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The Eat Beat Dining around South Florida
with Mike Mayo

Wanted: A four-star restaurant in Broward. Does Greater Fort Lauderdale have an outstanding eatery?

Greater Fort Lauderdale has many very good restaurants — particularly modest, family-run ethnic eateries — and a dispiriting number of mediocre, overpriced ones. But what about a great restaurant?

I ask because I have been reviewing restaurants professionally for nearly three years and I have yet to award a top rating of four stars, meaning excellent/outstanding, to any restaurant in Broward County. That’s 0-for-90, for those keeping track.

Before anyone thinks that I am some persnickety perfectionist, consider that I have awarded top ratings six times in 132 reviews (5 percent). Yet all six restaurants have been outside Broward, with four in Miami-Dade (Bazaar Mar, KYU, Plant Miami and Stubborn Seed) and two in Palm Beach County (Oceano Kitchen and 32 East, which closed in May after 21 years).

Is the problem with my home county or with me?

A lively discussion recently took place on Let’s Eat, South Florida, a Facebook group that SouthFlorida.com started in October, when member Leslie Fine remarked on “the dearth of truly delicious food” in eastern Broward. Another group member, Neil Solomon, said Fort Lauderdale’s restaurant scene was “stuck in 1985.” Wayne Howell wrote, “It’s easier for restaurants to serve so-so food because there will always be tourists.” Fine considers herself a seasoned traveler and foodie who moved to Fort Lauderdale a few years ago after living in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. Her opinion of her new hometown’s dining landscape: “Extreme disappointment.”

Fort Lauderdale once had award-winning, critically acclaimed chefs in their prime such as Mark Militello at Mark’s Las Olas, Johnny Vinczencz at Johnny V, and Dean James Max at Ocean 3030 at the Harbor Beach Marriott.

Lately, the hottest arrivals seem to be brewpubs, bowl-based eateries, taco joints and burger bistros with boozy shakes. I don’t think we’ll have the James Beard Award folks knocking anytime soon. And the area has lost chef-driven restaurants such as Market 17 and Hot and Soul in Fort Lauderdale and Lola’s and Ends Meat in Hollywood.

I have spoken with several chefs and restaurateurs about the lack of innovative dining, and the consensus is that Fort Lauderdale restaurantgoers are unadventurous, with vanilla palates. That makes restaurants play it safe. Higher rents preclude mom-and-pop entrepreneurs from opening and limit the field to risk-averse corporate outfits with deep pockets. And restaurateurs, faced with slimmer profit margins and more competition from better takeout options at markets and home-delivered, DIY meal kits such as Blue Apron, are paring costs by opening more fast-casual restaurants, where patrons order at the register and carry their own food.

Restaurants that try to do something different, such as Ki’Na, a modern Asian-fusion restaurant that closed after eight months, usually flop, so we end up with a never-ending stream of Italian restaurants and Mexican eateries. And pricey steak and seafood chains.

“We have a saying around the office when we’re working on a new concept: ‘We have to Browardize it,’ ” Fort Lauderdale restaurateur Tim Petrillo says. Petrillo and chef Peter Boulukos are co-founders of the Restaurant People, which operates seven eateries in Fort Lauderdale (including Yolo, S3 and Boatyard) and two in Tallahassee. Petrillo says ideas seen in other cities have to be tweaked for the local market with lower pricing and less formality.

It is disappointing that an area with so many educated, young professionals and well-heeled, older residents can’t seem to support novel, sophisticated, full-service restaurants. I traveled this year to Nashville, Portland, Maine, and Charleston, S.C., and had better meals in each during two-day trips than in Broward all year.

By no means are we a food wasteland. I have awarded 3 1/2 stars (very good) to 17 Broward restaurants, roughly one in every five reviews. But when it comes to a gastronomic showcase to wow visitors, the pickings are slim.

The next great hope for Fort Lauderdale comes with the Nov. 30 opening of Dune at the Auberge Beach Residences & Spa, a collaboration between the highly regarded outfit that runs the Auberge du Soleil Resort and its Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa Valley, Calif., and the family that owned Ireland’s Inn, which was razed for the new luxury condo project.

What makes a four-star restaurant? In my mind, it is one with creative and tasty cuisine, polished and professional service and a setting that is distinct, well-designed and comfortable. Consistency is key, along with a welcoming, unpretentious attitude. A four-star restaurant is also one that can be called a dining destination, worth a long drive or lengthy wait for a table or reservation. Institutions such as Bern’s Steak House in Tampa or Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach qualify.

