuit, with fig honey and pickles. Her mother bakes the biscuits every few days. It was excellent. She also has a $36 rib-eye, the most expensive item on the menu, which I did not try. That’s because I was steered toward the short-rib special ($24), a massive plate with purple Peruvian potatoes, shitake mushrooms and Japanese-rice-wine sauce. The short rib is rendered tender and moist in a pressure cooker, and it tasted like pot roast, homey and comforting. How many restaurants in South Florida undersell? It is one more reason to love Bubbles and Pearls.

You might not love the cramped quarters, which isn’t noticeable until the place fills up. When we were seated for our reservation, there was a sea of empty tables up front. The Saturday-night masses arrived, and things got a little noisy between the music and the chatter. The room has 50 seats, including a dozen along the bar. It has an artsy feel, with funky lighting fixtures, including a chandelier that Malave scored off Craigslist for $30.

I was on edge until I had a few glasses of bubbly, afraid the tableside ice bucket that chilled our Argentinean bottle of Alma Negra ($44) was at risk from all the foot traffic. It survived. The sparkling options are varied and interesting. Besides pricey Veuve Clicquot from France, there is more reasonable prosecco from Italy, cava from Spain and bottles from South America and Australia.

Premium oysters from the East and West coasts are offered ($3 to $4 each). We had a mixed platter of two dozen, including Kumamotos from Washington, Kusshis from British Columbia, Blue Points from Connecticut and Beausoleils from New Brunswick. All were clean, crisp and well-shucked. The presentation wasn’t the prettiest, the oysters crowded on a platter that had to fit on our small table, but all the flavors were on point, with mignonette, cocktail sauce and horseradish dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day weekend and lemon brought on a separate plate.

Service is tag-team style, anchored by Malave’s fiancee Marcy Miller and Roger Brown, who sports a Dali-esque, handlebar mustache. They paced the meal nicely, even though things got a bit backed up in the kitchen. It’s amazing what Malave and her sous chef are able to do in a 6-by-6-foot space, working with two flat-top stoves, two convection ovens, a sous-vide cooker and no grill.

There were no bad bites. A small antipasto platter ($9) featured velvety prosciutto, creamy Danish blue cheese, a block of aged pecorino truffle cheese and fig honey. A special flatbread ($16) was topped with burrata, fontina, caramelized onion, garlic, truffle oil and arugula. Roger said the 500-degree mussels ($14) were “a must-have,” so we had them. And he was right. Roasted in high heat, the shells become brittle and the mussels almost nutlike. Two people at my table don’t usually like mussels, but we were all fans of these. That’s the mark of a talented chef.

So is the ability to make humble chicken delicious. Malave does it with her brick chicken ($24), a half-bird pressed with cast-iron baking trays, pan-roasted until the skin was golden and crisp. It was well seasoned, the meat moist and flavorful, served atop purple Peruvian potatoes and farro.

We were too full for the lone dessert, a Key lime pie, but that was OK. Bubbles and Pearls left me hungering for a return visit soon.

Bubbles and Pearls

2037 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors

954-533-9553, BubblesNPearls.com

Cuisine: Raw oysters, modern American

Cost: Moderate-expensive. Oysters $3-4 each ($1 Gulf oysters at happy hour), small plates $7-$17, large plates $16-$36

Hours: 5-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6-11 p.m. Saturday. 4-9 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Beer and wine only, wide range of international sparkling wine and wine-based cocktails

Sound level: Loud when crowded

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Street meters and city lot nearby

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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