Southern Swank Kitchen is daring Davie to make its day. The much-talked-about restaurant, which re-imagines traditional Southern dishes and exalts gritty actors such as Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, is challenging the residents of this corner of Broward County, where sports bars and chain restaurants fill the roadsides.
Diners who arrive expecting big portions of Southern comfort food prepared exactly like grandma made are in for a rude surprise. But open-minded foodies who don't balk at small plates and a courageous approach will find that Swank is easily the most exciting restaurant to open in the town.
Co-owners Oscar Ferreira and Alex Malagon have assembled a kitchen crew that hails from Miami-area hot spots such as Yardbird, Swine Southern Table and Bar, and Pubbelly to transform Southern fare into something even more compelling and delicious, with a bit of sacrilege thrown in.
Just glancing at Swank as you approach the restaurant, it's clear the owners have invested heavily to give the former Poolhouse Grill an inviting look well suited to socializing. Enormous, lamp-lit copper letters run across the facade, which overlooks a patio adorned with illuminated palm trees, string lights, rocking chairs, wooden barrels and an amusing fountain where the water emits from "bullet holes" in a barrel. It's all a bit Disney's Thunder Mountain meets downtown Fort Lauderdale.
The restaurant is split in two, with the barlike northern side having high-top tables and a more open floor space. Soon, that side will gain its own identity as the Saloon, which Malagon says will offer new drink options. The first thing you may notice as you enter is the enormous mural of John Wayne, rendered in a pen-and-ink style. The Duke's expression is probably the one he'd give you if he overheard you order a sour-apple martini.
The TVs behind the bar recently showed sporting events, while the others screened Clint Eastwood grimacing in "A Fistful of Dollars." The restaurant's modern look gives the macho imagery a pop-culture feel rather than a Little Rascals He-Man Women Hater's Club vibe. The din of the crowd combined with the pop-country music on the sound system can make for a loud atmosphere. Farther into the bar, two walls are covered with photos of revelers taken in the restaurant's photo booth, which automatically prints and posts the pictures to Facebook.
The draft-beer selection includes brews by Funky Buddha, Monk in the Trunk and Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro. Along with a nice selection of bottled craft beers, you're going to find a series of sweet, Southern-inspired cocktails served in Mason jars that are based on iced tea, moonshine and cider, among others.
Entering one of Swank's three entrances, we weren't greeted for several minutes despite what turned out to be a couple of hosts chatting with each other nearby. The service markedly improved once we were seated, with a server exhibiting an infectious enthusiasm for the menu.
With the South Beach size of some of the plates here, the line between entree and appetizer gets blurred. Some diners will get sticker shock on certain items. We started with pulled-pork sliders ($10), three bun-fulls of buttermilk slaw, pickle slices and a flavorful blood-orange mojo-marinated pulled pork that winks at the owners' Cuban background. The crab-cake hushpuppies topped with scallion mayo ($8) had me resolving to no longer make mine at home with plain old cornmeal. Chili-lime-marinated shrimp and grits ($14) with smoked tomato Anson Mills grits, green beans, wild boar vinaigrette and barbecue chips was solid, though some of the flavors clashed.
Among the entrees, nothing elicited more discussion than the short-rib meat loaf ($16). We balked at the small tin holding a loaf roughly the size of a large meatball. But we fell in love as soon as we took a bite, with the tender short rib sitting atop a delicate pumpkin puree that perfectly complemented thinly sliced red onions and tomato. The combination was the definition of harmony.
Chicken and waffles ($16) is hard-to-find in Broward, and this version features two large pieces of fried chicken and half a Belgian waffle, stabbed with a wooden skewer and topped with a marshmallow sage sauce. While we'd order the dish again, we would have liked it with more of that sinful sauce.
For a more filling option, try the hanger steak ($24), a long, rectangular serving of expertly seared beef accompanied by roasted potatoes. Lastly, if you love the taste of strong greens, go for the market fish ($22), a powerful bowl of yellowtail snapper mixed with braised mustard greens and chow-chow, a pickled relish.
For sides, we most enjoyed the hand-cut french fries ($6), ranking among the better tier of fries we've had. Baked beans ($5) were too tomatoey for our taste, though cornbread ($5) and mac and cheese ($7) were solid.
For dessert, we'd have liked to see more than just pudding, but hey, it was damn good pudding. Our favorite was the Snickers pudding ($6), which tastes like a cold Snickers bar pureed with cream. You'll also do well with bread pudding ($5), especially the banana cream pudding ($5), topped with cinnamon and heavy whipped cream, and served in little Mason jars, true to form.
To people who complain about Broward playing second fiddle to Miami's eclectic dining scene, Southern Swank Kitchen throws down the gauntlet with a team that dares to take risks with a traditional cuisine in a traditional place. Love it or hate it, Swank is not to be ignored, especially as its identity evolves and its talented kitchen continues its bold experiment.
Southern Swank Kitchen
4196 S. University Drive, Davie
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 5 p.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday
Reservations: Not available Thursday through Saturday for parties smaller than eight
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Loud
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes