A Star Turn

Joe Rocco

Banana splits. Original Motown recordings. Diners. The Mickey Mouse Club. The martini. Perry Mason. The Thin Man series. The Hope/Crosby road movies. Did any of these American cultural benchmarks beg for reinterpretation?

Nope. But they got it anyway.

And now, the Red Star Tavern, the latest addition to the expanding Palm Court in Fort Lauderdale's Galleria, seems determined to refashion another one of America's national treasures: the tavern.


Red Star Tavern

The Galleria, 2418 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. till 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, till 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 954-565-8858, or visit www.redstartavern.net.

Does the tavern need a conceptual overhaul? Apparently the RSDChicagto restaurant group thinks so. Owners of 10 other Red Star Taverns as well as ever-multiplying Bluepoint Fish Clubs and Stonefish Grills, this group couldn't wait for construction outside the mall to finish before opening its new glam watering hole.

So, like it or not, this "hip, contemporary" tavern is here. And it's awfully pretty. If you're used to taverns with countertops full of cigarette burns and water marks from too many years of sweating highball glasses, get ready. The Red Star's red leather bar stools, rich wood paneling, and wide, flagstone columns climbing to 30-foot ceilings will make you long for a tall one. The swank fireplace separating the bar from the dining area promises to add a touch of warmth in the cool months ahead. Pile on deco-ish light fixtures, a large central bar topped with plasma televisions, booths private enough for international espionage, and table arrangements of stones and scented candles and you've got one inviting space.

Whether it's the kind of tavern you remember and love like your best friend -- the kind where waitresses don't chew gum (they crack it), people get loaded, make passes, belch, and maybe get into a fight or two -- remains to be seen. The Red Star is very young.

But the following cell phone conversation going on beside me at the bar during a recent lunch may not put your mind at ease.

Fortyish male business type, to co-worker: "The atmosphere is great... The martinis are huge... The atmosphere is gorgeous... Yes, you can bring your husband here... And the bartender is to die for..."

So. Brownie's the Red Star ain't. But with a clientele this in thrall to beauty and big martinis, you understand why this place is well on its way to becoming a late-night vortex of fabulessence, a quality dramatically present in the maelstrom of Blahnick and Prada around the valet stand outside the tavern on weekend evenings.

This intense awareness of style at a restaurant often means that the fare is only fair. And, sadly, this rule is borne out frequently when sampling choices from Red Star's lunch and dinner menus. (There's a late-night menu of appetizers and sandwiches for those hard-living types hungry at 3 a.m. on the weekend.)

The featured selections sound wonderful on paper -- just the things to accompany the well-chosen list of tap and bottled beers, "handcrafted" cocktails, and a cunning variety of wine from a menu with such darling categories as "Bubbly," "Blondes," and "Red Heads."

(A suggestion while we're talking about vino: The wine by the glass is served first in a carafe and then poured into a glass. Can we just stop that practice immediately and say no more about its pretentiousness -- let alone the waste of time?)

If menu items sound wonderful, the kitchen's delivery exceeds ho-hum but half the time. Granted, taverns have never been famous for subtle recipes and high dining. They specialize in comfort food guaranteed to soak up all the accompanying hooch. But their simple food often scores well on flavor. You may only be wolfing down a burger at the bar -- but the burger usually comes with tasty dill pickles and good greasy fries and ground chuck fresh and full of enough fat to make eating it only slightly less delightful than sipping a Lagavulin single-malt scotch.

Red Star's starter menu ($6.95 to $10.95) leans toward finger food, with such selections as spinach and artichoke dip, chicken tenders, crab cakes, and chicken wings. The three choices my group tried on a recent dinner hit the mark about half the time. The crab and shrimp quesadilla ($7.95) came with a well-achieved charred tomato salsa and avocado cream sauce but also arrived only a little warmer than a snow cone and missing the rich flavors of fish in the filling.

Nor was the onion stack ($5.95) more memorable. Onion rings, the perfect tavern food, need to be at least a little salty and greasy, and the onions need to sting the tongue just a bit. This stack of rings had neither the taste of onion nor that of a nicely salty batter. Much better was an order of calamari ($7.95). The pile of fresh, tender mollusks was fried in the same batter as the onions, but its mildness fit nicely with the richness of the seafood -- and with the cocktail and remoulade sauces that accompanied the dish.  

