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A Gourmet in Party Central
Joe Rocco

A Gourmet in Party Central

What's a hungry girl to do about her meat? Rich or poor, we're getting kicked where it hurts — right in our growling stomachs. Every meal is an unhappy meal. First, it's foie gras; now it's KFC. I was on the verge of sending away to PETA for my "free vegetarian starter kit" after I got a load of the new Pam Anderson video: Here's the Baywatch chick, plump and juicy breasts for once unexposed, looking practically schoolmarmish, cluck-clucking away about cruelty-free chicken and urging me to boycott Colonel Sanders. Is this a fricking topsy-turvy world we live in or what?

I don't need to see any more undercover footage of chickens getting water-boarded at factory farms. I just need to know what the hell I'm allowed to eat. Talk about an Age of Anxiety.

This is precisely why I'm forced out of the house, driven in search of nice restaurants several times a week; I couldn't live with myself otherwise. The menus I'm looking for are specifically written to soothe the aches and pains of a tortured conscience. It's gotten easier lately to find restaurants where the brief, happy life of a cow or pig is spelled out with all the detail of a chapter of Charlotte's Web: The bacon wrapping my seared scallop was once named Wilbur and frolicked on the Zuckerman farm, rooting contentedly in the mud; that lovely confit of goose comes courtesy of Wilbur's friends Gussy and Golly. The farm-raised, locally grown, day boat-fresh gambit is apparently paying off even in Fort Liquordale, where you wouldn't expect the tank-top-and-brewski crowd around, say, Riverwalk, to give a damn.

Which brings me to Himmarshee Bar & Grille, now celebrating its tenth year in a location that has become, in one short decade, Party Central of the party capital of the South. When Himmarshee opened in 1997, as we know, that stretch of dirt on SW Second had been asleep longer than Briar Rose. It needed only the kiss of Prince Riverwalk to wake it up, although the handsome savior is these days looking a little tatty and long in the tooth. Himmarshee Bar & Grille was opened by a golden pair of restaurateurs as their first foray into the food biz: Tim Petrillo and Chef Peter Boulukos, who went on to revamp River House and to open Tarpon Bend a short lurch down the street. But Himmarshee was their baby, and as they expanded and Boulukos spent fewer hours in the kitchen, they hired Moroccan-born Youssef Hammi as executive chef.

Hammi had landed at Mark's Las Olas after working in New York with Terrence Brennan at Picholine. In collaboration with Petrillo and Boulukos, he created dishes to challenge expectations — say, truffled root vegetable hash making a downy bed for Australian barramundi — in a thoroughly urban high-tech industrial setting: soaring ceilings, exposed ducts, raw cement, a bar that overlooked the restaurant, walls that turned out to be hidden doors. A couple of years later, they redesigned the space alongside to create Side Bar, attracting nightlifers with live music and a limited menu from the same kitchen. They'd brought a New York aesthetic to downtown Fort Lauderdale, a little bit of East Village in Himmarshee, and they looked around and saw that it was good.

Petrillo and Boulukos have since gone on to create a $16 million empire with three Tarpon Bends and the River House. They sold Himmarshee to Dave Nicholas and Brad Gambill, of the Chao Restaurant Group, two years ago. Chao bought the George and Dragon at the same time and turned it into 4140 (they've since sold that one).

I had lunch at Himmarshee with my new boss shortly after Nicholas and Gambill took it on, and we were unimpressed with our limp salad and dry sandwich. In fact, I wondered if Himmarshee's glory days were over, in spite of the waitress' nervous assurances that the new owners weren't planning to change a thing. I didn't go back for a long time. But interesting teasers started appearing in my inbox: news of four-course wine dinners (the next one, featuring Long Meadow Ranch wines and grass-fed Highland beef, takes place April 17), a chef's table upstairs on the balcony, a summer small plate menu of tapas that included things like dates stuffed with gorgonzola and artisanal cheese boards.

So off we went, full circle back to Himmarshee, with the wife of my now ex-boss, this time. She'd hit town just long enough to move their stuff to New York City. After two days of hauling bags to Goodwill, she needed comfort food. That's just what you get at Himmarshee — only your comfort comes with dollops of pea purée and port reduction, with truffle essence and crème frâiche, and with that greatest comfort of all — a list of 50 wines by the glass. And there are soothing assurances that not only the crème is frâiche — because this "chef-driven menu" (language courtesy of marketing flak Brian Lazar) is grounded in a reverence for foods that have not been tortured, which includes the torture of riding in refrigerated trucks and airplane cargo holds for thousands of miles. Well, mostly. Sort of.

