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Next time you dine in Fort Lauderdale, think pink. Broward County is the new Provincetown -- it's outstripped even San Francisco as one of the great queer capitals of the United States. That's a good thing when it comes to restaurants, no matter which team you're pitching for. The little town of Wilton Manors, smack in the middle of Greater Fort Lauderdale and dubbed the "third gayest city in America" by the New York Times, probably has more square feet of gay hangouts than anywhere else in South Florida. Until recently, it also had a gay mayor, Jim Stork, who happens to own an eponymous bakery and café serving some of the best homemade desserts in the city. Stork turned in his mayor's badge to run for U.S. Congress last year, then dropped out of the race before the election. The couple of square miles around Wilton Manors -- from Oakland Park Boulevard to Las Olas -- has been a thriving mecca for the rainbow crowd since the early '90s.
What that means for lucky you, wherever you fall on the Kinsey scale, is that something like three dozen funky, fun, gay-owned cafés, bistros, and haute spots in Fort Lauderdale cater to a melting pot of diverse sexualities, ages, and ethnicities, serving everything from burgers and bloodies to Thai spring rolls to gourmet crab cakes. Gay-owned and gay-friendly cafés and restaurants here tend to be long-lived, reasonably priced, and casual. And taken as a group, the food they're serving is exceptional. The decade-old Hi-Life Café, run by Chuck Smith and his partner, Carlos Fernandez, and John Lombardo's 7-year-old Costello's in Wilton Manors are by now culinary institutions. Galanga, a chic Thai place also in Wilton Manors, was voted one of the ten top gay restaurants in the United States last year by PlanetOut. At the other end of the rainbow, there's even a gay-owned Howard Johnson's franchise on Lauderdale Beach.
One of the best-loved and longest running of them all is Herban Kitchen, opened by Chef Robert Zurlino eight years ago. The main problem with the Kitchen has always been its size: ten tables crammed shotgun-style into a slender room in a strip mall on East Oakland Park Boulevard. On any given Saturday night, the food was good enough that you could be sure there were a lot of people ahead of you who'd had the same idea: It was inevitably tough to get a table. But over the past couple of months, Herban has been working on an expansion that has more than doubled its former size, good news for everyone from the early birds lining up at the door at 4 p.m. for the "twilight dinner" to the studly-looking blades who waltz in late with parties of 12.
The expansion is still very much in progress. A new, red-and-white checkerboard floor and tiny, ruby ceiling lamps give the old Naugahyde booths a more bistro-ish feel; missing ceiling tiles reveal the inner workings of the cooling-system; and the walls are still mostly devoid of artwork. The big space seems to echo a bit with all that sudden extra room. But the food, thank heavens, hasn't changed a bit.
Zurlino serves what can best be called continental comfort foods. These are the hearty, homestyle meals you might get for dinner if Mama were an amazingly inventive cook who liked doing things her own way. Veal, fresh fish, grilled steaks and shrimp, pasta dishes, and pizzas fill out the menu, along with the "chef's favorites," like baked chicken stuffed with apples and walnuts, chicken Marsala, and catfish filets breaded and fried in cornmeal. Zurlino's personable and personal touches extend to what have by now become trademarks: colorful bottles of his homemade dressings delivered to the table in a basket, along with another basket of warm focaccia and toasted Italian bread; a whole, fragrant head of roasted garlic; and a bottle of herb-infused olive oil. Before you know it, you're tucked in with a table full of goodies, a couple of glasses of wine, and a long menu to peruse.
That sense of being well taken care of never lets up. Waiters are solicitous and good-humored without hovering or intruding. They've got a mysterious system going here in which three or four servers appear at intervals to ferry dishes to and from the table, refill your glasses, or just check in. They're warm but not overbearing, funny but not obnoxious. Somehow, they've learned to maintain a friendly degree of distance that strikes me as being exactly right. This may be some of the best restaurant service in Fort Lauderdale; if Zurlino is overseeing the training of his staff, he's more than just a good cook.
Such polished service seems almost anomalous in this down-home setting, where the heavy stoneware plates have seen years of use, the flatwear has long since lost its sheen, and the chairs and booths are aging rapidly toward retro. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to replace some of those nicked-up bowls at some point, if only to better showcase the outstanding food. But those nicks and scratches are in keeping with the old-fashioned aesthetic that offers a full three-course dinner at the price most restaurants charge for a single plate. The entrées run $15 to $20, and they're all served with a cup of homemade soup, a tossed green salad, and that basket of bread and roasted garlic. Portions are robust. There's a short list of appetizers, but my guess is that customers order appetizers as light meals, since the three-course dinner is enough to satisfy the heartiest appetite. Appetizers range from Cajun grilled shrimp with papaya chutney to grilled portabello mushrooms with goat cheese, and a crab cake with remoulade sauce (all $9).
The night we visited, the soup was cream of celery: sweet, creamy, gently fragrant with its blend of aromatic celery and onion. The salad that followed was the only thing I had to quibble about all night. Made with tossed greens, sliced Granny Smith apples, strawberries, and gorgonzola, it was served with a choice of dressings -- papaya, mango, roasted red pepper, creamy garlic, and maple syrup vinaigrette, among others. I chose raspberry vinaigrette; my dining partner had the creamy garlic. That sweet-tart raspberry dressing, a beautiful magenta color, was just the ticket with the creamy gorgonzola cheese and ripe strawberries. So the salad tasted great, but it looked tired. The greens were just sort of thrown together. The presentation could have been kicked up a notch, and here's where some new salad plates might have really done wonders.
The entrées, though, are always spectacular at Herban Kitchen. We chose both from the short list of chef's favorites. One of Zurlino's tricks is to stuff things, adding extra dazzle and richness. So my fresh, baked salmon filet ($20) was stuffed with a crab cake -- savory-sweet, creamy, and dense. And then the whole thing was drizzled with a dreamy butter, tarragon, and wine sauce. This was just superb; with a handful of crisply sautéed vegetables on the side -- a medley of buttered carrot, zucchini, and cauliflower -- it was pure bliss.
My friend had the pork tenderloin roulade ($20), pork pounded and rolled up like an Italian bracciole -- but this version is turned around a sinful cornbread stuffing, then doused with a sauce of apricots, figs, dates, and brandy. This sublime recipe relies on the condensed sweetness of preserved fruits contrasted with the salty pork and the brandy's alcoholic vapors. You want to beg for the recipe. In fact, Zurlino would be doing all us home cooks a big favor if he'd publish a cookbook. I'd love to try making his apple walnut pork ($18), or his veal Saltimboca ($19).
The rest of the menu draws on a Mediterranean palette, even allowing for a few concessions to dieters who plan to squeeze into those latex disco pants later. You can order a low-carb pasta with scampi, for instance ($19), or get your fish of the day with a low-cal yogurt sauce. These are nice options for a neighborhood café -- it means you can eat Zurlino's cooking a few times a week without having to feel guilty. I suspect he's got more than a few regular customers.
Dessert, as expected, is a luscious affair. We decimated a pear tart ($6.50) composed of poached pears, cinnamon ice cream, pools of caramel, and a flaky, feather-light puff pastry, scooping and twirling that caramel until we'd inhaled every last whiff. The only thing that could possibly top the pleasure of dessert was our total bill: two entrées, dessert, coffee, a couple of glasses of wine, and a bottle of water came to a whopping $70. At these prices, we can afford to come back. And we will.