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The last time I'd stepped through the door at 2671 E. Oakland Park Blvd., I'd skirted under a neon martini glass and around an ashen-haired biker hobbling gamely on metal crutches. The biker, not as tough as he looked, was one of the trio of big shots who owned Ruggero's Italian restaurant. Ruggero's served Sunday gravy every day and also a dish I still crave: chicken livers with hot peppers in Madeira sauce. The place was typically haunted by bottle blonds and guys who made a living moving electronics in Queens. Friends of the maitre d' at Ruggero's called him Joe Cadillac. That suave old cat knew how to take care of a girl who wanted her martini dirty and her noodles al dente. The aesthetic was red and plush like the interior walls of a beating heart. Somebody was always crooning "I've Got You Under My Skin" at the piano bar.
It was sexy in its way, but that show has moved on, taking with it the heavyweight boxing champs and Harley kingpins, the ironic and courtly servers, the flocked wallpaper and velour upholstery. Packed away: sheet music for "My Funny Valentine" and recipes for Nonna's meatballs and ricotta cake. Joints like Ruggero's don't so much close down as they get temporarily absorbed back into the invisible mycelium of Italian restaurants. Like one of those gigantic funguses that stretches underground for thousands of miles, sending up the occasional fruiting body under a tree or a rock, Ruggero's, or something very like it, survives forever.
Christine's, the restaurant that replaced my old hangout, couldn't be less like its predecessor. If the old was a fleshily perspiring mushroom, the new is a tropical lily, hothouse-cosseted. Imagine brassy cousin Nencia from Long Island with her big mouth and loud hair going in for a makeover and emerging as Gwyneth Paltrow: Such is the magic that's been wrought at Christine's. The gleaming wood floors are the color of sun-burnished clouds; the décor, white, silver, and palest gray, as understated as a strand of heirloom pearls. Cool, WASP-y, translucent, subdued, this is a restaurant gliding around in velvet Prada slippers, batting its white-blond eyelashes.
2671 E. Park Oakland Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33306
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Wilton Manors
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A sculptural wine rack undulates along the back wall, and floor-to-ceiling glass with brushed metal accents divides the dining room from the upper-level bar. There, a jazz group called Lyfe (sax player Lawvawn Emunah and his slinky-voiced wife, Precious) plays '70s gold-standards: Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle — voulez-vous cucher avec moi? At least twice during dinner, I put down my Villeroy & Bosch salad fork and stood up to take a gander at Precious as she spun out "What's Love Got to Do With It?" or "Sweet Thing." And Precious is only one jewel in a trove of treasures at Christine's.
I'd grown so jaded! When a press release arrives in my inbox these days, it seems to do so with an audible sigh. More "New American Cuisine" from someone who'd worked someplace. A chef sure to pull from his or her culinary bag of tricks corn crusts, key-lime glazes, chorizo, and goat cheese. "If there is something on the menu not positively delicious, we have yet to find it," brayed Christine's P.R. "Oh yeah?" I said aloud. "Let me have at it." If there's a food critic alive who wouldn't blow coffee through her nose reading this kind of drivel, I have yet to find her.
But I here report glad tidings just in time for Valentine's Day. Love is in the air, and Christine's has totally stumped me. Not a single undelicious dish arrived from Chef Steve Shockey's kitchen the night we dined there. Nothing even remotely less-than-spectacular, in fact. Even Shockey himself, formerly of Max's Grill in Palm Beach Gardens, was delish; youngish and lanky, he stopped by our table to ask how we'd liked our food and what we'd ordered. The man was as sweet as Texas pie and as earnest as any novitiate. By the time we finally laid eyes on him, we'd been falling ever more madly in love with him for hours. His introductory amuse-bouche, a "crouton" of polenta topped with crab salad, was a mouthful that slowly rifled overlapping leaves of cream, buttery crunch, and clean, muscular shellfish; sensations that followed one another like pages turning in a beloved book. The flavor lingered, refusing to be absorbed — I literally closed my eyes to savor it.
"If the rest of the food is as good as this bite," we mumbled to each other, barely able to mouth the words for fear of jinxing it.
Restaurants like Christine's don't come along every day. Hard as I worked, rolling my critical eye this way and that, fingering the linens and cross-examining the waiter, I couldn't unearth a single flaw. The napkins were spotless and the server exemplary, the wine glasses clear as bells. When we showed up on Saturday night, the place had been open only a month, and just four or five tables were full, plus a handful of drinkers at the bar — the staff had the leisure to be perfect. They're clearly on their best, new-restaurant behavior. If co-owners Gregory Rhatagen (who owned the Grateful Palate on 17th Street Causeway) and Daniel MacMillan lose their vision or stamina or money, they'll have plenty of time to slide into mediocrity. But at least for this week and maybe next, Christine's is one of the best restaurants in Broward County.