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Kevin McCarthy is sautéing chocolate-coated scallops. It sounds as if one of our favorite chefs has wandered into some gustatory la-la land, a Ferran Adrià/Wylie Dufresne-inspired nightmare territory where oyster sorbets topped with mudwort foams are already passé. Or maybe he's working on something more sinister: a killer aphrodisiac?
Not that McCarthy's drooling fans don't already love him beyond all reckoning. The way his groupies follow him around, it's embarrassing.
McCarthy's got a 19-year-old business to run, the current incarnation of his Armadillo Café (now Armadillo Beach Café), which opened this spring in Dania Beach. He's tended this strange little beast through many a close call. For two decades in Broward, in one of the most volatile restaurant markets in the country, McCarthy has managed to keep the Armadillo from ending up as roadkill.
1200 S. Federal Highway
Dania Beach, FL 33004
Since he opened the original 55-seat Armadillo Café in 1988, McCarthy has moved his restaurant, expanded it, taken on partners, poured money into it, sloughed off partners, added a catering business, added a liquor license, organized lavish corporate parties, closed up, moved again, shrunk down to the size of a walk-in closet, changed its name, shared space with a gourmet grocery, sold sandwiches, whatever it took. Now that even nationally recognized chefs like Jonathan Eismann and Norman Van Aken are caving to financial pressures and the dumbing of the South Florida palate (both Eismann's Pacific Time and Norman's closed this year), it looks as if the Armadillo's protective armor — composed of one part stubbornness and two parts adaptability — has kept fortune's outrageous arrows bouncing off it like so many hurled toothpicks. McCarthy's persistence would be irksome if it didn't ultimately spread so much joy around.
Still, the man has four kids to feed; he's got a local reputation to maintain for his ultracondensed but creative menu. He's got a staff that depends on him and a bunch of old customers who want their "black & white soup" (a night 'n' day bowl, half black bean, half jalapeño jack) to taste exactly the way it did back in 1990. So what's he doing fooling around with such surreal ingredients? Chocolate scallops?
Not surreal, it turns out, sensible. Having done a season serving lunch (kobe burgers with ginger slaw and shiitake mushrooms, $13; house-made mozzarella salad with arugula, $8), the new Armadillo, still a work in progress, rolled out its Thursday-through-Saturday dinner service this month. McCarthy wanted to find a way to sear those shellfish so they'd carmelize nicely without losing moisture, maybe for a nightly special. He'd figured that if he coated the scallops in a slew of seasonings and cocoa butter powder (which has a neutral flavor), he could fry them at a higher temp without burning. And it worked! And it was fun! He'd taken a chocolate class with Jean Pierre Wybauw, of the Belgian firm Callebaut, and he'd been playing around with other ideas too: an armadillo-shaped candy made with spicy toasted pecans, fine chocolate, and carmelized ginger. This obsession made sense: McCarthy's chocolate fritters — a specialty he's purveyed practically from day one — are confections that cause ugly fork wars to break out among even the politest diners, and I have the scars to prove it.
So McCarthy's experimenting, but he's not turning his back on his traditional customers, some of whose kids he's watched grow up and start to make their own dinner reservations. They'll still find the classic Armadillo legacy dishes on the Dania Beach menu, invented in the years when new Southwestern cuisine was as hot as a mesquite-filled smoker. Fried goat cheese with mango salsa, jalapeño and corn fritters, tequila-soaked shrimp served over a corn cake, and locally caught snapper seared with tomatoes, wild mushrooms, and ginger will all still satisfy nostalgias (although we missed McCarthy's marvelous, long-running clams with tasso).
Nowadays, McCarthy likes to call what he does "American-Regional" instead of "Southwestern." ("We never really did serious Southwestern anyway," he says. "It was always twisted.") Regional makes sense if your region is the entire planet. He's pulling in healthy farm-raised fish from all over the place — like the omega-3-loaded Hawaiian Kampachi (a special) or Caicos Island conch (an appetizer), marrying them with glamorous international flavorings like yuzu (a Japanese lemon), togarashi spice mix, and Spanish smoked paprika. Seasonal, but not obsessively so. Local, when he can get it. Simple and hearty but never dull. Add in years of experience messing around with global ingredients and you've got a neighborhood café that sets the standard for the genre: an intimate room where two decades of regular customers along with dozens of new converts can share a meal that comforts and stimulates, at fair prices.
When I talked to him by phone last week, McCarthy stressed he's still working on staffing and décor, but you can't argue with the food he's serving. It's true, our well-intentioned waiter was nervous, our plates sat too long after dinner, and the look of the small room is still evolving (there's a bar at one end and a cozy arrangement of candle-lit tables at the other; it will eventually seat 50), but the effect is unfinished, not unpleasant. Whatever — we just wanted to know if the tequila shrimp ($12) had survived the move. We ordered them, plus two new appetizers: queen conch ($12) and the nightly special, barbecued lamb ribs ($12; McCarthy has since put these on the permanent menu, with a slightly tweaked sauce).