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Review: The Cook and the Cork

★★★½

With apologies to everyone I know who lives in Coral Springs, I always thought your city was the definition of a bedroom community. Great housing stock. Great schools. Great chain shopping.

But not so much a great restaurant town.

So about the last thing I expected to find in the corner of a strip center at 8 p.m. on a Saturday was a stylish and noisily packed 40-seat restaurant that felt more and more like a lively dinner party as the evening went on. At the Cook and the Cork, owners Dena Lowell Blauschild and Keith Blauschild know what they're doing.

She's a Fashion Institute of Technology grad with style to spare. He's a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who worked at the Polo Club Boca Raton before opening Parkland Chef Catering with wife Dena in 2006. Along with loads of bridal and bar mitzvah work, they've cooked for visiting chefs in the green room at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and created events for such brands as Ferrari and Saks Fifth Avenue.

With the encouragement of their customers, they bought their building in 2013 to use not only as a catering kitchen, but also as a restaurant. It opened in June.

From the interior design to the menu, the Blauschilds present a strong point of view. Dena bought most of the furniture and lighting, including a gorgeous tiled bar, from chef Michelle Bernstein's now-shuttered Sra. Martinez. It's hard to believe this spot was once an animal hospital.

The menu is solidly comforting, whether Keith is cooking up potato-filled pierogies ($9) with lightly browned onions and sour cream or Hudson Valley foie gras ($18) on wild mushroom French toast. He goes from high to low and back again in one menu category. He is clearly a master of many techniques, and I want the recipe for almost everything on his menu.

Start, or finish, with small plates such as spare ribs ($13) braised in pear juice, covered in Korean-style barbecue sauce and plated over a pile of cucumber kimchi. The ribs are meaty and just tender enough. I love that the duck confit ($16) not only has a pecan crust, but gets served with red sauerkraut and macerated Riesling grapes that offset the richness of the poultry.

Zucchini pancakes ($50) are topped with a dollop of Osetra caviar and lemon-cream fraiche. Smoke-roasted salmon ($12) is so delicately cooked that the flesh practically melts in your mouth. Lobster mac and cheese ($16) features good, old elbow macaroni, white cheddar and tarragon sauce that's ingeniously presented in the empty half shell of a lobster. While I usually love the combination of chicken and waffles ($9), both ingredients had an identical texture. The chicken wasn't quite crispy, and the waffles were similarly mushy. I did like the mini bottle of syrup made from corn syrup, ancho chili and lime.

There are fewer entrees than apps, but they are similarly diverse. It seemed as if the entire restaurant was eating pappardelle Bolognese ($22), made with American Kobe beef and basil-infused ricotta. I'm not eating so much pasta these days. Instead, we ordered grilled lamb chops ($34) with rosemary-roasted potatoes and an incredible tomatillo-mint chutney that the Blauschilds ought to sell in jars. A 10-ounce, dry-aged strip steak ($32) is served with house-made steak sauce and warm mushroom-horseradish salad. If you want a bigger steak, it can be cut to order. The only entree that didn't meet my expectations was sous vide Lake Meadow Farms half chicken ($21). This cooking method usually results in very moist meat. Not here. Perhaps it spent too much time being "finished" on the grill?

The chicken's accompanying braised vegetarian collard greens can be ordered as a side dish for $8. There's also delicious agave-lime-and-green-chili eggplant ($6) and interesting Brussels sprouts ($8) with dried cranberries, walnuts and caramelized shallots. I've never seen stir-fried flowering chives ($7) on a non-Asian menu, but here they are delightfully done with white balsamic, olive oil and a touch of Parm-Reg.

The chef's successes continue at dessert with a huge apple cobbler ($10), served with cinnamon-gelato ice cream; pecan pie ($10) with chocolate whipped cream; and a very good Key lime pie ($8) served with a coconut tuile.

Service at the Cook and the Cork isn't so much unpolished as it is unabashedly friendly. This isn't fine dining, just a very good neighborhood restaurant deserving of becoming a destination. Wine people should know that the chef is also a sommelier, and he's put together a concise, reasonable list. The corkage fee is $25.

You can also take home a piece of the restaurant for breakfast. Keith cures and smokes bacon that sells for $7 per half pound. There's also house-smoked salmon ($11 per half pound) and smoked chicken and apple sliders ($12 for four).

On the phone a few days after my visit, Dena tells me that there are some profound differences between being a caterer and a restaurateur.

"In the catering business, we do major life milestone events," she says. "You really get to know people."

That's not necessarily true in most restaurants, but Dena is working to change that. Don't be surprised if Dena comes to your table and introduces herself.

"We're having a catered party here every night," she says. ""I kind of feel like when I don't know somebody, they're a stranger in my house. It's weird. I have stranger danger."

jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.

The Cook and the Cork

9890 W. Sample Road, Coral Springs

954-227-2665, TheCookandTheCork.com

Cuisine: Eclectic American

Cost: Moderate-expensive

Hours: Dinner Wednesday-Saturday

Reservations: Strongly suggested

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Beer and wine

Sound level: Noisy when full

Outside smoking: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Free lot

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