The initials H.P.B. are painted above the doorway at Hardy Park Bistro. The word "Beach" and an arrow pointing east are on one side of the building. A westward arrow and the word "Everglades" are on the other.
The historic South Side School sits across the street. Folks now play croquet on the lawn-bowling courts in the park that gave the restaurant its name. And as anyone who lives east of I-95 in South Florida comes to know, the steady, comforting sound of trains on the East Coast Railroad tracks is never far away.
Hardy Park Bistro just may be the sophisticated neighborhood restaurant of my dreams. I've watched this space go from pizza parlor to barbecue joint to Greek diner in the past several years. Phil Darmon and wife Jessica Rossitto have stripped away the detritus of the building's previous tenants and created a plain-but-polished, 40-seat dining room with space for two dozen more on the covered patio. It's as comfortable as the sandals you throw on after work. It's a restaurant for Fort Lauderdale, for people who live in nearby neighborhoods such as Tarpon River, Rio Vista and Croissant Park. Tourists should only be so lucky to find themselves here.
Darmon says the restaurant is precisely what he wanted after spending the past 11 years cooking on yachts that took him around the world. Originally from Australia, he has called Fort Lauderdale home since meeting Rossitto eight years ago. She works full-time as accounting manager for chef Angelo Elia's group of restaurants.
"I wanted to open the sort of restaurant that I've wanted to go to in Fort Lauderdale for years," Darmon says. "That's casual dining with simple, tasty food, with some knowledge behind it. I like that simple, chef-driven sort of experience."
The menu changes weekly. Darmon says just one item from the original menu — exceptional grilled octopus salad with arugula, roasted tomatoes, garlic and eggplant ($13.50) — is still being offered almost two months after the restaurant's opening.
At dinnertime, meals start with an amuse-bouche, which may be the delightfully tiny ham and manchego sandwich topped with a dollop of egg salad. Order that octopus salad if it's still there. You also can't go wrong with a starter of crab cakes ($15), two oversized meaty orbs served alongside fennel slaw and remoulade.
Most days, the bistro serves a half dozen or so appetizers and the same number of entrees. Earnest servers fill you in on daily specials, such as a shrimp salad ($16) in which oversized prawns have the wonderful charred flavor of the grill. Darmon uses top-notch ingredients.
Flat-iron steak ($26), perhaps the best of this cut I've ever had, is served with portobello mushrooms, baked potato and red-wine jus. It's simple, homey food. So is red-wine-braised short rib ($28), which gets its sweetness from palm sugar. The tender beef is served with soft polenta, spinach, roasted carrots and beets.
Grilled grouper ($28) receives a nice assist from jumbo shrimp, leeks, basil and cauliflower puree. Crisp, skinned salmon ($23) — a bit overdone for my taste — arrives with delicious sunchoke puree and a too-big scoop of salmon roe. The fishy roe is intrusive on the same plate with the mild-flavored salmon, but I'm not a big fan of roe outside of top-quality caviar.
I am, however, a fan of date pudding ($10), which Darmon does splendidly. His chocolate mousse ($10) should also be ordered by any fan of deep, rich cocoa flavors.
Service, like Fort Lauderdale itself, is friendly, although some of the servers could do a better job studying the menu.
As much as I like Hardy Park Bistro, I'm concerned it may be a little too expensive for the neighborhood. Yachties sometimes forget that we don't all own 300-foot yachts. I'd also like to see Darmon stretch his creativity. I'm sure that will come, because right now, so early in the game, he's still building a clientele and finding their comfort zone.
Right now, Darmon — along with sous chef Laura Hall, who once worked at Café Boulud in Palm Beach — is concentrating on his menu. He hopes to be serving liquor within the year. In the meantime, he offers a concise wine list full of good values.
By year two, Darmon would like Hardy Park Bistro to be open for three meals every day. "You can be driving to work, quickly park and have a great breakfast in the morning," he says. "You can come for a business meeting, and you can come for a drink after work. We want to be that little community neighborhood bistro that's open all the time, where the staff cares. That's our goal."
Hardy Park Bistro
21 SW Seventh St., Fort Lauderdale