Big for Its Britches
No doubt it was bound to happen: Like Lincoln Road in Miami, Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard is no longer an unchained melody. The past two years have brought us Samba Room and Timpano Italian Chophouse, both national concepts owned by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, a company that specializes in such globally marketed restaurants as T.G.I. Friday's. Now, with the addition of the Cheesecake Factory, the charmingly quaint restaurant row is destined to become as overplayed as Justin Timberlake.
It's not that Las Olas hasn't heard the tune before -- Cheeburger Cheeburger has been making a joyous noise for many years now. But the tucked-away 'Burger has been relatively in keeping with the rhythm of the once-sedate street, and the Samba Room and Timpano have only six and four units respectively, as compared to the aptly named Factory, which has seven locations in South Florida alone and 59 (with another nine forthcoming) nationwide. Plus, the Cheesecake Factory is arguably the first chain to come in as a replacement to an independent restaurant -- the much-missed zanZbar -- that had been shoved out by a landlord who said he was building condos. There may well be living quarters above the Factory; it's just a little hard to tell with all that fluorescence going on.
Then there's the restaurant chain that's masquerading as Big Time Restaurant Group. Owner of City Oyster in Delray Beach, John Bull English Pub in West Palm Beach, Piccolo City in West Palm Beach, and City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill/City Bar Cocktails in both West Palm Beach and Birmingham, Michigan, the group got its start with its Big City Tavern brand in West Palm before expanding that concept to Boca Raton, Tampa, and now Fort Lauderdale.
I've had plenty of positive things to say about the Big City Taverns and the other properties such as City Oyster in the past. I expected to come out of the six-month-old Fort Lauderdale location with the same facility for flattery. Instead, I left with a new appreciation for the defining moment a "restaurant group" turns into a dreaded "restaurant chain": when the formula starts to fail.
Both visually and philosophically, the fourth Big City draws on its predecessors too closely to be classified as anything less than corporate. Every location appears to have the signature stamped-tin ceiling, the brick walls, the endless hardwood floors, the bar as long as a Michael Jackson video. Oversize booths, lazy fans, sexy contemporary lighting, and storefront windows that typically double as patio doors leading to the outdoor dining section are de rigueur. The only elements that seem subject to change are the bistro furnishings, which range from warm cherry woods to black leather(ette) to rattan, and the demographics of the bar crowd -- middle-aged, crisis-afflicted, and divorced in Boca, perhaps, or college-young, semiprofessional, and not-yet-married in Fort Lauderdale. The taverns, taken individually, are certainly attractive, contemporary, and buzzworthy places to dine, but you know how the saying goes. You've seen one, done that. (Or is it, been there, you've seen them all? I can never keep it straight.)
The other ruling precept that has begun to fall apart has to do with a combination of menu and service. Big City Tavern would like us to believe that it is a company that cares about domestic suppliers and family purveyors, as per some of its proffered menu items. The "cheese tasting plate," for instance, is purportedly a "market selection of small production offerings." We asked our server about that selection one night, hoping to hear tell of something like, "Well, tonight we have the Everona Dairy Sheep's Milk Cheese, a semifirm aged cheese with a delicate, nutty-sweet flavor from Rapidan, Virginia; the Goat's Leap Dairy 'Hyku,' a slightly aged flaky goat's milk cheese from one of only two goat cheese dairies in the Napa Valley region; and the Pedroso Family Dairy 'Black Butte,' a handmade cow's milk cheese, aged over nine months, with a cheddar-like flavor and texture, from Orland, California."
Instead, her answer was frustratingly vague: "Camembert, blue cheese, and Asiago." Yes, we persisted, but where are they from? "Well, the Camembert's from France." If the cheeses we were subsequently served -- including a semisoft something-or-other that tasted more like fontina than Asiago -- were small-production, artisanal samples, then Publix is a gourmet deli.
But pretend they were. Say the blue cheese was Maytag and the Camembert was not the industrial version we see from countries all over the world but sourced from one of the two farmers who still make the cheese in its appellation village in Normandy. Our server was not trained to tell us.
Nor could she supply anything but the obvious when we asked what kind of fish eggs graced the main course of "scrambled eggs with toasted brioche and one ounce American caviar." "American," she said. Yeah, we got that part. But, look, is it from Montana's paddlefish or Mississippi's hackleback (a.k.a. shovelnose)? From the white sturgeon in California, the salmon in Alaska, or the whitefish from the Great Lakes? Could it be bowfin black, which is better-known by its Cajun name, choupique? It's not too fine a point when I say there's a notable difference among domestic caviars, and not just in the color.
Also at issue is the price of this dish. For the record, despite the $38 price tag, the scrambled-egg dish has always been my favorite Big City item. But in other locations, the eggs were garnished with Sevruga (and still are, according to the website). I always expect to pay for that particular comestible, whether the delicacy is sourced from Russia or Iran. I certainly don't anticipate paying the same price, however, when the Sevruga is replaced, as it is in Fort Lauderdale, with the American equivalent. Last time I checked -- which was about two minutes before writing this -- an ounce of paddlefish caviar was going for about $12, as compared to $35 an ounce for the cheapest Russian Sevruga. And that's retail.
I would be equally not as thrilled to shell out $28 for a New York 12-ounce sirloin whose tough texture does not convince me that it's prime as billed, or $26 for a filet ordered medium and served the hue of tartare. These complaints notwithstanding, I can still enjoy Big City Tavern as long as I take it for what it is (as suggested by its moniker): a good place to drink black and tans with friends, do some sidewalk café people-watching, and put away some spirited bistro fare.
In fact, many items remain deeply satisfying and filling despite the location. Seafood ranks especially high. A richly imbued lobster-carrot bisque is an excellent launch to a meal, as is a bowl of littleneck clams in roasted garlic-white wine nage. A crab cake, perched on a puffy corn-scallion fritter and dressed with an herb salad, offered complementary flavors and good counterpoint of textures, not to mention a large amount of food for something that is considered a starter.
I can always be happy with a thick Big City burger or the popular upgrade: Ten ounces of sirloin burger served open-faced and topped, like James Beard preferred, with pungent Gorgonzola cheese. But I appreciate a properly prepared chicken even more, I think, and Big City can consistently fill this need with its pressed and grilled half-chicken. Crisp at the skin, juicy in the interior, the chicken was amply scented with anise and accompanied by eggplant couscous, a ratatouille-reminiscent tomato salad, a mélange of squashes, and a handful of petite French green beans.
Servings in general are indeed value-for-money; you could almost complain that there are too many global influences and too much plate-filling going on. Veal scaloppini probably presented the most confusion: The toothsome, lemon-enhanced veal was overwhelmed by a plethora of sides, including both mashed white potatoes and creamed sweet potatoes, braised red cabbage, an assortment of freshly sautéed vegetables, and a pile of the ubiquitous string beans.
But when it comes to the family-size dessert sampler, too much is never enough. This collection includes every sweet the house has baked: molten-center chocolate cake, blueberry pie, crème brûlée, apple strudel, even profiteroles. And, of course, New York-style cheesecake, which may not yet rival the 20-odd, over-the-top versions available at the competition across the boulevard. But you can bet Big City is working on it.
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