A French Connection
Talk about the ghosts of future pasts.
It's one thing to go to a new restaurant and be able to remember the eatery that occupied the site before. It's another to recognize so many elements left over from the previous restaurant that it feels like the second one is haunted.
Take Restaurante do Porto, located on North Federal Highway in Lighthouse Point. Thanks to a glitch in the lease, the proprietors of this two-month-old eatery were allowed to put up their own sign but were prohibited from removing the old one. So for now, Restaurante do Porto hangs above -- but not over -- Chez Colette, making it seem as if the restaurants are sharing space. As for the restaurant's potential customers, some undoubtedly believe that French food will be proffered beside the billed fare.
Do Porto's attitude toward its wine offerings reinforces the notion that Chez Colette, a longtime neighborhood French bistro, is still hanging around. The waitress shrugs when you ask for a list, saying she'll bring you a bottle and you can decide whether you like it. When she brought us a Steele chardonnay for $24, it became apparent that, rather than offering a steal at that price, do Porto is really just selling off the remains of Chez Colette's cellar, which it probably acquired along with the kitchen equipment, customer base, and lease.
Indeed, you can't even get do Porto's phone number from Information; you must ask for Chez Colette to get in touch with the place. But despite these hints of the spirit of Chez Colette, do Porto's menu makes it pretty clear that the new entity is all about Brazil.
The South American connection starts with the staff, who for the most part speak limited English and might have trouble explaining the dishes to newcomers to the cuisine. Of course, they don't really expect to have to make such an explanation -- for the past decade, Lighthouse Point and nearby Pompano Beach have been home to bazillions of Brazilians, who have opened up everything from grocery stores to pizza joints in the neighborhood. In do Porto's shopping plaza alone, you can buy anything from Brazilian flags to nuts.
Although they might seem complicated to the uninitiated, do Porto's menu items are really quite simple, freshly prepared, and deliciously authentic. Take the picanha ($11.95), a Brazilian cut of steak that resembles a New York strip sirloin. The beef here was juicy and succulent and even better when topped with a pair of fried eggs. Though my companion, a first-timer at a Brazilian eatery, was skeptical at first, he agreed that the galleon-gold egg yolks added an appealing element of richness to the meat.
Do Porto does seafood equally well, supplying a shellfish-heavy paella ($12.95) that's unusual in the fact that it's served for one person (other restaurants typically make this time-consuming dish only for two or more). Regardless, the paella -- moist yellow rice, plump shrimp, tender whole calamari, and an assortment of well-cleaned clams and mussels -- is enough for an entire family.
Ditto with the excellent moqueca ($12.95), the classic northeastern Brazilian fish stew that comes from the Bahia region. Steamed and served in a terra cotta casserole dish, the mild, white fish -- in this case red snapper -- is spiced with onions, bell peppers, and a touch of Brazil's justly famous malagueta peppers, as well as a dash of coconut milk and dendê (palm oil). Though the combination of flavors may sound exotic, it melds into a lightly piquant and ultimately satisfying meal -- as long as you watch out for the bones. In fact, you can't get any dish more representative of Brazil's unique mix of native, African, and Portuguese cultures.
That is, unless you finish off the meal with the passion fruit crema catalana ($2), a tangy free-form pudding. Close your eyes and it's the finest crème brûlée, minus the burnt sugar top, served from a serious French kitchen. But I guarantee that after this sweet end to an authentic Brazilian meal, Chez Colette will be as far from your mind as the Brazilian soccer team is from winning the next World Cup.
A second brilliantly real experience awaits at Mediterra, a Spanish tapas bar and restaurant located in Galt Ocean Village in Fort Lauderdale. Though not as vigorously haunted as Restaurante do Porto, Mediterra clearly has roots in a former French bakery-cafe called Jean Pierre. The servers still speak the Gallic tongue, and the blackboard lists specials. A bakery case remains in the front of the restaurant, though instead of homemade Napoleans and custard éclairs, it now features rather staid, imported desserts like flan and tiramisu. Décor improvements have been made at this year-old restaurant, which among other things now features a stamped tin ceiling instead of unappealing acoustic tile.
Unless you object to a karaoke-style entertainer, the pastries are about all that will bore you at Mediterra. The wine list is limited to only a couple of Spanish brands (the well-known Suso among them), but the proprietor seems intent on expanding it and keeps a selection of wines he likes or is going to try in the back. When we asked if he had any Spanish rosés in stock, he searched the cellar for us, and though he came up empty-handed, as a consolation prize, he gave us a Faustino, priced at $37, for $30.
The dinner menu offers a greater selection, with entrées ranging from cazuela catalana ($21.95) -- grouper, scallops, shrimp, mussels, and clams in saffron-tomato broth -- to parrilla mixta ($21.95), an assortment of grilled beef, lamb, and chicken. But if suckling pig ($21.95) is a special of the evening, as it sometimes is, your decision is made: crackling skin, juicy meat. The staff is pretty proud of this dish, and rightly so.
If you're looking for a lighter meal, however, you can easily make one from the tapas. Cold ones include salads like mozzarella-tomato, perhaps not the most interesting thing in the world, so stick with hot ones that are exceptionally prepared. We were particularly delighted with meaty mushrooms sautéed in garlic ($6.95) and a wonderfully crisp chicken croquette ($6.95) that was shaped like a crab cake and textured like a fluffy potato pancake, thanks to an addition of béchamel sauce. You can also score an excellent gazpacho ($6.95), which featured an emulsified broth that had then been doctored with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions.
A bowl of chopped tomatoes with garlic and soft, warm bread are on the house, so it's easy to fill up without spending a lot of cash -- definitely a consideration of late. Another consideration is the burgeoning culinary trend of back-to-basics French bistros and cafés, which will likely spread from Miami-Dade County to parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. Visit them, by all means, when and if, like spirits, they appear. But it might be more fun to help exorcise the ghosts of Colette and Jean Pierre, non?
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