By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
Not that the place needs much help landing customers -- at least during happy hour. The three-month-old Las Olas eatery, which took over the freestanding building that was formerly Mario's, is a looker. High ceilings and dramatic Art Deco chandeliers provide enough room and light so that a grand piano and standup bass look puny next to the dance floor. Decor and linens are the refreshing alter ego of fine dining: Everything is black, from the patterned rug to the tablecloths and napkins. Divorced folks, singles, and the yuppie crowd have already discovered the lively bar scene, which is accompanied by eclectic jazz performances (I'm not kidding about the turban) and plenty of social smoking.
If Toni Bishop herself were to place a personal ad, it would be written similarly: "South Florida sophisticate, worldly, passionate, and attractive, seeks..." Bishop is a well-known jazz singer and recording artist who's performed in and around Miami and Fort Lauderdale for the past 20 years. Her latest CD, Toni Bishop's Incredible Love, is due for release right about now. I used to go to her 3 a.m. shows at the Van Dyke Cafe in Miami Beach back in the early '90s, when she was a fixture there and I was energetic enough to stay out all night. Her vocal stylings are a bit unusual; when improvising, she sometimes reproduces parrot calls and monkey screams. Considering her history in the area, it makes sense for her to finally have her own venue, where she performs three times a night on weekends. In fact, her shows are so popular that reservations for dinner, particularly for those tables closest to the stage, must be made a week to ten days in advance.
The soul mate(s) she attracted, co-owners Abe Lang and Jan Shapiro, aren't entertainers, but they love jazz. Especially Lang, a retired businessman who owned the Mattress Giant chain, which he founded and then sold. He's the money guy, our waiter confided. Funding and refurbishing the restaurant was "like buying a candy bar to him," he told us.
Good thing the cash required to keep the operation running is so piddling. Bishop may be filling the restaurant on weekends, and happy hour may be a big sell, but during the week, the restaurant appears to be sparsely populated. When Bishop's name isn't on the marquee to draw people in, the fare has to do the job. And it's hard to give two forks about the jazz performances when the $30 porterhouse is tough.
The Continental menu is definitely overpriced; not one of the appetizers goes for less than a sawbuck. The wild-mushroom starter consisted of cultivated portobello caps. The $13.50 price tag seemed appropriate, however, when we lifted the top cap off the stack and saw the hunks of lump crabmeat. The crab glistened with butter, and the mushrooms were doused with a vibrant Barolo wine sauce. The same sauce accompanied the porterhouse entree, a 24-ounce monster, but the sauce wasn't flavorful enough to make up for the bland meat.
If expensive appetizers like $15 shrimp cocktail and $18 carpaccio -- not to mention the $45 Ossetra caviar starter -- stick in the craw, look for the soups and salads. Some are reasonably priced and tasty as well. French onion soup was outstanding, some of the best I've had in recent memory. The wine-y broth overflowed with soft, caramel-colored onions and was loaded with melted Gruyere cheese.
Salads include the old standards, such as caesar; sliced tomatoes and mozzarella; and mixed baby greens. A more intriguing choice was "Toni's chopped salad," a pleasant assortment of cucumbers, peanuts, and tropical fruits tossed with a fragrant lime infusion. The mixture was ladled over spears of pale green endive, which provided a solid, slightly bitter base to counteract the citrus-y and nutty flavors.
Among the main courses, European dishes included osso buco with polenta; poached snapper fillet in champagne beurre blanc; and bouillabaisse. But we chose to go south, figuring that Chilean sea bass with a shiitake mushroom sauce would be a wiser investment than lobster tail francaise. But after sampling the fish, we weren't so sure. The skin-on fillet was overcooked just enough to make the meaty flakes mushy, and the shiitake mushroom sauce was dark and heavy, obscuring the subtle flavor of sea bass. An underpinning of mashed sweet potatoes jibed with the shiitake mushrooms, and zucchini sauteed with Italian herbs -- the vegetable accompanying all main courses -- provided another contrast.
The fresh tuna steak with ginger-mango sauce also read better than it ate. The steak was unevenly cooked, with portions of it medium-rare, as requested, and other parts well-done. Crosshatched, it had a distinctly charred flavor, and we couldn't discern the sauce, so we asked for some on the side. Our mistake. The ginger-heavy coulis would have been more appropriately served with a cake.