It's always a bit jarring, yet intriguing, to watch actors play against type. When Meryl Streep shows up singing in an ABBA musical or Adam Sandler turns up in a Paul Thomas Anderson drama, audiences sometimes don't know what to make of it.
The same dynamic is at work at Burlock Coast Seafare and Spirits, a hotel restaurant on Fort Lauderdale beach that opened in November. The hotel happens to be the Ritz-Carlton.
You hear "Ritz," you think stuffy, formal, elegant.
Burlock Coast is not stuffy or formal. There are no jackets, ties or white-linen tablecloths in sight. The vibe is beachside casual. There's a playful tone here, creative whimsy bordering on preciousness, with food served in Mason jars, burlap sacks and on tree-trunk slabs, accompanied by sauces in squeezable small tubes of a type usually found containing ointments or toothpaste in pharmacy aisles.
That's not a bad thing. In fact, it's a fun thing. The place features some very good offerings, including fresh fish that pops, craft cocktails that sparkle and addictive, warm dessert doughnuts that look like Dunkin' Munchkins and taste as good as New Orleans' freshest beignets. The service is friendly, and the prices are reasonable for a Ritz, including a weekend brunch that offers $1 oysters and bottomless drinks for $20.
Add it up, and you have a scene that's more unpretentious party than exclusive club.
"We want everybody to have fun," says Greg Cook, the resort's general manager. "It's a luxury hotel with a relaxed atmosphere. We wanted to make it a local place, a place that draws people from the street — not just for guests."
There are indoor and outdoor bars and seating, a patio corner to sip rum and smoke cigars, and an indoor market to grab a morning coffee or a lunchtime sandwich. The interior motif is industrial-minimalist chic, as much New York Soho loft as SoFla dining room. There are concrete floors, high ceilings, cavernous spaces, muted browns and grays and big windows overlooking the beach.
It can get noisy inside, especially in the 52-seat main dining room where the banquettes and tables are scrunched together. On the night I had dinner, St. Patrick's Day, it was a little too humid and noisy outside. Our group opted to sit in a more sedate section, along the windows in the 60-seat "market" area, where lighting is dim and you have to fire up your smartphone flashlight to read the menus.
In this section, the round tables are smaller, the wooden chairs awkward and uncomfortable. Almost immediately, the attentive hostess came over and offered pillows. They helped.
More help is on the way. Cook says another $100,000 in furniture has been ordered, with more banquettes and cushioned chairs to be added to the market area. "We're still tweaking things," he says.
Cocktails helped ease the pain, with a tequila-based Smoke Show ($13) and rum-based Lion's Cola ($13) among the offerings. These are cocktails as true aperitifs, infused with aromatics that stimulate the appetite.
The kitchen is in the capable hands of chef de cuisine Gavin Pera. Pera, a Ritz-Carlton veteran, has worked in South Beach, Sarasota and the Virgin Islands. He had a nomadic childhood as "an Army brat," and went to high school in Destin, where he loved to fish.
His appreciation of the sea, and farm-to-table sourcing and cooking, comes through. Nearly every dish is sprinkled and infused with locally grown fresh herbs, microgreens and produce. "I take a very simplistic approach to everything," he says. "Just let the ingredients shine."
A raw bar offers fresh oysters, clams and shrimp, a daily ceviche and crudo. Among appetizers, the smoked fish dip ($12) is a revelation. This is no creamy, mayonnaisey concoction, but a vibrant burst of fresh shredded red snapper. Sometimes, red mullet is used, depending on what arrives on the dock in the morning. The fish is smoked in-house with cherry wood and blended with aged vinegar, fresh herbs and sea salt. It's served in a Mason jar with cubed grilled bread. My only quibble: The lid is so heavy you have to be careful not to topple the jar when scooping out the dip.
Tuna tartare ($16) is solid, given a new spin with warm tostones (fried plantain slices) served on the side. Spicy avocado tomatillo dip ($8) could have used more kick, but the root vegetable chips on the side came in handy for the fish dip and tuna tartare. A romaine salad ($14) was served with fresh anchovies and a brittle pecorino-phyllo crisp. The lettuce portion seemed skimpy, a shame because the grain-mustard vinaigrette was so good my tablemate almost chugged the remainder.
The menu changes seasonally, so the tender Seminole beef short rib ($28) we tried is now gone, making way for a Palmetto Creek pork chop with crispy ramps. We had a grilled Hawaiian sea bass special ($38), which was expertly cooked over a bed of cool, vinegary quinoa and heirloom tomatoes. I thought it unusual for a restaurant that touts "local, sustainable" fare to feature the much-maligned Pacific sea bass (Patagonian toothfish), but Pera explains it was requested by a group, and he'll use Florida hogfish snapper for the dish on the spring menu.
Black grouper ($32) was a bit overcooked for my liking, but the thick fish can take some extra heat, and my tablemate preferred it that way. That entrée will be reconfigured into a cassoulet for the spring. The popular lobster pasta ($28) is staying, a rich dish that goes light on the house-made pappardelle but heavy on the bisquelike sauce and chunks of Maine lobster, asparagus, greens and herbs.
Pastry chef Ryan Cross shines with his doughnuts ($10), served in a burlap sack with a side of warm chocolate sauce for dipping. I could have eaten a hundred. Chocolate bread pudding ($10) was over the top, but if you're a chocoholic, feel free to indulge (and watch for toppling Mason jars). Apple crisp ($10) was classic, veering more to the cinnamon and spice side of the street, topped with a scoop of vanilla gelato and caramel sauce squeezed from one of those precious mini-toothpaste tubes.
It was fun. It was fine. I'll be back for more.
Burlock Coast Seafare and Spirits
1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale (at the Ritz-Carlton)
Cuisine: Seafood, modern American
Hours: Breakfast 7-11:30 a.m.; lunch 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (weekend brunch noon-5 p.m.); dinner 5-10 p.m. (until 11 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.).
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Can get noisy inside, patio available
Outside smoking: One section of patio
For kids: Highchairs, booster seats, children's menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Complimentary hotel valet first two hours, then $5 an hour