Every day before service at Etaru restaurant, general manager Nigel Marumahoko roams the dining room with a level to make sure all the Brazilian ipe wood tables are perfectly balanced. This is no easy feat, because the stone floors are uneven. Legs that are steady when he finishes might accidentally be nudged a smidge by 7 p.m. Tables could turn into wobblers. The table on my first visit to Etaru was a wobbler, but our group managed to stabilize it on our own. The takeaway: Attention to detail is paid at Etaru, but diners may still find things a bit off. Once one adjusts, or knocks back an umi old-fashioned with Suntory whiskey, the Etaru experience is rather enjoyable.
The sizzle and scent from the robatayaki charcoal grill at the center of the open kitchen put everything into proper balance, and the shareable small plates of exquisite sashimi and seafood will stack up in no time fast. The food was very good, the service was fine, and you can’t beat the location, a second-floor dining room and terrace that overlooks the Atlantic.
Finding Etaru may be the hardest part. The restaurant is hidden behind a firehouse and the towering Hyde Resort and Residences, at the eastern terminus of Hallandale Beach Boulevard. Don’t stop until you are practically in the sand, where you’ll find a circular driveway, valet attendants ($13 with validation) and stairs or an elevator to take you up one flight.
The chic design of light woods and stone and the Japanese shareable small plates and charcoal-grilled meats suggest South Beach, but one look around the room confirms this is Hallandale Beach. Hipsters were scarce and artificial hips were in abundance on the night I dined, but it didn’t matter. Everyone felt young with the sea breeze washing over them, which happened frequently as servers went through doors to outdoor tables. The days of Morrison’s Cafeteria on the other side of the Hallandale Beach Boulevard drawbridge were a distant memory.
Thin slices of Japanese yellowtail ($16), known as black kampachi, were drizzled with yuzu truffle sauce and topped with Japanese mustard greens and pickled carrots. Briny and bracing oysters ($3 each) from Canada were served on ice with black vinegar, minced scallion and grated radish. Two pieces of medium fatty tuna, known as chutoro ($14), were rolled up and placed atop a large block of ice. A maki roll of crispy fried prawn with avocado and sushi rice ($12) provided a rare glimpse of carbohydrates.
With no noodle or rice dishes on the menu (beyond a $4 side dish of steamed rice), diners will not get filled up on filler at Etaru. Meats, seafood and vegetables are the stars. It could make for an expensive evening, depending on how big an eater one is. This is the robatayaki way, as practiced by the worldly team behind Etaru. To its credit, the robata grill here, specially built in London, actually contains two types of charcoal: commercial lump and white oak. Getting city approval for the grill and ventilation hood were a challenge, Marumahoko says, but worth it. A robatayaki restaurant just up the road, Monkitail at the Diplomat Resort in Hollywood, is making do with gas burners.
At Etaru, executive chef Sergio Rivera has grills positioned at four different heights to achieve a higher level of finesse when it comes to char, smoke and doneness. Lamb chops ($34) rubbed with red Korean spice were smoky, subtle and perfectly medium rare, served with a crosshatch of sliced cucumber arranged like a Twitter hashtag. Spiced chicken wings ($7) were moist and yet brittle off the bone. Scallop skewers ($18) were charred crimson with spice and hit with tiny dollops of cool yuzu mayonnaise. The prime beef fillet platter ($36) will please tenderloin lovers, with slices of soft medium meat served on a bamboo mat with a dipping bowl of wasabi ponzu sauce and a wrapped leaf of eryngii mushrooms.
The carb-light menu has one silver lining: There is plenty of room for a dessert platter ($14 per person). It is an impressive tray of exotic fruits, sorbets and two items from the dessert menu. We had a smoked coconut and passionfruit parfait, and the molten cake of chocolate with green tea and crunchy jivara frosting. The platter was excellent.
Those who know and like the Roka or Zuma brands will be at home here. Etaru is a sibling, a collaboration between restaurateur Rainer Becker, culinary director Hamish Brown and the Related Group, the developers behind the neighboring Hyde Resort. In 2018, another Etaru is slated to open in the new Icon apartment tower in downtown Fort Lauderdale. There, it might feel more at home.
When I visit a restaurant, I’m supposed to critique what is, not what was or what might be. I like what Etaru is, but I wonder if the Hallandale version will succeed. The towering ambitions of coastal Hallandale Beach and southern Hollywood are readily apparent, but I don’t know if the locals are ready for $95 tasting menus or $65 and $95 brunch buffets, or if the trendies will find their way from the 305. The previous occupant in this space, Hyde Beach Kitchen, lasted 18 months.
Etaru, a word that Marumahoko said has no meaning but is supposed to conjure “ether,” will hopefully not evaporate as quickly. The restaurant opened in August, and had a rude start with the September brush with Hurricane Irma. It was unscathed, except for one planter. I sat in the dining room and marveled at the polished service and the cypress-beam ceiling and how far this space had come. Not long ago, in a building that has been razed, a humble beach breakfast and lunch joint occupied this spot, owned by my neighbor’s ex-cop father. Now, there are $990 bottles of sake and an executive chef from Puerto Rico who once worked at Nobu in Miami Beach and a general manager from Zimbabwe who once worked at Roka in London.
Times change, restaurants change, and sometimes it all feels a bit wobbly. Order up another umi old-fashioned and toast whatever the future may bring.
111 S. Surf Road (behind Hyde Resort), Hallandale Beach
954-271-3222 or EtaruRestaurant.us
Cuisine: Japanese with grilled robatayaki items, small plates and sashimi
Cost: Expensive. Appetizers and small plates cost $5 to $22. Grilled robata items $7 to $88. Tasting menu available for $95 per person (minimum two people). Sunday brunch buffet $65 or $95
Hours: 5:30-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-11 p.m. Saturday, noon-3 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m. Sunday. Ground-level beach cafe with breakfast and lunch open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with craft cocktails, sake and wine
Noise level: Conversational with background music
Wheelchair access: Second-floor dining room accessible by elevator
Parking: $13 valet with validation