There's simply no getting around some truths: Grass is green, Trump is president, and Wilton Manors is the last place in Broward County you'd go for a raw bar. Until now.
When Bubbles & Pearls chef/owner Josie Smith-Malave left her hometown of Hialeah nearly 20 years ago, she had no idea where her future would take her. Certainly not back to South Florida to open a restaurant in the heart of Broward County's "Island City."
Smith-Malave wanted to act when she made the move to New York City in the mid-'90s but ended up taking a job serving tables at a busy Upper East Side restaurant. She liked the steady paycheck and flexible schedule that allowed her to go on casting calls, but it wasn't long before she decided to swap the bright lights of the stage for the heat of the kitchen. A few years later, she graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education, after which she spent many years exploring Manhattan's global food scene.
Smith-Malave was fortunate to work beside a number of respected chefs, including WD-50's Wylie Dufresne, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Marlow & Sons' Caroline Fidanza, and hospitality veteran Walter Hinds.
In 2006, she competed in Season 2 of Top Chef. She was ousted in the fifth round but has since returned to compete in several subsequent seasons. Most recently, she was executive sous-chef for the Manhattan-based NYY Steak and, prior to that, executive chef at Norwood, a members-only club off NYC's 14th Street.
Now Smith-Malave is back in South Florida for the first time since her culinary career began. Her mission, she says, is to breathe some life into the Wilton Manors dining scene.
She's doing just that with the 2-month-old Bubbles & Pearls, a concept that specializes in champagne and oysters.
Near the entrance of the former 13|Even space, piles of oysters are stacked on ice at the raw bar. High-top tables for two are scattered across the long, slim space. Grab a stool at the 13-seat bar, where bottles are popped throughout the night. Options range from the crisp, clean $5 happy-hour French Grandial brut to the popular "black" bubbly, an aromatic sparkling Shiraz from Australia. Try some popping boba pearls, each a grape-size explosion of flavor.
Begin the meal with oysters, shucked before your eyes by Jason Cabello, the restaurant's dedicated raw-bar boy. The idea for the fresh oyster display — and later the champagne — was something Smith-Malave says she created out of necessity, a simple way to offset the demand for dishes prepared in the restaurant's abysmally small kitchen.
The selection of East and West Coast oysters changes almost daily, but the $1 oysters — currently sourced from Melbourne, Florida, but usually locally — rotate less frequently. Get them for a steal during happy hour Monday through Friday from 6 to 7:30 p.m., served with house-made cocktail and mignonette sauces.
Don't pass up the tsunami shooter, Smith-Malave's take on the oyster shooter, made with raw miso and wasabi cream in place of cocktail and Tabasco sauces. The additional lemon juice, diced cucumber, wakame, and Pabst Blue Ribbon floater make it an ordeal to get down in one slurp, but the attempt is a rite of passage at Bubbles & Pearls.
Ceviche and tuna poke are must-tries. At first, Smith-Malave says, she wanted to open with 12 poke versions and a few takes on ceviche but elected to keep it simple to maintain integrity.
Seafood is not the only thing served here.
The restaurant's signature dish is meaty and indulgent, appropriately named "BNP biscuits and belly." Smith-Malave's mom helps her make the biscuits every few days, hand-formed into macaron-size disks that taste almost like shortbread. They pair perfectly with brown-sugar-rubbed smoked pork belly, roasted until crisp and stacked with a few slices of house-made dill pickle and a touch of onion jam redolent of red wine, fig, and honey.
Even the brick chicken is cause for excitement. A gorgeously plump whole leg and thigh are plated on black slate, bordered with roasted purple potatoes and tiny mounds of roasted farro wheat berries.
Yet one of the simplest dishes might be the best: a whole head of roasted cauliflower, labeled as a vegan "steak." It's served in a pool of sesame-infused miso that's been rendered into a creamy gravy. The dueling textures of the soft-roasted florets and al dente stalks are highlighted with umami-rich notes of roasted fermented black garlic.
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End with the key lime pie. It's a collaboration between Smith-Malave (the custard creator) and her fiancée/business partner, Marcy Miller (the crust maker). A swollen yellow-green custard is served beneath a thin veil of buttery-toasty nut crust that offsets the zing of the key lime. Each bite feels like an electric burst on the tongue.
Though Wilton Manors might not seem like the easiest locale in which to make a culinary statement, Smith-Malave is making one nonetheless. "This restaurant is a celebration of all things decadent and delicious," she says.
Bubbles & Pearls
2037 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors; 954-533-9553; bubblesnpearls.com. Dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.
Tsunami shooter $7
Spicy ahi tuna poke $17
BNP biscuits and belly $13
Miso cauliflower steak $16
Brick chicken $24