By Sara Ventiera
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The first thing you notice when you pull off North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale into the arched entranceway of Sublimerestaurant might not be the enormous spotlighted marquee announcing the place. It might not be the stationary sign, a towering green monstrosity that advertises the restaurant's "world vegetarian cuisine" and connected "lifestyle emporium." It might not even be the sheer size of the building, which is comprised of environmentally friendly materials and encloses a market and a 175-seat dining room.
What you're likely to first notice are the delicious aromas that waft over the asphalt -- scents that make your mouth water, you'd almost swear, just like it does for chargrilled beef.
In fact, the breezes are beefy, and they spring from the neighboring Houston's, a realization that disappointed the committed carnivore in my party. "For a second, I thought this might almost be good," he grumbled. Keep in mind that this is the same fellow whom we had to coax into accompanying us by swearing that you can make delicious dishes out of vegetables. "Sure you can," he'd answered. "You just add meat."
1431 N. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304
Region: Fort Lauderdale
Cynicism aside, local vegans are probably thrilled to have a neighborhood restaurant with a higher consciousness and a gastronomically minded mission statement in their midst. Most everything at Sublime, from soup to nuts -- including split pea soup with diced carrots and candied walnuts on the spinach salad -- has been harvested via sustainable or certified organic practices. Teas have names like "morning rise," "sweet meadow," and "moonlight spice;" the wine list sponsors bottlings that come from chemically unadulterated crops. Even the martini olives, not to mention the vodka in the glasses, are organic.
But such customers, who have been deprived of options for far too long in these parts, are frankly an easy sell. On the open market, the competition gets tougher. But I figure that if Sublime's high-end inventive dishes -- such as the polenta short stack, sandwiched with oven-roasted tomatoes, arugula, garlic, and shallots -- could win over a meat-and-potatoes devotee, it can certainly impress the less-stubborn majority of the dining public. After all, we omnivores are usually -- pardon the term -- game for anything. Unless we're cultists of the Atkins sort, in general, we hardly avoid vegetables and whole grains; some of us even favor a diet rich in green, red, and yellow stuff.
But sad to say, Sublime isn't as convincing to nondisciples as it needs to be. My objections to the place are the same I often have to other specialty restaurants: Faulty execution and a touch of reverse discrimination mar what could be a genuinely pleasant experience.
Owned by veteran restaurateur Terry Dalton (proprietor of the dearly departed, sorely missed Unicorn Village restaurant in Miami-Dade County) and animal rights activist Nanci Alexander, the four-month-old eatery clearly has an agenda. Full disclosure: The place is actually the headquarters of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, and the website states that "one hundred percent (100%) of Sublime's profits will be donated to organizations that promote animal well-being, and a vegan lifestyle." (The phrasing tends to make one wonder exactly for whom the vegan lifestyle is intended: animals or humans.) Though most of us would agree that protecting animals is admirable, not everyone appreciates the politics and practices of such groups. So it's wise to be informed from the get-go.
Though the atmosphere is restful and Zen-like, some of the design elements are dramatic. Windows are actually encased waterfalls, strictly vertical and never-ending. Lofty ceilings, skylights, and earthy hues of amber and green evoke the sentience of primitive forests. Widely spaced, polished, hardwood tables, muted light fixtures, and plenty of fresh potted greenery update the interior.
A dinner starts off promisingly with whole-grain nutty loaves complemented by judiciously spiced hummus and a meltingly soft, herbal, bread spread. Munch on these while you scan the menu and it's easy to find yourself torn between starting with a cooked appetizer such as the fire-roasted jumbo whole artichoke or something raw from a more distant corner of the world, like the sea vegetable salad, composed of an encyclopedia of brown algae (hijiki, wakame, kombu, and arame).
We opted for spicy tempura cauliflower frito misto, which is something of a misnomer. Frito misto translates to "mixed fry" and generally refers to a variety of ingredients deep-fried and served on the same platter: Squid, zucchini, and mushrooms are popular items for tumbling together. At Sublime, the cauliflower frito misto appetizer was unilaterally the cruciferous albino, but it was well-prepared, the florets tender inside a crisp batter. The billed spiciness was delinquent, however.
Ditto for the "spicy vegetable roll," which contained daikon radish, microgreens, avocado, tempura tofu, and a drizzle of sweet chili sauce. Though microgreens can offer a kick -- the assortment of ten-day-old plants, harvested with scissors, usually contains immature mustard varieties that for some reason are hotter than when they are fully grown -- the zing was in absentia. In general, the sushi was bland and the sushi rice alternatively mushy and hard. I'd rather get a cucumber roll in an established Japanese restaurant.
Due to a minimal application of black olive tapenade, a dish called "tomato carpaccio and arugula" was more pungent, but the labeling was confusing. The menu listed sun-dried tomatoes and potato croutons; this translated into thick slices of fresh but not wholly sun-ripe red and yellow tomatoes topped with fried potatoes that resembled hash. As a salad, this worked, but it would have been far better with either generous disks of ripe, juicy, heirloom tomatoes -- Brandywines, Zebra, and Ugli varieties would make a nice assortment -- or expertly measured, intensely flavored, carpaccio-width slices. If the ones I was served had been sliced with a properly adjusted mandolin, then I'm Corelli.