The main menu at Red Star is a mix of steaks and chops, seafood, pasta, and sandwiches. Sample choices at lunch and dinner are tempura fish and chips, blue cheese-crusted sirloin, slow-roasted pot roast, slow-cooked pulled pork roast sandwich, rotisserie half chicken, and wild mushroom penne with dried tomatoes, peas, and a parmesan broth.

These main dish items can be companioned by 12 side orders (all $2.95), from sweet potato mashers to lemon garlic broccoli to a loaded baked potato. (Whoever invented the names of the dishes deserves the Clever Menu Award of 2004.)

My party went for the blue cheese-crusted sirloin ($17.95), the tempura fish and chips ($12.95), and the $16.95 fish of the day, which turned out to be tilapia. The three-quarter inch sirloin had been rubbed with garlic and salt and broiled to the requested "medium rare." The crust of cream cheese, blue cheese, and pepper added the proper zing to the richness of the beef and made the order a success that traveled around the table.

The tempura fish and chips turned out crisp on the outside and nicely firm on the inside (fish) -- but also dull and tasteless (chips). A little salt is not a dangerous thing, a maxim the kitchen could stand to remember. I should be shipped to Food World Hell for allowing a friend to order tilapia, the fish of the day. This lapse occurred as I was taking a sip of a remarkable Greg Norman shiraz. But order it she did, and the fish arrived, broiled and peppered and otherwise dressed up to enchant.

But it failed. Asking tilapia to have personality is like asking Ashlee Simpson to be Courtney Love. The kitchen can't be faulted here; the problem lies in the bland mealiness of the fish. So it's no wonder that the grilled asparagus that came as a side order with this dish stood out as beautifully cooked and seasoned.

At a recent lunch, I sat on a comfortable stool at the bar and got up to speed with the bartender (fresh down from the Red Star in Pittsburgh, likes Fort Lauderdale, hoping business will pick up soon). While doing so, I tried the slow-cooked pulled pork sandwich ($7.49), a bruiser of a mouthful that came with coleslaw and housemade chips. The sandwich, a hunkful of tender pork seasoned with Red Star Tavern brand house barbecue sauce and cooked well past an inch of its life, was topped with a layer of cheddar cheese and imprisoned in a thick bun.

The dominant taste -- actually, the only taste -- on the plate was the barbecue sauce. The sandwich, which should have been served warm, was cool, and the cheese lay limply on the surface of the meat instead of blending smoothly into it. Nor did the coleslaw have much flavor -- though it was fun to chew on. The fries provided the third disappointment. Any tavern serving fries this bland needs to take a serious look at the kitchen.

Desserts, surprisingly, are made on the premises. And they're made well -- if the flourless chocolate cake ($5.95) was indicative. Part of the fun of eating it was the presentation, something like an ice cream sandwich in which two large slabs of cake sit below and atop a superscoop of vanilla ice cream. This cake, plainly wonderful, came in a portion large enough for a party of three or four. To share it, however, you must be wary, because as it disappears, cold, wolfish expressions begin to appear in the eyes of those you thought you could trust. Forks turn into weapons. No hand is safe until the last bite is consumed.

The waitress (at dinner) and the bartender (at lunch) were both as friendly as puppies. The bartender was skillful too, quick with helpful suggestions about the menu and the virtues of the tavern. The waitress could have used a little more training. She had the appropriate, Trixie-like casualness of a tavern barmaid, but the menu still seemed a work in progress for her -- this made the delivery of the plates an all-hands-on-deck affair as we switched orders and side orders to their proper recipients.

Dollars to daiquiris, the patrons of the Red Star won't give a whit about any of these minor inconveniences -- or the hit-and-miss quality of the food. Especially if they've just finished a shop-a-thon at Galleria, as had two blunt-cut gal pals bearing Neiman's bags sitting on the patio having lunch.

"Isn't this fun?" said one in a poncho, looking at the menu. "What are you having?"  

"I don't really care," replied her friend, ferreting through her Coach handbag and coming up with a pack of Virginia Slims. "Food is such a waste of time. Frankly, I'd rather have a martini."

Sic, semper, Red Star.

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