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Review: Hot & Soul runs hot and cold in Fort Lauderdale

 

★★½

A recent meal at the well-regarded Hot & Soul in Fort Lauderdale left me with a lukewarm feeling. And when a Spanish seafood stew with a stinky shrimp arrived at my table, it left me holding my nose. This is the type of restaurant I usually love: a funky little bistro run by a hard-working, well-traveled couple who put their heart and soul into opening their own place. Chef-owners Mike Hampton and Christy Samoy received an enthusiastic 3 ½-star review from my predecessor soon after opening in 2013, and the restaurant had a star turn last month on the “Check, Please! South Florida” TV show. The menu spans the globe with international comfort food, including udon noodle bowls, gnocchi with oxtail, mussels with frites and crème fraiche. There are also Cajun and Creole dishes such as gumbo and barbecue shrimp, a nod to the nine years the couple spent in New Orleans.

One can tell this is a talented, creative kitchen that can operate at a high level. Our first bite, the mushroom manchego toast in sherry cream ($8 small, $14 large), has been delighting diners since opening night. Our last bite, dark-chocolate bark with pistachio and sea salt drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil ($7), was sultry and decadent.

Yet when our group departed there was unease. We were first-time visitors, and we all wanted to like the place more than we did. One dining partner didn’t like the decor, a dark dining room that seemed tired and in need of freshening, with sad strands of holiday lights around window frames. Another didn’t like the cleaning supplies that sat on a nearby table throughout the meal. Another didn’t like her main course, a Jamaican-spiced short rib that was dry.

And I was left to ponder a critic’s conundrum: Should a good reputation come undone because of a few bad shrimp? This wasn’t a case of one offensive shrimp in one dish. Two plates were marred by head-on Gulf shrimp that tasted off: the barbecue-shrimp NOLA-style appetizer ($18) and the “Hella Zarzuela” seafood stew ($32). Hellish Zarzuela would have been a more accurate name on this night. (Hampton and Samoy like to come up with whimsical titles for menu items, such as Gnaughty Gnocchi, Just Beet It and The Other Pot From Jamaica.)

In the case of the barbecue shrimp, a New Orleans classic in which shrimp are not grilled but sauteed in tangy Worcestershire-spiked butter sauce, I could understand how suspect seafood could slip past. There was no outward indicator that the dish was off, as the shrimp were drenched in sauce with heads and shells on. A few tasted OK. But many had a funky, old flavor, verging on iodine, which made sucking the heads (usually the best part) impossible. The sauce was still good, so I dunked some bread and didn’t say anything to our server.

I could not understand how the zarzuela stew made it past the kitchen door. It emitted an odor that wafted across the table. I immediately identified and set aside the culprit, a head-on Gulf shrimp, which was odd because the menu description said the dish contained Key West shrimp. My bowl had Gulf shrimp and a few mushy royal red shrimp. The tomato-saffron sauce, snapper, clams and mussels were all very good, so again I soldiered on and ate the dish without complaining or sending it back.

“That’s a failure on my part,” Hampton said during a follow-up visit. “It’s my responsibility to make sure the seafood is good. That dish should never have been sent out.”

I appreciated the accountability. I went back to Hot & Soul by myself a week after my first visit to speak to Hampton and Samoy, and also to try the gumbo ($15 small, $30 large). It was excellent — subtle, spicy and smoky — with andouille sausage, okra, two perfectly poached oysters and a firm, fresh Key West shrimp. By this point, they knew who I was. Hampton was crestfallen when I told him about my experience, and he explained that he gets shrimp from multiple purveyors. The Key West shrimp were not available on the day of my initial visit, and he did not realize the head-on shrimp were bad. He did sense the royal reds were mushy. This is something I also encounter when I cook. They look pretty at the store, and they’re reasonable, but they usually disappoint.

Hampton spent many years cooking at Emeril Lagasse’s Delmonico in New Orleans, and he knows the difference between venial and mortal kitchen sins. Pairing his thick, chunky Bolognese sauce with a wispy and wimpy housemade spaghettini as a daily special ($20) was a venial sin. But allowing a plate such as my zarzuela to hit the table was a mortal sin. “I don’t know how it happened — I just missed it,” Hampton says.

He understands I have a job to do, and I understand that nobody’s perfect and stink happens. I tried to console him with the bright spots. The Just Cukes appetizer ($7), shaved cucumber slices with rice vinegar and sugar, was simple summer perfection. The chicken adobo ($18), a bone-in stew with soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar and peppercorns, was deeply satisfying, a loving tribute to Samoy’s Filipino heritage.

Hampton and Samoy are hands-on owners. He’s on the cooking line every night. She makes desserts, does prep work and roams. Hot & Soul serves dinner only. “I’m still in here 16 hours a day,” he says. “I’m in every morning making the gnocchi and pasta.” The restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday, and the two off days provide them a measure of sanity.

Hampton and Samoy met at Florida State University. They’ve been together for 25 years, married for 15. He was a runner in college, originally from Punxsutawney, Pa. She’s from Lakeland. Hampton began cooking in Tallahassee. He followed Samoy to Boston, where she attended a graduate writing program at Emerson College. They rode out Hurricane Katrina on the 11th floor of the New Orleans Marriott on Canal Street. They left Louisiana shortly after the devastating 2005 storm, and spent a few years in San Diego. They came to Fort Lauderdale five years ago, Hampton working at American Social and Samoy working at the Foxy Brown until they opened Hot & Soul.

It’s in the same plaza as the Culture Room concert venue, a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because they get a boost in business on concert nights. It’s a curse because parking can be a nightmare on those nights. The lot gets full, neighboring lots tow, and diners need local knowledge to find a meter or paid lot. A sign on Hot & Soul’s door tells beery clubgoers waiting in line about a $3 per person charge to use its restroom.

The restaurant has a dividing wall with an opening, with the bar and kitchen on one side and the dining area on the other. It seats 55, a number that keeps things manageable. There is a small set menu and a long list of rotating daily specials. The vibe is casual, with craft beers, interesting wines and friendly servers. The restaurant has done some of its best business since the “Check, Please!” exposure, serving 160 diners on a recent Saturday night, a record. But on my second visit, a Tuesday, the summer doldrums were setting in. “Only 15 or 20 covers tonight,” Hampton says, using the restaurant term for diners. “Slow.”

He shook his head, wondering about the impact of a negative review. Hampton lamented the struggles of small, independent restaurateurs, the ones without corporate backing or big marketing budgets. I told him I want places like theirs to survive, and that I wanted to return. Hot & Soul is an unconventional case of a 2 ½-star restaurant that I’d encourage food lovers to check out to form their own opinions.

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

Hot & Soul

3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale

754-206-2155 or HotAndSoul.com

Cuisine: Global eclectic dishes, including vegan options

Cost: Moderate. Appetizers cost $5 to $18. Main courses $18 to $32. Desserts $7 or $8

Hours: 5-11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.

Reservations: Accepted for groups of five and larger

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Craft beer and wine

Wheelchair accessible: Ground level

Parking: Free lot, but can be troublesome (and full) when there are concerts at Culture Room in same plaza. Beware of tows from nearby lots. Meters across street.

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