The Balcony, a two-story restaurant and bar complex meant to evoke the French Quarter in New Orleans, is a good fit for Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. It is not quite Bourbon Street — the second-level balcony bar overlooks a Chabad synagogue — but this lively spot is stylish and gorgeous, with no expense spared in the design. It is a great (and already quite popular) place to drink and people-watch. As a dining experience, however, it has some adjustments to make, as football players and announcers like to say.
“I feel like we’re in the game,” says Kim Bokamper, the former Miami Dolphin and local sportscaster whose restaurant group opened the Balcony in May. “Las Olas is a competitive market, and we came in feeling like we needed to make a statement.”
The Balcony certainly has the wow factor going for it. Bokamper would not divulge the build-out cost, other than to say he wished he still had an NFL player’s salary to pay for it. Public records show that his PDKN partnership paid $3.8 million for the property, formerly Whiskey Jack’s restaurant, in October 2016. The upper level features two bars and a dining area with roughly 100 seats and the main dining room seats 180.
Bokamper’s group is no stranger to running big restaurants. It now operates five Bokamper’s sports bars, including a mammoth one on the Intracoastal in Fort Lauderdale. The Balcony represents a step up in ambition and sophistication. There are still televisions beaming ESPN and chicken wings and sliders on the menu at the Balcony, but there are also $89 seafood platters, $28 charcuterie boards and sometimes a $98 tomahawk steak special served family style on a Boos block cutting board.
The level of detail — in the design elements and little touches for drinking and eating — are impressive. Decorative tile adorns the staircase. Wrought iron lines the balcony. The main bar features mahogany walls and tiny fleurs-de-lis on panels that read, “Sip,” “Savor” and “Tipple.” The upper dining area features ferns and retractable windows activated by remote control. Highball glasses are crystal and wine is poured in elegant Chef & Sommelier stemware. The andouille sausage appetizer ($15) is accompanied by a tiny jar of Le Must Dijon mustard and lemon for oysters is served in an unusual squeeze gadget that resembles a plastic swan.
Now, if the Balcony could just adjust some of the bigger-picture stuff it would be set. On the night I dined, our seating choices were hot or loud, and the food was hit and miss. Some dishes were very good (smoked gumbo, vegetarian red beans and rice, pan-fried snapper) and others dull and mediocre (crawfish etouffee, shrimp-and-alligator jambalaya, crab cakes).
The upstairs dining area, which has become more of a drinking playground for the young and trendy with DJs later at night, was humid and uncomfortable. And the main dining room, which features live music almost every night, had a full brass band playing, which made things unbearably loud and conversation nearly impossible. We did not expect such an auditory onslaught on a mellow summer Tuesday. Decibel readings were in the 80s and higher while the band played, according to a noise-level app on my phone.
“We’re still trying out bands and sorting out which ones are a good fit,” Bokamper explains. He agrees that lounge singers and piano players would be better for earlier in the week, with brash brass reserved for weekends.
Musicians are not the only things that need cooling. An open-air rooftop is a good idea in January, but not so much in July. Sideways rain almost ruined the fabric of the upper banquettes last week, so management has gone into Marlins stadium mode, ordering the retractable windows shut on days when rain threatens (that is to say every day). New jumbo air-conditioning units have been installed upstairs, and patrons will soon discover if they can keep up with the elements. It cools off nicely at night, but daytime and early evening can still be quite sticky.
Our group started with drinks at the balcony bar, cooled by a pleasant breeze. The Vieux Carre, a bourbon, brandy and bitters New Orleans classic, was very good but has not been selling and will be pulled from the menu, but it will still be available upon request. The Sazerac is also undergoing a revamp, with a switch to the traditional version found in New Orleans (straight up instead of on the rocks). Hurricanes here have been selling strong, and they are yellowish-gold instead of Pat O’Brien’s red, but they still taste sickly sweet. They are best left to the 20-somethings.
Service was gracious and accommodating. Once we made our way downstairs, we didn’t like the horseshoe-shaped banquette offered and we didn’t want a hightop. The house rearranged standard-height tables near the front window — away from the stage — to make us happy.
The food was a seesaw ride. We loved the smoky gumbo ($10), given an added flavor boost from chorizo, but were not thrilled with crab cakes, which had too much filler ($26). The andouille sausage ($15), served with a mound of collard greens, was very good, but the oysters Bienville ($16) were an overbreaded disappointment, with bacon, mushrooms and the oyster lost beneath panko. They came with a Meyer lemon-green onion relish that seemed like marmalade and was a complete mismatch. Beef sliders ($15) had good flavor but were overcooked, and Natchitoches pie ($16) — empanada-like, beef-filled shells — were good and came with a delectable green, serrano chili hot sauce.
Chef Simon Porter, an amiable Brit who moved to Fort Lauderdale after many years helming the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton Puerto Rico, has a way with European dishes such as a very good chicken schnitzel ($19, perhaps the best value on the menu). One would expect that from a chef who has worked in Switzerland and Belgium. But he’s still feeling his way around the bayous and boulevards of Louisiana.
The jambalaya ($22) did not have soul, with dialed-back spice and mushy rice and proteins, and the crawfish etouffee ($23) was a dud, with lifeless and frozen crawfish used. I say Porter should ditch the dish when fresh crawfish are not in season or available.
Porter and crew have a challenge in that the kitchen is located upstairs, with food sent down by two dumbwaiters. Temperature was not an issue with our plates, as all came out appropriately hot and warm.
Desserts were a strong point, with good bread pudding ($10) and fun, flambeed, tableside preparations of bananas Foster or crepes Suzette available ($10 per person). The coffee, Jamaican Blue Mountain, was excellent.
Cuisine: American with emphasis on Southern and Cajun-Creole
Cost: Moderate to expensive. Soups and salads cost $8-$18, small plates $8-28, large plates $17-29. Desserts $10-20. Kids menu items $7-$16.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-midnight Sunday
Reservations: Accepted, by phone or online
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full liquor with craft cocktails, craft beers on tap and good, fairly priced wine list. Corkage fee $30 for outside wine not available on list
Noise level: Conversational at lunch, uncomfortably loud when bands (downstairs) and DJs (upstairs) get cranking
Wheelchair access: Dining room ground level, elevator to upstairs bars
Parking: Metered street and paid lots