I'm not one of those restaurant critics who thinks that any chef with a French accent is automatically a genius in the kitchen. But talking to chef Laurent Tasic on the phone, I sensed that he takes just as much care with his hamburgers as he does his bouillabaisse.
You'll find that last item on the menu at his Sage French Café, where Tasic has cooked since 1991 and which he has owned since 1996.
In the past few months, he expanded the Sage kitchen and took over the adjoining space to create Qbar Burgers and Blues. What was once a hub for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers is now a long, narrow 100-seat restaurant with a tiny stage that has musicians practically playing their instruments on top of bar patrons, who sometimes jostle three-deep for a space at the 78-foot bar.
If you don't like live music, come before showtime. Plenty of folks have already discovered Qbar's 11 a.m.-7 p.m. weekday happy hour, when beer and well drinks cost $4 and house wine costs $5.
So pet-friendly is Qbar that they serve a nonalcoholic dog beer called Bowser. They even have a dog menu that includes grilled organic chicken with rice and meatloaf and mashed potatoes. That doggie beer joins one of the most impressive draft menus I've seen, and it includes brews from Miami Brewing Company and Tampa's Cigar City Brewing.
Qbar, Tasic explains, gets its name from New Orleans' French Quarter, which he originally envisioned calling the restaurant. Qbar was catchier, and Tasic offers classic Louisiana dishes such as seafood gumbo ($8) and jambalaya ($14). Most of the menu, however, is good, old American bar food prepared with French finesse.
Several of the seven burgers are named after famous jazz singers, including the Lena ($12), a vegetarian grilled portobello mushroom burger with ratatouille, arugula and provolone. (Was the late Ms. Horne a vegetarian?)
I'm quite sure Norah Jones would be impressed with the Norah ($12), grilled salmon with peppery arugula and lemon-dill aioli. I loved the soft bun and the accompanying sweet potato fries. Order the King ($12) if you want to sample the special mix of ground brisket and shoulder that's ground in-house. The half-pound burger was cooked perfectly. The King is dressed with cheddar cheese and wonderfully lean duck bacon — a bonus for those who don't eat pork.
From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, you can have any burger with fries and soda for $10. Add a craft draft beer for $3.
The small-plates section of the menu includes a not-too-small filet-mignon chili ($8), a shallow bowl of beefiness with cheddar cheese and just a few kidney beans. It's served with sliced baguette, which made sharing a bowl of chili very easy as we heaped spoonfuls of the stew onto the soft slices. Crispy chicken wings ($7 for a half dozen/$13 for a dozen) are tossed with a sweet chili sauce that's neither offensively spicy or blandly forgotten.
When the music's playing and the beer is flowing, there's crab meat and artichoke dip ($11) and fried baked brie with mixed nuts ($10). This is sophisticated bar food with sophisticated but friendly servers to match.
The owner of the plaza where Qbar sits seems to have realized that the entire strip mall has potential to become a neighborhood meeting place. There's a grassy area out front of Qbar where yoga classes are taught in the morning and family movies are shown once a month. Tasic says at least two more restaurants are coming into the plaza, which already boasts Asian, pizza, French and Qbar's burgers and blues.
"It's going to be a small city, one stop" Tasic says. "You come in, and you don't have to drive anywhere else."
Qbar Burgers and Blues
2376 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale
Cuisine: American bar food with New Orleans accents
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Moderate until live music stars
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot