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If you arrived here by accident, you'd never suspect that this nondescript room, with its 40 seats, butcher-paper-covered tables, and shelves stocked with gourmet teas, condiments, and chocolates, was where you'd find one of the most delicious and eclectic meals in Greater Fort Lauderdale. The lobster quesadilla is just one of several dozen scintillating East Coast by Southwest dishes. The chefs are Kevin McCarthy and his wife, Stacie. The restaurant, KM at the Grapevine, is a Wednesday-through-Saturday operation housed in a three-decades-old gourmet shop, lunch place, and catering business on University Drive in Plantation.
Six months ago, McCarthy was a household name among local food lovers: His 16-year-old restaurant, Armadillo Café, was one of the most popular in the city. But Armadillo, across the street from Nova Southeastern University in Davie, padlocked its doors last July after operating for just three years in an 11,000-square-foot space that McCarthy says was just too big to handle. "[Partner Eve Montella-Smith and I] probably should have done things differently," McCarthy admits now about the move to the bigger space, "by running the place as if it were lots of different departments -- catering, private parties, bar, light meals, fine dining. But our bills kept going up every year. We were just two independent businesspeople with no backers. It got more and more expensive, and we had a lot of local competition from chain restaurants with the college kids."
McCarthy kicked around for a few months looking for work. He was pushing 50 and had four kids to feed, and nothing much was happening. Meanwhile, Montella-Smith and her husband, Armadillo's sous chef, Brian Smith, had found a place with Michael's Kitchen in Hollywood. Then one day, Grapevine owner Paul Frieser called him up. "We've got these tables sitting empty at night," he told McCarthy. "Why not put them to use?"
Put them to use they have indeed. And the Thumbelina-sized café is blessed relief for the McCarthys, though the kitchen is tight. Old Armadillo favorites like black-and-white soup join new inventions. And even gastronomes who've sworn off jalapeños and cilantro forever -- those culinary clichés so ubiquitous since the heyday of Southwestern cooking in the late '80s -- will pause and sniff the air when they get near McCarthy's cooking. He uses a light touch when it comes to most of the ingredients associated with Southwestern cuisine. You'll find cinnamon, chocolate, peppers of every color and heat, corn, beef, jack cheese, cilantro, cumin, tomatoes, avocados, tasso ham, rice, beans, and tequila in these dishes, in unexpected combinations. Spices are rarely overpowering, and you'll never have to lunge for the water glass to douse an overzealous chili pepper.
And then there's the fish.
McCarthy says he scours the globe to find rare types. There's bronzini (a sea bass) from the Mediterranean, barramundi from the rainforest rivers of Australia, and Tasmanian salmon; then there's onagi, black cod, kjiki, and opah from Hawaii. Over the years, McCarthy's tastes have matured, and although the menu is no longer strictly Southwestern, it still feels focused and very much his own. He makes adjustments to the menu weekly, depending on the season and his imagination, so you'll never step into exactly the same restaurant twice.
Dinner at KM starts with sweet butter and a cone of chewy breads, a delicate white and a dense, luscious sourdough/black olive. The bread was the only uneven touch in two visits: It came warm and fresh on Saturday, cold, stale, and white-only on Thursday. When the bread's hot and fresh, it's impossible to stop eating it, but do save a little; it's useful with the appetizers, particularly to sop up the last drops of broth from the whitewater clams ($12) and to spare you from having to lick the traces of black-and-white soup ($6) left at the bottom of your bowl. Both these appetizers were staples on the Armadillo menu. KM's version of steamed clams is just unbeatable. Farm-raised creatures steamed in white wine, garlic, and tomatoes are given soul with tasso ham and a pinch of cilantro and basil. Wow. This is not a complicated dish, but it packs a mean punch of flavors that will leave trace memories for weeks.
The black-and-white soup's yin-yang presentation is beautiful: two soups, a black bean and a white jalapeño jack cheese, drizzled with shocking-orange and red pepper purées, have just the right density to remain separate when poured into one bowl. This makes for some interesting experiences. You can eat them separately, but even spooned up together, they retain their individuality on the tongue. Apart from too much cumin in the black bean soup, this was an admirable and tasty trick.