D.B.A. Cafe will not win any awards for service. In fact, it took 20 minutes for us to figure out who our server even was. And by the time our meal was over, I'm sure everyone who works in the place had been to our table. But instead of clearing plates, offering new flatware or filling water glasses — the things that good servers intuitively do — each of them asked some version of, "How is everything going?"
It was most annoying.
In the triumvirate of restaurant criticism — food, service and decor — D.B.A. Cafe gets all its credibility from chef Steve Zobel's menu.
Zobel, who most recently opened East End Brasserie in the Atlantic Resort and Spa on Fort Lauderdale Beach, received a glowing review from the New York Times when he cheffed at Triomphe inside New York's Iroquois Hotel. Zobel knows French cuisine. It helps, too, that he brought along his sous chef, Sarge Robinson, from East End.
Their experience shows in ways big and small, but nowhere more clearly in a simple but exquisite starter: chicken-liver crostini with onions braised in sherry ($9). This delicate dish will convert even the most-stubborn liver-adverse. While I ought not rely on a cliche to describe what Zobel does with this liver, I can't help saying that it melts in your mouth.
Of course, D.B.A. isn't a French restaurant. It's a gastropub with a chef who brings his experience and skill to much-more-casual fare. I wish more gastropub chefs shared the same resume. While the menu changes monthly, the January menu offers oyster stew ($10), gnocchi with Gorgonzola cream sauce ($11 half/$19 whole), the Sarge Burger ($14) and phyllo-wrapped salmon with pesto and feta-tossed orzo ($14/$24).
No wonder D.B.A's slogan is "Food for the wandering palate."
The menu is filled with dishes — many available in full- or half-size portions — meant for sharing among friends. The food is a perfect match for the economically chosen wine list and the small but impressive beer selection.
You may start with the Mediterranean platter of baba ghanoush, hummus, tabbouleh, feta cheese and pita bread ($9). Fried calamari ($9) was unmistakably crispy and served with Thai chili dipping sauce and wasabi mayonnaise.
Naturally, the kitchen nails apricot-glazed duck confit ($15/$27). Braised short ribs ($15/$27) reminded me of how good they can be in capable hands. They were just tender enough, and tasted of beef rather than braising liquid. They're served with truffle-potato puree and sauteed spinach. To be honest, the truffle was difficult to discern.
Onion-crusted Florida grouper ($15/$27) was too heavily crusted for my taste, but the accompanying saffron-vanilla beurre blanc and mushroom risotto were done just right.
The best idea on the entree section of the menu is carnival Chicken ($14/$24): buttermilk-battered fried chicken and maple-glazed funnel cake. The carnival meets Southern-style chicken. I'll overlook the fact that, one night, the chicken was raw near the bone. I'll chalk it up to the fact that our server forgot we'd ordered the dish and rushed it into the kitchen when we were done with everything else.
Dessert selections are printed on a blackboard, where I hope you'll find strawberry-creme-fraiche cheesecake ($5), which may be the lightest cheesecake I've ever come across. I'm not always a fan of traditional, dense, cream-cheese-based cakes or ricotta cheesecakes. Following that logic, you'll see why I thought the chocolate mousse ($5) was cloyingly sweet. Not everyone at my table agreed.
D.B.A. is co-owned by Michael Lynch, former proprietor of Il Mercato Cafe and Wine Shop in Hallandale Beach, and Tom Moynihan, a one-time freelance artist who worked at Il Mercato.
Lynch and Moynihan built many of the restaurant's design elements, including the skyline on the back wall, created with pieces of wooden wine crates. With its faux-tin ceiling and thrift-store paintings, D.B.A. definitely has a DIY quality.
It's more rec room than dining room, a comfortable spot for your wandering palate. I don't doubt that they'll get service in order.
2364 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot