Reveling in the Decadence

I suppose we should congratulate restaurateurs Carlo Vaccarezza and J.R. Bautista. It's not often two male partners give birth to fraternal twins: Petaluma and Smoke, joint restaurants that opened two months ago at 2861 and 2863 E. Commercial Blvd., respectively, in Fort Lauderdale.

Like many multiple births, the bouncing baby eateries were born after a seven-month gestational period, and not without effort -- during that in vivo time, when the infants were just a wink-wink in their creators' eyes, Vaccarezza and Bautista renovated the site, formerly Coco Pazzo, extensively. After dining in one or the other of these outstanding restaurants, however, you'd call them anything but premature.

Ex vivo, Petaluma and Smoke continue to share both a womb (the management) and a nerve center (the kitchen). So while they may have separate identities and atmospheres, Petaluma, a contemporary American place, and the adjoining Smoke (the entrance to which is through Petaluma), a "chophouse and cigar bar," are not competing but symbiotically going for the same monied crowd.

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In the 120-seat Petaluma, the white-tablecloth decor is formal, with slick, blond wood floors, subtle sponge-painted walls, dim lighting, and a sleek baby grand complete with tuxedoed piano player Alan Cole. Smoke is a bit cozier, with 40 seats, a separate bar, and no musical entertainment. But at both establishments, the servers and managers wear suits, and the prices are steep. At Smoke, for example, a strip sirloin will run you $31.95, a lobster tail $39.95; at the Petaluma bar, a glass of wine will cost you a ten-spot. Yet you can't help but revel in the decadence.

Not to mention Executive Chef David Konopelski's fare. A former head chef at Maxaluna and sous chef at Mark's Las Olas, Konopelski's contemporary, New American dishes with Italian influences at Petaluma were beautifully prepared, as were the Smoke offerings we sampled. (You may order from both menus wherever you sit, but the more complicated fare may be challenged by Smoke's, well, smoky surroundings.) Aside from jumbo, lump-meat crabcakes and an overdone, heavily salted duck confit with intrusive mango-currant-mint relish and baby bok choy, available only in Petaluma, the appetizer lists don't differ much from each other.

For instance both restaurants serve a wonderful starter of tuna-wrapped oysters placed over curried carrot broth. Strips of lightly seared, rare tuna cradled poached oysters that were soft as new snow. The oysters were interspersed with peeled, cooked baby carrots, which highlighted the vegetable sweetness of the mild curry broth, as did a centerpiece of tangy collard greens. The combination of textures was terrific, though we were a bit surprised that the four oysters were served at room temperature, while the liquid was warm.

Also a key player on both menus, the charcoaled Mediterranean calamari steak appetizer featured hot-and-cold contrasts, this time to the dish's advantage. The grilled squid, sliced into more than half a dozen tender scallops, blanketed a cool froth of salad: arugula, green olives, and roasted red and yellow peppers. A vinaigrette complemented the peppery lettuce, which, thanks to its maturity, didn't wilt under the calamari. Be warned, however, that this dish is a meal-size portion, and the description of it doesn't mention the enormous pile of greens that supports the squid.

Salads in general seemed huge. We couldn't finish a platter of crisp mixed greens, dressed with a vibrant champagne vinaigrette and garnished with crumbled chunks of Maytag blue cheese, chopped walnuts, and slices of pear. I don't usually care for the graininess of that fruit, but even I was impressed by the juicy julienne that stood up to the sharpness of the vinegar and the musk of the blue cheese.

Shrimp cocktail, oysters on the half shell, and beef carpaccio appear on the Smoke menu only, and while they may sound dull compared to the rest of the items, the carpaccio, I assure you, was worth its $12.50 price tag. The ruby-red, sliced raw beef was exceptional, barely requiring the traditional garnishes of arugula, lemony olive oil, shaved grana, briny capers, and buttered toast points.

The entree menus differ significantly. Petaluma prepares a variety of pastas and "main plates," some listed in English, others in Italian. But the inconsistency with language didn't reflect the preparation of the main courses; tagliolini neri would have been just as delicious with the moniker "squid ink noodles." Homemade strands of long, flat pasta were interspersed with fresh tomatoes and roasted yellow and red peppers. A host of scallops, shrimp, and squid wound through the nest of noodles -- along with a touch of garlic -- accenting the dark pasta with the flavor of the sea.

Gamberi della Sirena, four jumbo shrimp sauteed with cognac, mustard, and roasted peppers, was marvelous, the huge shrimp lobsterlike in both taste and texture. The sauce was at once delicate and assertive, given bite from freshly ground pepper. A side dish of sauteed leaf spinach provided vivid contrast.

If you're looking for Mediterranean flavor, the spice-crusted pork chop is ideal. The juicy, pan-roasted pork was butterflied, coated with crushed fennel and pepper, and draped over a mountain of roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Some raw chunks of potato were the only flaw. The mix of strong flavors, complemented by a slightly sweet, light-brown gravy, gave this dish a great deal of character.

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