Downtown Hollywood makes me happy. I pretend I don't have a clue about which developer is lining which politician's pockets, what kind of crummy deals are being cut behind the scenes, who the corrupt lawmakers are. I see no evil. The cops who hover perpetually outside the doors of Spice Resto-Lounge, ogling the Latina lovelies like hawks honing in on glossy, domesticated doves, are fine, upstanding police officers just keeping the peace, right? I'm a tourist here. Hand me my blinkers, and point me toward those apple martinis.
The streets of Hollywood are lively and strange. Blue notes fill the air near the sushi bar and spill into red and gold Spanish guitar chords emanating from the cake and coffee place, and those chords are flecked with icy metallics from a juke joint a few doors down. The devil's triangle formed by Harrison Street, Hollywood Boulevard, and Young Circle is also one of very few places in South Florida where the races of men have made a temporary, easy truce; there are as many black faces as white and brown on the sidewalks and in the clubs; it's Saturday night, and even bred-in-the-bone hostility needs a vacation. Hollywood has the feel of a real city even in its growing pains. There's fairly high turnover here sloppy restaurants get shuttered after a year or two, ice cream shops melt down, bad retail concepts meet bad ends. Even so, you can eat Peruvian, Transylvanian, Turkish, Spanish, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Cuban, Italian, sushi, Irish, Caribbean, Brazilian, Mexican, French, Argentine, international, and cheap American steaks in these few blocks. There are wine galleries and beer halls, martini bars and donut shops, smoothies, saloons, pubs, lounges, cafés, luncheonettes, pizza parlors and gelato.
Into this fray sashays the Boulevard: An American Bistro. Cuban-American chef/owner Jorge Varona and his brother Jean-Paul, who handles the wine, have set up their eatery, open about a year now, facing Coyotes Bar, on the Hollywood Boulevard side of the Ramada Inn. No two venues could make stranger bedfellows. At Coyotes, every hour is happy hour, whether it's three-for-one well drinks or two-for-one margaritas or in-the-biz discounts for local waitrons; the Boulevard has a serious wine list and bistro dishes laced with truffle oil. I don't mean to make Varona's place sound snooty; it isn't. Both the menu and the service are easygoing; there's a small outdoor patio with its own bar and an interior filled with undulant velvet reds, like the inside of a guitar case. Prices are unbelievably affordable entrées start at $14 for the pasta dishes and don't range higher than $25 for the steak frites. The menu references Havana by way of N'Awlins by way of Paris: yucca fries and creole reductions, wild mushroom arancini, tuna tartare marinated in hot chili oil, andouille sausage and bayou shrimp, mojo mahi mahi. There are touches of Southwest and Far East in a shrimp Alfredo made with chipotles, teriyaki-marinated hanger steak salad, and Prince Edward Island mussels infused with ginger, red curry, and coconut milk. And then there's the "American" part of the name: Vegetarians can substitute a portabella mushroom for the hanger steak, and at lunch, you can order a turkey club or a burger. Plus, the Boulevard has all kinds of activities going on a wine dinner every third Thursday, tapas and beer tastings, happy hours, live music on the patio. It's the kind of neighborhood bistro most neighborhoods would kill for.
The global reach here isn't surprising when you know that Varona learned his trade from some major South Florida chefs. He worked at Pacific Time in South Beach with Jonathon Eismann, the guy who put pan-Asian on the map. Eismann fused Korean, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian cuisines into something eminently his own; he serves desserts made with borytris jelly and lavender cream. Varona also worked with Robin Haas at Chispa, where presumably some of Haas' magic with Latin-inspired infusions rubbed off, and with Mark Militello at Mark's. Along with these influences, he pours his Cuban heart into specials like a divine roast pork with mofongo served to celebrate the new year (Cubans traditionally pit-roast a pig at Christmas or New Year's) and has an interest in the highly spiced cuisines of the Creoles and the Caribs. When the Boulevard is really on, it turns "eclectic" electric.
And it's definitely on with an appetizer of grilled andouille sausage ($7), a dish that would make an excellent small meal on its own with a good glass of wine. It's served with "artisanal" bread brushed with butter and grilled, and I need to pause here a moment to say something about that bread. This same bread is served first thing with a dish of olive oil flecked with red pepper and a little mound of sharp, shredded cheese, which is very nice, but the bread is so delicious that it really needs no complement. It's a delicate, nutty, faintly sourdough crumb with a crackling crust, and it's addictive. You'll want to eat the whole basket, and it'll surely spoil your appetite.
Cubans, of course, are known for the way they incorporate starches into a meal, and this is reflected too in an "appetizer" of truffled cheese fries ($7), which arrive on a plate the size of a breakfast tray. Begin with the bread and the fries and believe me, you're done in. You can't stop eating these fries until not a single crisp shred of potato or drop of truffle oil or smidgen of provolone or pecorino is left. You'll have no room for the yucca and plantain mash and root vegetable ragu that come with your entrée, much less for a bite of penne pasta or wild mushroom risotto.
Anyway, back to that splendid andouille. Two fat, spicy sausages are slit in half and grilled, a little bit charred. They're blanketed with sweet caramelized onions and grilled, slippery chunks of red and yellow pepper. You cut a bite, smear it with a dab of mustard, balance it on a chunk of perfect bread, somehow get the whole forkful into your mouth without spilling it in your lap, and you're a happy customer.
All this should clue you in that there are no frou-frou preparations here, no white space on the plate. This is classic "I just unloaded my last truckful of lumber" bistro fare. Nobody leaves hungry; nobody leaves without having to loosen the belt a notch. The roast pork special ($18), which we packed up and ate most of the next day, was enough food for three mouthwatering meals. What a dish! I wish Varona would put it on the menu permanently: It's composed of brined pork dusted with his signature spice mix, served lightly pink and tender, sliced and served with a Caribbean-inspired plantain mash called "mofongo," a concoction that effortlessly balances sweet, sour, and salty, flecked with bits of bacon. There are also braised collards.
Collards appeared too in our braised short ribs, along with stone-ground blue cheese grits and crisp "tobacco" (shoestring onion) rings. The ribs were perfectly slow-cooked, falling off the bone, famously fatty as they should be (although our waitress, who was otherwise most helpful, left me fumbling for a response when she asked how I wanted my braised short ribs cooked). I did think the flavors of this whole dish could have had more punch more good red wine in the braising, more vinegar in the collards, and certainly more salt in the grits (the blue cheese wasn't enough to rescue them from blandness). But this was a hearty, nicely imagined combination that for $23 must be one of Hollywood's best bargains.
The last few times I've ordered a flaming dessert at a restaurant (bananas Foster, in both cases), what fire there might ever have been was extinguished in the kitchen long before it endangered my table. Not so with the Boulevard's scrumptious flaming guava bread pudding ($5). Our waiter (I believe it was brother Jean-Paul) put a match to the big plate before he set it down, and it burned blue, emitting rum-soaked fumes, for a long time. We watched the whipped cream begin to melt, trickling down the tower of bread pudding; we made jokes about dousing it out with a spray of San Pellegrino or smothering it with a napkin, and still it burned. It burned and burned. When it finally sputtered out, our dessert tasted wonderfully caramelized and mellow, faintly alcoholic and creamy, as we spooned sweet, custardy bread through a pool of guava syrup. That bit of pyrotechnics, a flashy finale, felt like pure Hollywood.
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