Review: Terra Mare in Fort Lauderdale spans the globe in all its mixed-up glory

 

★★★

Global fusion cuisine is sometimes derided as “fusion confusion.” I suppose if anyone has the right to practice the scattered international approach, chef Johan Svensson fits the bill. Svensson was born in Sweden and has worked in New York, London and Hawaii. He has worked with Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson and French-born Laurent Tourondel. He has cooked haute Scandinavian (Aquavit in New York), high-end Japanese (Nobu in London) and affluent American (BLT Steak and BLT Market in Honolulu).

At Terra Mare, a pricey oceanfront restaurant at the stunning new Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach resort, Svensson puts out bold and challenging plates. The menu features flavors and techniques from nearly every continent. It is not particularly coherent, yet there is enough tasty intrigue to keep you wanting more.

My experience can best be summarized by the gold tart dessert ($10). A creamy and custardy passionfruit tart topped with meringue sat on one side of the plate, a scoop of lychee shiso sorbet on the other. I took a bite of the bracing sorbet, the shiso herb giving it minty spice, and then bit into the luscious tart. It seemed an unnerving culture clash of austere Asian and decadent European. At first, I hated it, and I told the server the sorbet would be nice on its own as a palate-cleaning intermezzo. “Let it melt a little, and then try them together,” she said. The more I ate, the more I liked it.

There is much to like about Terra Mare, which opened in September. The white dining room is chic and minimalist, blue agate over an LED screen on the rear wall giving off a cool glow at night. Service is polished, overseen by general manager Ryan Zemel, who previously worked in Palm Beach for Daniel Boulud at Café Boulud and chef Clay Conley at Buccan and Gratto. The bar and cocktails are good. Although it opened in conjunction with the Conrad, the restaurant is owned and operated separately by Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the same entity that owns the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. Terry and Kim Pegula are seasonal Boca Raton residents, and Terra Mare is their first South Florida restaurant and first fine-dining restaurant.

In two recent meals at Terra Mare, I had bites that were exhilarating and exasperating. Svensson excels with Middle Eastern and African dishes, which were among the more reasonable and satisfying options. Nduja-stuffed dates ($12), wrapped in bacon and served on crostini, were the perfect mix of sweet, salty and spicy. Chicken tagine ($29) featured three pieces of harissa-marinated chicken with spiced Israeli couscous in a tagine, a North African clay dish that the server uncovered with a dramatic flourish. The flavors were exquisite.

The kan kan pork chop ($92) was at the other end of the spectrum, a baffling, overpriced disaster. I had never eaten a $92 pork chop before, and I didn’t know if it came basted in Bitcoin and stuffed with gold. It was carved tableside theatrically by two servers, who assembled slices of belly onto bao buns with crunchy kimchi and two sauces, a sweet and spicy Korean ssam and piquant ginger-scallion vinaigrette. The meat was nearly all fat. The other pieces on our platter resembled raw bacon and ham steak.

Kan kan pork chop is served Puerto Rican-style on the bone, and it is supposed to be fatty, but the version here was simply weird. The exterior was crunchy and caramelized and tasted good, but the bits that weren’t pure fat were rubbery, juiceless and pink (we ordered it medium). Svensson says the pork chop is brined overnight, and is a popular seller shared by large groups. He says some cuts of the Berkshire pork may be fattier than others. I say the dish needs to be tweaked or go, or at least the pork should be upgraded to Kurobuta.

The kitchen has a good way with seafood, including seared scallops ($19) served with a jalapeno-corn relish and marred only by distracting pieces of sea sponge (enough with the sea sponge already, chefs). Seared salmon ($31) was also very good, cooked skin side down to perfection. The skin was crisp and delicious, the meat juicy and medium rare. The menu description, which called it “tartare,” was confusing. It was the pork chop that was tartare.

The salmon was one of the rare menu items showing Svensson’s Scandinavian background. “I don’t want to shock people with too much herring,” he says. But he isn’t afraid to go against the crowd-pleasing grain with some choices. Pasta is obligatory on a resort menu, but the version here was tagliatelle ($28) with lump-meat blue crab, an egg and funky sea-urchin butter. It was good.

But navigating the menu can be vexing, with the combination of flavors and continents not always meshing. At one meal, I started with simple blistered shishito peppers ($10) followed by grilled octopus ($15), and that worked fine. But at my next meal, a refined and precious plate of skimpily portioned tuna crudo ($17) with pressed watermelon, fennel seed and dainty herbs, was followed by a hefty plate of three brutish beef empanadas ($18).

“It’s the way I like to eat,” Svensson says. “A little here, a little there.”

Svensson says he was ready for a new challenge, so he traded the white sands of Waikiki Beach after seven years for the hurricane-eroded sand of Fort Lauderdale. He and Zemel are an experienced team, but they are feeling their way through new terrain. Svensson says he is learning the area and making contact with farmers and purveyors. Zemel wants to attract locals besides well-heeled resort guests (rooms at the all-suite Conrad are going for $769 nightly during the last week of December), and says they are reexamining prices.

Terra Mare and Svensson are welcome additions to the neighborhood, a strip that includes Burlock Coast at the Ritz-Carlton and Steak 954 at the W Fort Lauderdale. It is hard to believe this once was the province of the Button, the Candy Store and hordes of Spring Breakers partaking in beer chugging and wet T-shirt contests. Fort Lauderdale has grown up. Except for $92 pork chops, that is a good thing.

Terra Mare

551 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

954-414-5160 or TerraMareFl.com

Cuisine: All-day resort dining with global shareable plates at dinner

Cost: Expensive to very expensive. Small plates and appetizers cost $10-$36, entrees $29-48, family-style entrees $78-$105, sides $9, desserts $10

Hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily (until midnight Friday-Saturday and 10 p.m. Sunday), with separate menus for breakfast, lunch, weekend brunch and dinner

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Good craft cocktails, global wine list

Noise level: Conversational

Wheelchair access: Use valet entrance for level access, restaurant raised from sidewalk

Parking: Free valet or metered street

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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