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
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.
We also devoured the fried zucchini sticks ($6), salty, light as gossamer, with a sour-cream/horseradish dipping sauce. Sublime tequila-grilled shrimp and corn cakes were pricey at $12, particularly since the dish comes with just three flavorful, fat shrimp perched on the corn cakes. But it's still enough for a light meal and would make a full dinner accompanied by a salad. The corn cakes are buttery beyond belief; with the bright tomato salsa, the chipotle, and a bite of the briny shrimp, they'll send warm prickles of gustatory pleasure down your spine.
A palate-clearing caesar salad ($8.50) followed. Crisp, refreshing, balanced -- yes. We couldn't detect the "roasted garlic and goat cheese" in the croutons; still, the parmesan was indubitably the real Reggiano. But sometimes a salad is just a salad.
We had only raves for our entrées, which even during encores the next day, eaten cold, never made a misstep. There was that lobster quesadilla ($27) and the night's special, a "wild" Tasmanian salmon ($26) simply poached in white wine and butter, nestled in a bed of sautéed spinach and served with slim, crunchy green beans and broccolini. The fish's bright, deep-pink flesh was a far cry from the usual pallid, farm-raised American version. Tasmania has a solid salmon-farming industry; the fish is healthy and complexly flavored due to the country's unpolluted waters.
The yellowtail snapper, crisply pan-seared with roasted peppers, garlic, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, and ginger ($24), is a long-time favorite with Armadillo denizens. It was melt-in-your mouth fresh, lightly crusted, divine. So were sliced rounds of leg of lamb ($28) served pink and tender as filet mignon, with just a hint of the grill's smokiness and the echoes of a rosemary marinade, plus a quartet of sides: mashed potatoes, baby green beans, broccolini, and a tiny heart of baby bok choy. A good lamb is hard to find; this one didn't put a hoof wrong.
You pretty much have to try the chocolate fritters ($6.50) for dessert. These lively little buggers, dusted with cinnamon, squirt a couple of tablespoons of liquid dark chocolate when you fork them -- they'll keep you up half the night on that cocoa buzz, so plan your activities accordingly. An apple tart served with vanilla ice cream ($6.50) was more bombshell than we expected: like an apple cobbler, gooey on the bottom, crunchy on top, with cinnamon crumble. If you expected credit for choosing a "healthy" dessert, forget about it.
We haven't had a better meal in many, many months. We figure once word gets out, we'll need some combination of luck and daring to snag a table. So if you need to get hold of us over the next couple of weeks, we're the ones doing the marathon at the corner table over there. Could you pass that triple order of fried goat cheese?