This pastorale of Garden of Eden foodstuffs, while well-intentioned, is, I fear, about as authentic as Pamela Anderson's rack, but I'm certainly willing to suspend disbelief for the two hours it takes me to eat dinner. We liked our meal at Himmarshee very much, and we liked it even better when we considered that as a pre- or post-theater pit stop, it's just about unrivaled. There's no other restaurant in the area that combines this level of culinary inventiveness with good service and a casual vibe. Noisy but not unbearably so. Crowded in a good way. The people sitting around you look like the kind of folks you'd get along with if your paths happened to cross. The menu, which we were told "changes daily," doesn't change in the ambitious way you might find at, say, the Four Seasons. We're talking maybe the fish might be grouper or snapper or Key West pompano, or they might have halibut or dolphin. Himmarshee began as moderately priced, but you can't unequivocally call it that now. There are still bargains: The small plates and salads run $8 to $14 (for tossed salad and veal sirloin, with day-boat scallops and English pea purses in between). Your humanely slaughtered chicken will set you back just $22, and this unpretentious dinner — the kind of thing you might sit down to back on the old farm — comes with roasted potatoes, spinach, charcoaled onions, and corn. Crab meat ravioli with toasted almonds and curry sauce is $20. But the finer stuff — the dishes that must indeed be "chef-driven," are all suckered up around the $30 mark, like barnacles stuck to a log.

For the convenience of the area (downtown, close to the theaters), the higher prices are worth paying. Dishes like chestnut-honey-glazed duckling served with wild rice studded with apricots and cherries, a scattering of macadamia nuts, and port reduction ($26) are pleasantly subtle references to the chef's Moroccan roots. An appetizer of salmon carpaccio with seaweed salad ($9) perched on crisp wontons and drizzled with sharp wasabi cream and sweet soy sauce is a mouth dazzler. I was less enthusiastic about my taquitos ($9) — their shells had the consistency of a takeout egg roll, and the flavor of the "homemade" chorizo inside, chopped fine, was lost under the bittersweet punch of the mole sauce.

Yes indeed, this is contemporary international; we attention-deficient Americans like our restaurants modeled on Epcot. Over here, a Caribbean island, where your grilled jerk-spiced dolphin ($27) sits on a mound of island rice laced with mango and bananas. France is represented by tomato pistou and haricots verts, Italy by orecchiette with homemade sausage and grilled radicchio. Still, there are unexpected tweaks to most of it — our jerked dolphin was napped in a curry sauce redolent of cardamom and spiked with cilantro. Pan-roasted halibut paired edamame beans with crimini mushrooms in tarragon broth. France and Japan, meet Alaska.

We loved our grilled pork tenderloin ($25), served medium rare, which came with boniato mash (as satisfying as sweet potatoes but fluffier and less cloying), sautéed rapini for a hint of bitter, and a lovely, piquant sage reduction.

Our waitress advised me to order my wild spring Chinook salmon ($29) medium rare, which of course I did, but it came out well done, having lost every hint of wildness. It might as well have been farm-raised, for all the flavor it hadn't. But crushed roasted cauliflower with truffle essence in a deep beurre noire was a superb consolation prize.

We lingered over a dessert torte ($8) — a simply prepared, head-clearing little cake that couldn't have held another eighth ounce of chocolate, spooning it up with cinnamon ice cream, and basked in yet another rush of assertive flavors.

This muscular approach to seasoning, along with a bit of dilettantish dabbling in global cuisines, has always been a drawback at Himmarshee — the menu really has no focus. You end up eating wasabi-drizzled raw salmon as a prelude to lamb chops wrapped in prosciutto; the effect is not unpleasant, but it's disconcerting. A truly chef-driven menu would have a less wobbly center. Still, this approach may be a practical solution for feeding the crowd that throngs these sidewalks — the chef's preference for intense flavors is probably a response to palates that have been corrupted by at least a couple of martinis.

It takes a strong pesto to penetrate the fog of gin.

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