By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Summertime's so slow 'round these parts, at least in terms of what restaurants are up to, that rumormongers have nothing else to do but jump to conclusions. Some of the gossip has panned out as truth: Café Arugula did indeed close. Both ZAN(Z)BAR and East City Grill were forced out by landlords who had scheduled the buildings for demolition. Dancing Bear was sold to Miami restaurateur Mark Soyka.
But other rumors have been suspect -- for instance, the one about Armadillo Cafe, a 12-year veteran of the Davie dining scene, closing its doors. Sure, the eatery might have shut up shop for vacation for a week or so in the beginning of the summer. Either that, or the yenta who slipped me this tidbit had simply called when the restaurant wasn't open for business. The truth is that Armadillo Cafe, which has regularly received both local and national attention for the chefs' inspired Southwestern creations, is not closed. It is, however, getting ready to split for new premises.
I can't say the move is a bad idea. Currently the Armadillo is located in a section of west Broward that tries really hard to remember when the area was strictly horse country. Building façades are Old Weststyle, even for new chain locations like Dairy Queen. Some parking lots still have hitching posts for horses. If the city managers could get away with not paving the roads, all in the name of "keeping it real" (and attracting tourist dollars), they probably would.
Armadillo was an anomaly when former Max's Place chef Kevin McCarthy and his partner, Eve Montella-Smith, opened the place back in 1988. Its décor, done in pinks and turquoise with bunches of chile peppers and cow skulls hanging on the walls, was distinctly Southwest rather than rural South. But instead of descending into cowboy-cliché anonymity, the eatery managed to rise to the top of the Broward County dining scene. So it's always been just a little out of place in its howdy-folks strip mall.
Now that the owners of the Armadillo building have sold out to Walgreens, the restaurant has a good excuse for a clean break from country hokum. The next set of digs will be located in a generic (read: no hitching post) shopping plaza right next door to Nova Southeastern University, which itself has expanded considerably over the years. With 11,000 square feet comprising a formal dining room as well as separate rooms for billiards and a lunch café (and thus plenty of attractions for a college-casual crowd), Armadillo is poised for quite a leap.
The thing about such leaps, though, is that there's no assurance that the restaurant will land on its feet. Typically it takes a while for things to sort themselves out, no matter how talented the chef or experienced the restaurateur. Armadillo hasn't even set a firm date for the move. The announcement printed in the menu, which the proprietors rightly felt their customers deserved, is a bit ambiguous, stating only that the switch will happen in late summer. But if you ask the topnotch wait staff, honest to a fault, it sounds as if late summer means more like late September or early October.
So while you don't need to run out and dine at Armadillo tonight, you might want to hit it in the next month or two if the place is a favorite of yours that you've neglected lately. You won't be alone. After we tried to order three separate bottles of wine that weren't in stock, our server told us that the restaurant wasn't under-ordering in anticipation of the move. It was simply getting busier and busier.
One likely reason for this, aside from the coming relocation, is that the restaurant has maintained its high standards for ingredients, using local produce whenever possible. For instance the hydroponic arugula salad, seasoned with a honey-chipotle dressing and garnished with black beans and roasted corn, is billed on the menu as "grown a mile from my home in West Davie." I can only assume the personal pronoun refers to one or both chefs -- who, if a fabulously supple main course of grilled tenderloin of ostrich is anything to judge by, seem to be at the top of their game. The sliced ostrich, doused in a port wineandsun-dried cherry sauce, was free of tough tendons and wonderfully mild. Indeed the bird tasted as much like filet mignon as did the, well, filet mignon, which was stuffed with a delectable combo of spinach, roasted red bell peppers, portobello mushrooms, and sharply mellow Asiago cheese. The beef was finished with a vibrant but not intrusive demi-glace reduced with Madeira and flavored by roasted shallots.
When it comes to entrées, the kitchen has always done fish well -- salmon roasted on a cedar plank is a favorite with customers, as is grilled yellowfin tuna served with red, yellow, and green salsas. But I find that meats here are more enticing, because the chefs favor full-flavored flesh. For instance they'll serve leg of lamb over the more typical rack or chop, and I'll go for that muskier flavor every time. The inch-thick lamb medallions, exuding juice, barely needed the nap of sun-dried tomatoandroasted garlic sauce. Ditto the veal flank steak, a less stringy cut than that from a full-grown cow. The veal had been marinated in herbs and fruit juices, then slathered with sautéed wild mushrooms. The mushrooms struck me as being like venetian blinds for a gorgeous bay window -- simply not necessary.