A Sonata in Davie Major
Around the time of Martin Luther, Germany -- the land of Bach and von Braun -- seems to have pretty much developed a cuisine and stuck with it. But the Teutons' neighbor to the south, the Austrians, even at the height of their empire, had enough humility and good sense to borrow good things when they saw them: strudel from Turkey, crepes from Switzerland and France, goulash from Hungary, and warm pastries from Czechoslovakia. Not to mention many different ways of concealing beef behind such enigmatic names as zwiebelrosbraten and beinfleisch. Add the art of making superb coffee and you'll know why you won't find many Viennese praising the tastes of the Teutons.
Not that Vienna Café and Wine Bar in Davie serves only Austrian cuisine. Chef and owner Per Jacobsen has chosen to branch out, adding northern European and other Continental recipes to his extensive menu. Why he has not chosen to more closely match the name of the restaurant with the cuisine it serves remains mysterious and, to me, a little annoying. (Question your waiter about the incongruity and you'll receive a pleasant, "I don't know. Let me find out." Let me tell you: No answer will be forthcoming.)
Of course, the Danish Jacobsen has the skills to mollify this kind of trivial annoyance. Trained at a hotel and restaurant school in Copenhagen before immigrating to the United States in 1987, he has years of kitchen management experience at the Eden Roc and Biltmore hotels in Miami-Dade County, where he was food and beverage director and executive chef, respectively, before launching Vienna Café in February 1999. Indicative of his comfort with all types of restaurant work, Jacobsen often serves as host and floor captain, watching over the dining room and helping in the wine bar.
While stinting on the Austrian specialties on the menu, Jacobsen has captured the gemütlicht atmosphere of the typical Viennese beisel, converting a freestanding building next to a drive-through wedding chapel in Davie's Pine Island Plaza into a charming cottage of polished dark woods and mullioned windows. The 80-seat dining room is divided into intimate areas by half-walls, which also create a unique feel in the ten-seat wine bar.
On weekend nights, most of the tables are usually full (reservations are suggested), and the wine bar is active with couples getting cozy while trying out the well-conceived but overpriced wine list, which concentrates on domestic and imported whites (average $6 per glass). The restaurant is a member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs and hosts events of the Xtreme Wine Society the first and second Tuesday of every month.
Beisels are relaxed affairs, and meals in them take on that European dining pace foreign to many Americans. Though a few foodies have complained about the speed of service here, a recent four-course dinner took two hours -- an expected amount of time for fine dining. Our waiter sensed that we were in no hurry, and plates found their way to the table exactly when we were ready for them. Though the restaurant was full and diners were waiting to be seated, we never felt unwelcome or rushed.
Vienna Café serves pasta-bar lunches and Sunday brunches, but it's at dinner when the kitchen's talents most shine. At a recent evening meal, we were greeted by Jacobsen and seated by our considerate server, Ralph, in an alcove at a round table decorated with a red rose and a candle. Though as intimate as possible in a room divided by half walls, the alcove was not quiet, and the hum of the restaurant made speaking up a necessity. After ordering a bottle of 2002 Markham sauvignon blanc ($24), a wine known for its fruity flavor and lingering finish, we enjoyed a basket of warm, homemade, crusty sourdough while glancing over the menu.
The 14-item appetizer list ($5.75 to $9.75) might seem like overkill if you didn't know these starters do double duty at the dinner table and the wine bar. There's ratatouille and shrimp provençal from France, fricassees and pepper-laced escargots from the Mediterranean. We chose to stick with some northern European classics closer to Jacobsen's home. The smoked Norwegian salmon ($7.75), succulent, aromatic, and not too salty, arrived beautifully presented in slices layered over a buttery, round potato pancake (galotte) and accompanied by the traditional counterpoints of a spoonful of sour cream and a shower of black caviar. Also satisfying were the Danish meatballs ($6.75). Though served warm rather than cold, as is customary in Denmark, these delicious dollops of ground pork mixed with flour and other seasonings came with the crisp, flavorful cucumber salad and multigrain hard bread popular in many cafés in Copenhagen.
For an extra $2, you can get a soup or salad to go with your entrée. Frankly, after trying the salads, I think the price might be too high. Though the vegetables were fresh and the portion generous, the balsamic vinaigrette dressing, blessedly served on the side, was sweeter than the caramel sauce on a candied apple and might have been eaten in that form. The caesar salad was less aggressively unpleasant but nonetheless uninspiring, the frail little clumps of romaine drowned in a standard and surprisingly flavorless dressing.
Among entrées, the specials are a big draw, full of surprising choices and reasonable prices. The $19.75 Florida grouper -- flaky, tender, fresh -- was served under a shrimp cream sauce in which pieces of the crustaceans floated generously in the buttery béchamel. A huge piece of delicious and hard-to-find yellowtail snapper ($20.75), covered in a rich lemon-based cream sauce, came with a tasty mélange of julienned al dente vegetables and yellow rice. The rack of lamb ($20.75) had a mustard and herb crust that made our table turn miraculously into a lazy Susan. Only the osso buco ($18.75) seemed bland and unloved by the kitchen. The veal was well-cooked and not too fatty, but it could have used a serious dose of gremolata (garlic and lemon) to enhance the flavor of the meat before it was served.
No menu of a restaurant with the word Vienna in its name is worth its topfenknodel without decent desserts. The Viennese, famed for their sweets such as Sacher torte, would have clapped when they saw the large dessert tray Ralph brought to the table. (The choice of sweets changes daily.)
I'm not ordinarily a fan of Viennese desserts, but I'll ferret out a strudel like a diamond merchant checking out a gem. Among the ten choices on the tray, including tortes, a triple chocolate cake, and a fat little golden crème brulée, were an apple strudel and two kinds of cheesecake: Oreo and one with a turtle chocolate crust.
The lukewarm strudel ($5) was served with a scoop of ice cream that didn't hide the fact that it was only fair. The two cheesecakes (not made on the premises) were devoured by all at the table and finished the meal with a rich flourish. How's that for irony?
All in all, I feel about Vienna Café and Wine Bar much as I do about spending Christmas with certain relatives. It's not perfect (or Austrian, for that matter), but it gets to you in a real peace 'n' love kind of way. Peace and love. There are worse combinations -- I've eaten them.
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