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By Candace West
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Mark Soyka has always been something of a pioneer. In Miami-Dade County his News Café jump-started Ocean Drive in 1988, his Van Dyke in 1994 became the first outdoor café with any real presence on Lincoln Road, and his namesake neighborhood eatery opened last year as the would-be savior of a long-neglected stretch of Biscayne Boulevard.
His new Brasserie Las Olas is behind the curve in one sense: The booming Fort Lauderdale thoroughfare doesn't need Mark Soyka to resuscitate it, thank you very much. Though, in placing the new restaurant away from the center of things, on Las Olas Boulevard's newer and hipper east end, Soyka honors his risk-taking roots. Within the walls of his new eatery, the restaurateur also remains true to form, offering a casually elegant and relaxingly European ambiance that lulls you into lingering over a second cup of coffee or after-dinner drink.
A good place to do so would be at the prominent bar and handsome piano lounge that front the Brasserie, though the rest of the spacious dining room coolly surfs the cusp of upscaleness as well. Although only two months old, the restaurant possesses a self-assured air, as if destined to become an institution simply by birthright. The décor is a tidy alliance of dull-gray stucco walls, wooden venetian blinds, big windows, old mirrors, and sundry light sources offering just the right glow. The music in the background is Baroque in the morning, jazz during the afternoon and evening (live on weekends), though it's played at a low-enough volume that, when the room is even half filled, the chatter of diners and clanking of flatware relegate the tunes to a subliminal hum.
Some restaurants do an unexceptional job of putting out exceptional food; Soyka's string of successes provides unexceptional food in an exceptional environment. The Brasserie aims to satisfy everyday cravings of the Everyman, -woman, and -child, making no meal that hasn't been made a million times before. The familiar fare weighs in at very reasonable prices: Most appetizers cost between $4 and $9; main courses, excepting two steaks, range from $12 to $18.
The menu is made up mostly of American comfort foods, but appetizers are anchored in the Mediterranean. From the Italian side: polenta and sautéed mushrooms; mussels steamed in white wine, cream, and fresh thyme; crisp calamari; and fresh tomato slices served with a choice of Parmesan cheese and olives or mozzarella and prosciutto or chopped with garlic and basil on bruschetta. From the French: a platter of pâté and Brie with cornichons and olives, and a textbook onion soup that deftly achieves the proper proportions of melted Gruyère, darkly caramelized onions, rich beef broth, and thick croutons. From the heart of the Med: a platter of hummus, grape leaves, feta, and olives. The selection then hops over the Atlantic Ocean and plunges into Chesapeake Bay, offering a puffy, herb-flecked, entirely delicious patty-shape crabcake with so little filler that it barely stays together (which is good).
Another appetizer option is to share a charred, thin-crust pizza, which is better than the flaccid pies served at Van Dyke. It would have been nice if the kitchen had sprinkled some wild mushrooms and smoked mozzarella on top, seeing as how it was a wild mushroomandsmoked mozzarella pizza, but white button 'shrooms and regular cheese still made for a solid-as-abrick oven treat.
If you're in the mood for a salad with greens to whet your appetite, you can choose from chef's, Greek, Cobb, caesar, or Niçoise; each is large enough to satisfy the person seated next to you, too. A too-weakly applied mustard-shallot vinaigrette accompanied the house salad of mixed greens with crunchy diced peppers, tomatoes, and imported olives; ask for additional dressing on the side.
Salads, vegetarian starters, pizzas, meatless pasta dishes, and sides of sautéed spinach, broccoli rabe, and vegetable of the day: P.E.T.A. could hold a luncheon here and have plenty of options. Of course this being a mass-appeal sort of place, the Brassiere also offers grilled New York strip steak, skirt steak, calf's liver, pork chops, roasted chicken, and meat loaf. I tried the last partly because I once heard Soyka characterize the universality of his menus as "meat loaf and champagne." I don't think this implied the two should be consumed together, so I skipped the bubbly but enjoyed the two thin-but-wide rectangles of tenderly textured, mildly seasoned meat.
Bland but crunchy strands of steamed zucchini, yellow squash, and carrots covered a mound of creamy mashed red bliss potatoes; pockets of generic gravy hugged the plate. Another entrée, "seared" mahi-mahi, was fresh and tasty, although seared doesn't usually imply topped with a light gratin of herbed bread crumbs. A "Latin potato hash" of neatly cubed sweet, white, and purple potatoes with tiny diced red and yellow peppers complemented the fish in style; the vinegary chimichurri sauce would have worked better had the dolphin actually been seared.
The Brasserie burger, a popular lunchtime meal, is fat and juicy, topped with bacon, caramelized onions, and Gorgonzola cheese (melted to mellow its pungency). The darkly charbroiled crust and sumptuous, well-seasoned interior made this one of the best burgers I've had in quite a while. Fries were the frozen skinny type, nicely browned.