He ran a successful Montreal restaurant for four decades, but Bernard Ragueneau remains a Frenchman at heart. When I mention how much I like the poutine he serves at Thursday's Fort Lauderdale, an outpost of the Montreal mainstay he brought last year to Las Olas Boulevard, I can practically see his nose turn up through the phone.
Poutine, for the unfamiliar, is french fries with melted cheese curds and gravy. It is wildly popular in Quebec. Ragueneau serves it at his restaurants grudgingly, and only because his daughter Savannah, a manager and partner in his latest venture, insists.
"I have to make concessions," says Ragueneau, 71. "The kids love it."
He would much rather talk about his steak tartare ($18), the raw tenderloin blended with cayenne pepper and other secret ingredients that he personally whips up every time it's ordered. It is sushi for red-meat lovers, served with endive and toasted bread. It's rich and delicious.
Like the clash between tartare and poutine, Thursday's Fort Lauderdale is a mash-up of old and new, part classic French brasserie and part modern North American sports bar. It has solid food and ambiance. The large, handsome room has chandeliers and mirrors, large TVs above the bar, and some quirky crocodile statues perched above the open kitchen. (Ragueneau explains they once adorned a country restaurant he ran in Quebec named Crocodiles. He figures they'll blend into Florida alligator country just swimmingly.)
One thing the cavernous room didn't have on multiple visits over the past two months is customers. On my first lunch visit, a May weekday, there wasn't another live table in the house. On my most recent visit last weekend, only 17 diners were in the room at peak dinner hour.
It's a bit disconcerting. Thursday's deserves better.
"I'm going to make it work," the Versailles-born Ragueneau says. "It's just a matter of time."
Ragueneau can afford to be patient, because he bought the building that houses the restaurant. The location is tough — on the eastern edge of the downtown Las Olas stretch, one block past the Floridian and just beyond the bustle of most foot traffic. Quebec snowbirds have found him in season, and he's hopeful well-heeled residents of Fort Lauderdale's finger islands will, too.
"Thank God I don't have to pay myself a salary," Ragueneau quips. "Otherwise, I'd be retired again."
Ragueneau came to South Florida a few years ago, after handing off the Montreal Thursday's to his son. After a year and a half of watching TV and riding his bicycle, Ragueneau says he realized he wasn't the retiring type. So he, wife Arlene and daughter Savannah opened the restaurant last October.
With longtime downtown Las Olas stalwart Cafe de Paris' closing earlier this year, Thursday's capably fills the Fort Lauderdale French void. Executive chef Olivier Rebuffel, another French native, spent 10 years at the Montreal Thursday's. There are daily specials and happy hours with free chicken wings, guacamole and housemade chips. The restaurant will offer a $42 three-course set meal to mark Bastille Day on July 14. There's also a weekend brunch with bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys for an extra $12.
You can't go wrong with French comfort food here. The lunch menu offers a classic croquet monsieur ($14), eggy brioche slathered with butter, stuffed with ham and Gruyere cheese and broiled to golden brown, gooey goodness. The lobster roll ($19) is generous with chunks of North Atlantic lobster meat, lightly dressed with tarragon mayonnaise. Tuna carpaccio ($16) is a bit discordant, the salsa verde and olive tapenade clashing with the thin slices of raw fish that tasted a little off.
And there's that poutine ($10), the Quebecois version of nachos. Hand-cut shoestring frites are double-fried in a blend of oil and lard, topped with Wisconsin cheese curds and covered with a brown gravy. Ragueneau explains that most poutines use chicken stock, but he also adds beef stock for better color and flavor. My 10-year-old daughter loved it. So did the grownups at my table.
There were more hits than misses at dinner. The meal begins with crusty, chewy baguette, served with butter, a block of mild cheese and a bowl of cornichons, small gherkin pickles. That gives you a chance to look over the reasonable wine list, with many offered at $9 a glass and $35 a bottle. There's a fine line between a slow meal and a leisurely one, and Thursday's managed to straddle the line toward leisure. The only complaint: rock music that was cranked a little too loud over the speaker system at one point.
Our server was friendly and capable, although a bit scattered. He was the only one working the floor, and we occasionally had to ask twice for sharing plates, a bowl for empty seafood shells and water refills.
Ragueneau came to the table to check how we liked the steak tartare and salmon tartare ($18). The appetizer half-portions were generous and rich, and both could have easily been shared three or four ways. The foie gras ($21) was even richer (hey, it's foie gras), duck liver prepared pate-style with toasted slices of baguette.
The mussels mariniere ($25) featured fresh mussels from New Brunswick in a light wine sauce. Lamb rack Provencale ($30) was served whole and cooked perfectly medium rare, with the New Zealand lamb baked in Dijon mustard and bread-crumbs coating. A thin bone-in ribeye ($38) was slightly overcooked past medium rare, but had good seasoning and a smoky flavor. That's because all steaks are grilled on a wood stove, Ragueneau says. On this night, the stove was filled with hickory. The steak was served with balanced béarnaise sauce and crunchy shoestring frites.
The only downer was the bouillabaisse ($32), a packed seafood stew marred by overcooked mahi-mahi and a broth that was too heavy for my liking. It was served with grilled bread and rouille, a traditional French mayonnaise with saffron, garlic and cayenne for dipping.
Desserts were mixed. The creme brulee ($9) was creamy and tasty, but the Paris-brest ($9), a hazelnut-creme stuffed choux pastry topped with almonds, was a bit stale. No cheese plate is listed on the menu, but the restaurant accommodated a special request, assembling a mountain of Camemberts, Bries and hard cheeses ($13).
By the time we finished, the room was nearly empty. Our happy bellies were not.
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1521 East Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Cuisine: French bistro and bar
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with TV screens
Sound level: Conversational, background music and live bands in season
Outside smoking: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Metered street parking and nearby lots.