By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
It's tough to imagine what might have convinced a handsome Parisian chef (and sailor) and his chic American wife to give up what sounds like an idyllic existence on Saint Bart in the French Caribbean where they presumably spent their days slathering themselves with Bain de Soleil and popping open bouteilles de champagne as they tacked between volcanic isles to move to Fort Lauderdale... in the '80s, no less! What we do know is that the couple managed to transplant and fiercely guard a patch of the old island languor when they landed here and that they maintained the pretense for a couple of generations of devoted customers. We've managed to hold them here for a quarter century, through two French-Caribbean eateries first Victoria Park in Lauderdale, then Sugar Reef in Hollywood countless hurricanes, and many a redevelopment plan. Patrick Farnault and Robin Seger have a knack for thriving with the kinds of gentle neighborhood places where regulars lope in week after week, dragging along friends who then become regulars too, where the staff sticks around for decades instead of months, where the menu and the prices avoid hyperinflation and passing culinary fads. Where, in fact, almost nothing ever changes.
Anybody who dropped in to Sugar Reef five years ago could go back today and suffer no future shock. The 12-year-old restaurant on the Hollywood Broadwalk still follows a rhythm as soothing and predictable as the sea its candy-colored rooms open out on. There are the same roughly painted murals of dancing divas in shades of tangerine and acid lime and hot, hot pink; the same strips of mosaic tile. The bar strung with Christmas lights. The doors thrown wide open on a fat, rising moon laying down its ribbon of gold on a black ocean. The paper-covered tables and jars of crayons. The Caribbean French menu with its beloved Jamaican pork ($18.50), tropical fish stew ($19), and roasted duck ($24). And at least some of the staff pattering in polyglot tongues of Spanish, French, Russian will likely remember you from years gone by. This stretch of South Florida has miraculously retained the feel of a midcentury beach town, part Jersey shore, part Key West, part early Miami Beach, even as rents on the 2.5-mile Broadwalk have long since gone platinum. Sugar Reef's lease is up in two years, and Seger says their landlord doesn't plan to renew it. This strip of sand with its humble bars, bad music, and laid-back burger joints is already a relic.
That's why you should go now. Tropical Florida is vanishing inch by inch every day of our lives, and with it the cheap thrill of sitting outside by the beach, wearing a pair of cutoffs and picking at a plate of jerk shrimp with your fingers. You can do that at lunchtime at Sugar Reef, and dinner is only marginally less informal. You might brush the sand off your feet and throw on a pair of khakis and use a fork to twirl your pasta with pesto cream ($12.50), but the buzz of contentment around this place doesn't fade when the sun goes down.
We'd gotten stuck in a traffic jam 30 miles north, and by the time we'd run the full course of orange cones and flashing blue lights, of sudden potholes, of tractor trailers inexplicably stalled in intersections, we were in no mood for further challenges. We were 40 minutes late for our 8:30 reservation on a Friday night, and Sugar Reef was starting to clear out. This was a good thing, I think; if you want to hang loose at Sugar Reef and really suck every drop of sea-air-infused pleasure from the place, go late. An adorable Algerian girl showed us to a booth and got us settled in with a basket of plain toast drenched in garlic butter and minced herbs and a half-bottle of Sancerre parked in an ice bucket at our table ($19; they've got an especially good list of half-bottles, which I appreciate). Her sardonic husband, also a waiter, stopped by now and then to tease her and us. There was a soothing babble of voices speaking French and English; Seger and Farnault were having dinner too with a big table of friends.
The menu at Sugar Reef is loosely associated French-Caribbean, island-inspired cooking which usually combines elements of Indian, African, Creole, and French laced with classic French technique that the Paris-born Farnault was trained in. But Farnault has strayed far from his classic roots with dishes that incorporate coconut milk, curry, and ginger, dishes likely to be accompanied by a fresh chopped mango salsa. You can create your own pasta dish, with freshly made noodles, by combining elements of pesto cream, chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, buffalo mozzarella, and goat cheese and a choice of angel hair, penne, or fettuccine at varying prices. And there's an element of French-Vietnamese in a pho made with noodles, chicken, and shrimp ($18.50) in a light broth. A special soup, fish, and a ravioli (lobster, the night we visited, but it had sold out) chalked on the blackboard changes daily.
So we ordered the calamari appetizer ($10.50) and a blackboard special, a portobello mushroom stuffed with crab meat ($13.50). Sugar Reef's calamari makes a fragrant, light, appetite stimulant: The squidlets are steamed in a light wine and cream broth accessorized with chopped red pepper and scallions and what tasted like a dash of vinegar: tart, creamy, and sweet, and the squid rings were very tender. The grilled portobello, brushed with olive oil, was heaped with fresh minced crab that had been liberally tossed with fresh herbs. It was a rich, velvety dish nicely cut by the hot-sweet mango, pepper, and cilantro relish and the green salad tossed in vinaigrette that came with it.