Hollywood views the tropics differently from those of us who live here. In film, harried workers dream of escaping to a little beachfront shack in paradise.
600 N. Surf Road (on Broadwalk), Hollywood
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Hours: lunch, dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Bar: full service
Sound level: moderate
Smoking: areas allowing and prohibiting
Children's facilities: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
For the husband-and-wife team of Patrick Farnault and Robin Seger, something opposite occurred: After working in the French Caribbean for many years, they left the islands to open a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, the tropically evocative Victoria Park.
By the early 1990s, they wanted a beach place, however, and took over a small cafe on the Hollywood beachfront.
I was sad to see them leave the charming Victoria Park, but Sugar Reef made the transition worthwhile. Seger, a designer, created a happy island feel just as she had at Victoria Park, and Farnault's cooking became more laid-back without losing its appeal.
There is a surprising scarcity of good waterfront dining in South Florida, but Sugar Reef has stood the test of time as it nears completion of its first decade. On my most-recent visits, it felt a little tired and not everything on the menu has the verve or subtlety it once did, but Sugar Reef is still a thoroughly enjoyable spot for a culinary outing without pretension.
Sugar Reef is a bit like an upscale beach house, totally open to the water, or more accurately, to the walkway in front of the beach in front of the water. It is prime people-watching territory, with tables on a terrace as well as inside. The inside can be air-conditioned, but the outside usually has a pleasant enough breeze to be a welcome spot for relaxation even on very warm evenings.
Like the view, the starters at Sugar Reef haven't changed much over the years. The escargot ($7.50) are classic French bistro fare given a classic garlic and butter treatment. I particularly like the potato pancake with smoked salmon ($8.50), though the chive-studded cake is a bit mushier these days than in the past. A bowl of calamari sauteed in broth, lemon and garlic ($8.75) gets a big bump from chopped chilies, but the dish harmonizes very well. It's a large portion, and certainly enough to serve as a starter for two.
Another longtime favorite at Sugar Reef is a large plate of portobello mushroom strips sauteed in red wine and pesto ($8.50). The mushroom firms up enough to get a strong meaty consistency and a satisfying flavor.
The last time I tried the jerk shrimp ($11.50), they were a little dried out, the only disappointment among the starters.
Farnault understands the beachfront and knows that sometimes a glass of white wine and a salad is the perfect antidote to a hot day. I'm fond of the beet salad ($7.50) he occasionally features as a special. The grilled endive with blue cheese and mustard vinaigrette ($7.50) is both refreshing and substantial.
Among entrees, Farnault provides lighter plates with pasta, and more traditional main courses as well. All the pasta dishes are available with angel hair, penne or fettuccine, and all are cooked appropriately al dente.
The angel hair works well with Farnault's fresh tomato sauce augmented by a splash of pesto ($9.50), underscoring his frequent association of beachfront Florida with the Mediterranean. He also offers a seafood mix in a moderately cream-enriched tomato and pesto sauce ($18.75).
Another seafood option, a tropical/Thai take on bouillabaisse ($19), will throw traditionalists off base with its heavy addition of coconut milk and lemon grass. I liked the flavors, though some will find the dish too heavy.
An option is pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup studded with chicken and shrimp ($18) -- it is delightfully flavorful. Farnault offers a number of fish dishes based on what he finds at the market, and a simple grilling or napping with a light Creole sauce is often his recommended presentation. All the fish are at market price.
The biggest disappointment on my last visit was a dish I've always loved at Sugar Reef. Farnault roasts a pork tenderloin and serves it with mashed potatoes and brown sauce ($17). This time, the pork was dry, the potatoes lacked freshness and the sauce was like instant gravy. A better bet is the skirt steak marinated in lemon juice ($17.50) or the roast duck with mango salsa ($22.50).
The wine list at Sugar Reef is small but has some interesting and well-priced options, including convenient half-bottles. I like his Rhone reds (the Moillard Cotes-du-Rhone is just $22), and, among the whites, a crisp Sancerre ($29). They suit Farnault's breezy style perfectly. It may have lost some verve from its early days, but Sugar Reef is still a sweet place on the beach.
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