Last year, South Florida radio personality and restaurant maven Paul Castronovo texted, “Woweee!” to me after he dined at Bazaar Mar by Jose Andres in Miami, one of my four-star recipients. “Miami is solid, plenty of world-class places to dine,” he wrote. But he wondered about Broward: “Can you name any world-class places up there?”

“I think Angelo [Elia] does a four-star job,” says Stacy Ritter, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

I’ve had some excellent meals at chef Angelo Elia’s flagship Casa D’Angelo in Fort Lauderdale, which was awarded 3 1/2 stars by my predecessor in a 2015 review and celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. But one of my regular dining companions reported disappointment over a birthday meal there this year that featured indifferent service and lackluster food.

I have enjoyed four-star dishes in my travels around Broward — the wondrous ramen at Shimuja in Davie and the housemade pastas at Pasta And … in Margate come to mind — but every restaurant I’ve assessed has fallen short in some regard. Shimuja and Pasta And … had problems executing seafood items on their menus. Bubbles & Pearls in Wilton Manors has bold, inventive dishes from chef Josie Smith-Malave, but the space is cramped and the high-top tables are uncomfortable. Southern Spice in Hollywood has a talented chef in Malcolm Prude, but also has underwhelming atmosphere. Arun’s Indian Kichen in Coral Springs is among the many notable and reasonable ethnic eateries found off the touristy path, but it is the proverbial hole in the wall. Monkitail at the Diplomat Resort in Hollywood is gorgeous and mostly delicious, but it had uneven service on my visits and uses gas instead of traditional Japanese charcoal for its robata grill.

In the past, before my critiquing days, I had four-star meals at several Broward restaurants that fell short with my predecessor. Chef Giovanni Rocchio’s Valentino Cucina Italiana in Fort Lauderdale received three stars and a slight scolding from former dining critic John Tanasychuk in 2015. Canyon, the 24-year-old Southwestern gem in Fort Lauderdale famed for its prickly pear margaritas, was awarded 3 1/2 stars in 2015. (Our policy is to wait at least three years before re-review.)

The latest Fort Lauderdale restaurants from the Restaurant People show how dining has changed in the past generation. Township, a loud, German-style, beer-hall-meets-millennial-sports-bar, opened in June. Spatch, a fast-casual, grilled-chicken eatery, opened its second Fort Lauderdale location in May. Both are a far cry from Himmarshee Bar & Grille, the urbane, upscale restaurant that revitalized the area near the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in the 1990s. Petrillo’s group this year also opened TRP Taste, a 24-seat dining room with an open kitchen that hosts special events and visiting chefs. It has an innovative vibe, but Petrillo calls it more “experimental culinary theater” than traditional restaurant, open only a few times a month.

I’ve lived in Broward for almost 30 years, and I’m saddened to say that we seem to be sliding backward when it comes to restaurants that challenge or excite diners. There was a glorious time in the mid-1990s to early 2000s when eaters could enjoy top-flight meals at Mark’s Las Olas, Bistro Mezzaluna, Johnny V or Himmarshee Bar & Grille.

Himmarshee was special, Petrillo says, an example of how a restaurant with a dedicated young staff can shine and transform an area. Petrillo’s group sold the restaurant in 2008, and it closed in 2011. Now, his universe has expanded, with his eye on more projects in more cities. A decade ago, the Restaurant People ushered in traditional restaurants such as S3 on Fort Lauderdale beach and Yolo on Las Olas Boulevard. Lately, the company has focused on more casual and more drinking-focused concepts such as Township, Tarpon River Brewing and Rooftop at 1WLO. Petrillo says times and styles have changed.

Unfortunately for serious eaters, the change in Broward has not been for the better.

Four-star gems in South Florida

Over three years and 132 formal reviews, I have awarded four-star ratings only six times, but never in Broward. One top-rated restaurant, 32 East in Delray Beach, closed in May after a 21-year run. The other five are:

Oceano Kitchen, Lantana (American): Innovative, ever-changing small menu from chef-owners Jeremy and Cynthia Bearman.

Stubborn Seed, Miami Beach (American): Gorgeous, delicious plates from “Top Chef” winner Jeremy Ford.

Bazaar Mar, Miami (Seafood/Spanish): Chef Jose Andres and crew pull off wondrous feats with sea treats (and Iberico ham) in Brickell.

KYU, Miami (Wood-fired Asian): Perfumed oak perfection from the grill of chef Michael Lewis in relaxed Wynwood setting.

Plant Miami (formerly Plant Food + Wine), Miami (Vegan): Astounding food that happens to be vegan in an urban oasis. Kitchen remains strong after ownership drama.

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

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