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The folks at the table next to us are as eager to strike up a conversation as they are to inhale what's on their "small plate." There's something about The Cottage (522 Lucerne Ave., Lake Worth, 561-586-0080) that's got people talking to each other. And singing to each other. A couple of paces away at the bar, some guy has spontaneously broken into a pretty decent sound bite of Italian opera at decibels that temporarily silence the hum of voices. Forks halt midway between plates of tuna tartare and half-open mouths.
Two brothers from Staten Island, Tony and Andre Lufty, took over a space that's been sitting empty since Wicked Willies vacated many months ago. The Luftys, along with their chef and general manager, Chrissy Benoit, had the good sense to expand this already-suave room into the great outdoors, digging up the old dirt side yard and laying pavers for a candlelit patio partly protected by awnings. Even in a downpour, you can sit outside for as long as it takes to consume half a dozen small plates and fusion cocktails.
And indeed, last time we stopped in, pour down it did. A lively crowd nursed their drinks at the bar; we sat in the cool light reflected from a silenced overhead TV screen playing that '80s classic, Weekend at Bernie's. Our ginger mint lemonade ($6) made with citrus vodka was a knockout, a perfect foil for a plate of ground sirloin sliders ($9.95). Like White Castle burgers tarted up with grilled onion and chive jack cheese, these come on mini buns with separate bowls of ketchup and mustard for dipping. Grilled eggplant salad ($8.95) layered smoky slices with tomato and creamy mozzarella; a spirited sprinkling of capers, black olives, and chopped basil lent it pizzazz. And a dish of "beggars pouches" ($9.95) sauced those pear- and gouda-stuffed pastas in oodles of butter sprinkled with sautéed garlic, pine nuts, and fresh basil.
Benoit, formerly a longtime manager for Wolfgang Puck's many enterprises, says she's going to keep the Cottage's menu of small plates evolving. She's recently added a couple of dishes that are already smash hits with regulars: kung pao calamari ($9.25) and palomas blancas ($9.95), a marinated chicken and three-cheese tortilla topped with red and green salsas. The Cottage is open for small plates and its terrific infused cocktails daily from 5 p.m. till 2 a.m. And now that its cook's back out of the hospital (don't ask), it'll be reopening for those "build your own Mimosa" Saturday and Sunday brunches; probably, Benoit says, by mid-February.