I'm not sure I know of a more-showstopping restaurant than Kaluz.
It sits under the bridge that crosses the Intracoastal at Commercial Boulevard. The lot once housed Roadhouse Grill, but the walls are all that remains of the old building. Designed by ID & Design International in Fort Lauderdale, Kaluz is a subtropical ode to Frank Lloyd Wright. It's Wright with 220 feet on the Intracoastal, enough room for a chic bar, 80 outdoor seats and a dock for a yacht.
Inside, a bar sits at the center of the 160-seat main dining room. There's not a bad seat in the house, but who wouldn't want one of the booths closest to the soaring wall of windows on the east side of the building? So glorious is the view of the water that you may miss the brick-covered walls, the glistening wall of wine, the shots of amberlike art and the cyclone-shaped lighting pendants.
Owner David Baldwin says Kaluz cost more than $3.5 million to build. It looks like more. But looks aren't everything.
As my often wise co-diner said as we waited an impossibly long time for a server to approach our table: "For the professional job they did building the place, they're not backing it up operationally."
I'm hopeful that won't always be the case, but right now, Kaluz is a big, beautiful building still finding its way as a restaurant. The first 40 minutes of my first night at Kaluz were spent waiting. Waiting for a table even though we had a reservation. Waiting for a drink at the bar, but never succeeding. Waiting for a waiter for 10 minutes after being seated. On a second visit on a quiet Monday, service ran much smoother. But Kaluz deserves stronger service beginning at the hostess stand. It needs pizazz, charm — something beyond its good looks.
Baldwin spent 11 years working for Houston's and J. Alexander's before heading to Buenos Aires for a dozen years to oversee the opening of three successful Kansas Grill restaurants. He takes credit for introducing baby-back ribs to Argentina.
Chef Mike Knapik's menu offers a crowd-pleasing selection of classic American restaurant food: burgers, pasta, steaks and seafood. It doesn't break any new ground. One night, down-home, loaded-baked-potato soup ($7) was offered next to highbrow lobster bisque ($14). The bisque was a masterpiece with big chunks of meat that went beyond garnish.
Kaluz — a made-up word, by the way — wants to be the kind of place where you can spend $20 on a burger and a craft beer or $50 on that bisque and filet mignon ($34). The wine list seems chosen for value with very modest markups.
Start dinner with one of the flatbreads ($13-$14): long, rectangular cracker-crusted breads, served on long, wooden boards, in a choice of three different styles. Shrimp and goat cheese with dates, balsamic onions and red-bell peppers is my favorite, with a great balance of flavors and textures.
Appetizers are mostly solid. Sweet ginger calamari ($13) gets a goopy assist with chili-ginger beer glaze, cilantro, garlic aioli and lime. Although the tuna tartare ($14) contains both sriracha sauce and wasabi, it didn't pack the heat I'd expected. Likewise, the shrimp-and-salmon ceviche ($9) needs another element beyond citrus and onion. Coconut shrimp ($14) is so perfectly breaded and plated that you won't know if you should eat it or photograph it. Eat it. It's predictably good. While heavily dressed Caesar salad ($10) isn't for everyone, I loved the cold, crispy leaves, even if I couldn't taste a drop of lemon.
The Prime burger ($14) is outstanding. Eight ounces of ground chuck are topped with shaved prime rib, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese and creamy au jus. Our server offered some creamy horseradish sauce, which added still another flavor. If a burger is only as good as the fries it comes with, then Kaluz has a hit with this section of the menu. Both the regular fries and sweet-potato fries were wonderful.
Entrees were excellent. Bar Harbor crab cakes ($32) served with green beans and wild-rice pilaf start with big chunks of crab and very little filler. Cedar-plank salmon ($25) is just as good. The pan-seared scallops in scallops pomegranate ($29) had nice caramelized edges and were served with pomegranate reduction and mango compote, but I wasn't sure why the quinoa medley was served refrigerated. The dish needs a more-refined accompaniment.
The kitchen knows how to cook a steak, as it did with the 9-ounce filet served with thick chimichurri and a loaded baked potato. Pork tenderloin ($22) has a sweet cinnamon-apple sauce and Parmesan mashed potatoes. Pan-seared frenched chicken breast ($16) gets its flavor from fresh herbs. It was just a bit overdone.
Like so much of the menu, desserts will please everyone. What's not to like about a salted caramel brownie ($8)? Or a dish called Going Bananas ($8), in which banana bread is soaked in banana liqueur, topped with hazelnut icing and served with banana slices, dulce de leche and shaved coconut?
Food-wise, Kaluz is on course. And it's the hands-down winner of any beauty contest.
Now, it needs to work on developing some charisma.