When Mike Hampton and Christy Samoy first approach our table in aprons and T-shirts, we're not sure what to make of Hot & Soul, their two-month old, trailblazing restaurant on Federal Highway near Oakland Park Boulevard.
They'll return — again and again — to tell us about their eight years in New Orleans, where they went to culinary school and perfected their seafood-free Gumbo Yumbo ($16). Hampton might say it was his love of chicken wings that led to the creation of his Pig Wing ($9), made from the well-trimmed lower portion of the shank. This almost grownup homage comes with a Crystal Hot Sauce beurre blanc and maque choux, the classic Louisiana corn dish.
Without Hampton and Samoy — married 11 years and together 21 since meeting at Florida State University — there would be no Hot & Soul. Because what they've brought to Fort Lauderdale's restaurant scene is an ambitious and new kind of personal restaurateuring. They have put so much of themselves into their business, they could have called it Heart & Soul.
Fifty people — almost too many, they say — can fit into the former pizza parlor set between a Chinese takeout and a Pilates studio. There are too many TVs in the dining room for my taste, but Hampton says they not only inherited them, but may use them for "Breaking Bad" nights when the final season begins in August. Aside from the wooden tops recycled from a Kentucky barn and used on the communal table, Hot & Soul's ordinary decor belies its extraordinary menu. I suspect that's the way they wanted it to be.
My biggest criticism is the restaurant's menu-writing. Who'd know, for instance, that an appetizer called Hunk A Meat ($9) is house-made country pate, with pork, chicken and a little chicken liver? There's a bit of sherry in the terrine instead of more typical cognac, and it's accompanied with their own whole-grain mustard and mango paste. That's hardly a hunk of meat. No matter.
The Pig Wing, soaked in buttermilk before being fried, ought to become a regular menu item instead of a special. The seafood-less Gumbo Yumbo might have been inspired in the kitchen at Emeril's Delmonico, where Hampton cooked alongside Lagasse. One night, Hampton and Samoy stuffed squid with house-made chorizo ($7) and served it in an incredible smoked paprika and San Marzano tomato sauce. Gnaughty Gnocchi ($16) uses more of that tomato sauce, along with slowly braised oxtail. Hampton says it's his riff on the spaghetti and meatballs of his childhood. It is divine.
Even more divine is the Vegan Yum Bowl ($14), which Samoy created during a visit to the home of a vegan friend. It uses coconut, an ingredient familiar from her Filipino background, to make coconut polenta, which she serves with rich mushroom gravy and tops with crispy onions and microgreens. If all vegan food were this good, there'd be many more vegans.
But meat lovers are doing to love a dish called Go Fork an Egg ($18), a cast iron-grilled culotte steak with a fried egg, French fries and a house-made steak sauce, which they hope tastes just like bottled A.1. Culotte is cut from the sirloin and has a deep beefy flavor. Samoy gets to show off her roots again with chicken adobo ($14), the deep-flavored vinegar and soy dish that some people call the national dish of the Philippines.
Whatever you eat here, Hot & Soul is the antidote to those people who've grown tired of restaurant experiences imbued with a soulless corporate quality.
"We're a mom-and-pop in the truest sense of the word," Hampton says. "What turns us on is finding the best hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant or the best Ethiopian place. We wanted to bring that vibe to something more modern."
To say that they've so far succeeded would be an understatement.
3045 N. Federal Highway, Coral Center, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot