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Flower Power

Joe Rocco

If you telephone Flowers restaurant early in the morning when nobody's there, you'll get an answering message. "Thank you for calling Food Amongst the Flowers," a man's voice intones, in the precisely articulated upper-crust British accents of, say, actor James Mason. "Our hostesses are presently busy assisting other customers. We will call you back shortly."

"Presently"? "Shortly"? What noirish '50s film still have we dropped into — North by Northwest? The scene becomes clear before you ever put a foot in the door: The place will be elegance itself. There will be martinis. And a piano bar. You can expect to find well-dressed and slightly louche-looking men lounging around on the padded banquettes.

Flowers opened several weeks ago in the space on Wilton Drive where John Costello and his mother, Cindy, had operated Costello's since 1997. Costello's was a cozy continental restaurant with occasionally uneven service and a menu you learned, after many visits, to hone down to the terrific homemade dishes, like the meatloaf or the osso buco. Costello's mostly gay male clientele was a devoted bunch, loyal to one of the first Wilton Manors restaurants dedicated to serving them, drawn by the warmth, familiarity, and hospitality of its hosts. But then, Alan Duddle, who until recently owned the luxury Flamingo boutique on Terramar Street (the "Inn Amongst the Flowers") and who is a former director of the Paris Ritz, bought the place and completely remodeled it, keeping only Costello's long-time chef and most of the floor staff. It's presumably Duddle's aristocratic enunciation you hear on the answering machine.

There's something about the changing of this guard that suggests a new day has dawned in the gay mecca. When Costello's opened eight years ago, this piece of Wilton Manors, roughly centered around Five Points, was just emerging from deep economic doldrums. 1997 was its watershed: George Kessinger opened an exuberant gay neighborhood bar, Georgie's Alibi, across the street in a rundown strip mall. And Jim Stork, who later became Wilton Manors' second gay mayor, set up his eponymous bakery on NE 15th Avenue. Tony Dee was already operating Chardees Supper Club a few blocks down Wilton Drive, where the boys could foxtrot to live big band music or take in name shows like Eartha Kitt. Wilton Manors was on its way to becoming the Southern equivalent of Provincetown or Fire Island — a gay vacation destination and an even better city to retire to permanently in your golden years.

But until recently, the Manors had retained a kind of snoozy neighborhood charm. The pace was slow. Restaurants served continental comfort food that only occasionally took any culinary risks; at any rate, you could find three dozen variations on the hamburger within a few short blocks. At the bars, everybody knew your name. Even among this most sartorially enlightened subculture, the dress code leaned toward shorts and T-shirts. These days, lots of residents are beginning to wonder if their tropical isle reveries won't be permanently disrupted by the sound of wrecking balls as $500,000 townhouses spring up, not to mention the ka-ching of local cash registers. Wilton Manors is changing. It has its own Asian tea house now — One Tea Lounge — stocked with exotic flora that waver like anemones inside handcrafted pots. It has a lesbian bar — New Moon — that hosts monthly winetastings, for God's sake, while the pool table sits practically unused. Food Amongst the Flowers is only one sign among many that laid-back may be so last year.

Still, one thing that hasn't changed much is that gay men and lesbians don't always care to mingle. Other than our own, the only womanly charms on exhibit at Flowers on a recent Friday were the silky blond tresses and perfectly shaped navel of the hostess on duty — that and the beautiful, oversized, Georgia O'Keeffe-ian floral paintings on all the walls. These paintings lend the place a tasteful sensuality laced with irony: The imagery — giant close-ups of lush, lacy petals — is so very, provocatively feminine. The tables full of handsome studs, all wearing wonderful shirts and expensive watches, exuding essence of L'Homme and Giorgio, were apparently diverted enough by their fillet carpaccio ($9.95) and Longchamp sweet pea soup with crème fraiche ($6.95) not to notice the hothouse surroundings, or care.

But the girls should certainly take advantage of this place too — it's so inviting, so swank, with such an eye for the small details. And in fact, on our second visit, there were more women — and more people of unidentifiable genders too — in all three rooms and packing the bar. We settled into a deliciously comfortable booth padded with bold, printed upholstery in yet more florals. Sage green throw pillows begged to be sunk back into. White linen tablecloths. Glistening flatwear. A single perfect white rosebud in each vase. Glass beautifully etched with greenery and dark wood screen doors break up the rooms, providing occasional glimpses into the bar, where the oversized paintings are of gigantic martinis.  

I worry that Flowers will lose a fortune to customers wanting to snag the table settings for home use: the shapely Riedel water and wine glasses; the adorable china cozy for the whipped herb/garlic butter; the handsome, palm-sized salt bowl; the miniature cut-glass cruet that comes filled with liqueur accompanying every dessert. Or the elegant little espresso spoon, shaped vaguely like a furled fern frond. But maybe Flowers' clientele is above pocketing the silverware. I hope so. Because I'd hate to see the décor dumbed down one iota.

One suspects that Alan Duddle is thoroughly behind this fanatically tasteful interior design — he apparently decorated the Flamingo with his own art collection. The setting is perfectly in tune with the menu, which, while never wildly creative, offers just enough stuff that you haven't seen before to keep you interested. The signature crab chowder($7.95), for instance, is perfectly yummy — a dense bowl the color of a Florida sunset, chock full of crab and cream, laced with sherry in perfect proportions. Also "From the Turine" (this menu could use a spellcheck), we tried the beautiful Longchamp sweet pea soup — a brilliant emerald green, blended satiny smooth and decorated with wavy lines of white crème fraiche (although the shredded carrots advertised on the menu were nowhere in evidence). It was fresh and grassy, presumably like the famous Parisian horseracing track it was named for.

Our arugula salad ($9.95) — baby arugula, grape tomatoes, red onions, gorgonzola, and strawberry vinaigrette — came from the kitchen so wilted and soggy we couldn't eat it. And the prices for salads are outrageous — arugula, caesar, caprese, and Victoria salads range from $9.95 to $12.95, so if you like salad with dinner, be prepared to pay for it. I'm guessing this is to dissuade the figure-conscious from having greens as an entrée. But Flowers should either offer a tossed dinner salad for a reasonable fee or make sure their salads come to the table practically still breathing.

An appetizer of Scottish smoked salmon ($13.95), offered delicately flavored, meltingly soft, imported fish layered between little silver-dollar pancakes with a swipe of sour cream, sprinkles of dill, and a few capers. If we're getting technical, these pancakes, billed as "blinis" on the menu, aren't yeasty or porous enough to qualify, but we loved them anyway. More salmon is arranged alongside with a few curls of mixed greens. This dish makes a light, lovely appetite stimulant.

And you'll need your appetite for the substantial entrée portions. We sampled four and loved them all. Fiochi "money bags" ($17.95) wrap delicate homemade sheets of pasta into the classic shape — like a cartoon bank robber might carry his loot in, only missing the gold $$ signs. They're stuffed with a fattening mixture of ricotta cheese and sweet, slightly chewy pears and doused in chunky, satisfyingly tart tomato sauce laced with onions and garlic, to cut this very sweet filling. Pine nuts are advertised on the menu but weren't in evidence. Delicious, even without them. Beer-marinated pork tenderloin ($21.95), a dainty morsel of lightly charred meat, came thoroughly infused with the scent of rosemary, tenderized by the beer, salty and sure-footed. A mound of carnival rice, studded with green and red peppers, and a silky bunch of broccolini, cooked to retain its crunch and color, made excellent accompaniments.

On our second visit, we ordered the Seafood Diablo (this, the pork tenderloin, and the salmon blinis are starred as "chef's specials.") Flowers' Diablo is my own ideal version of comfort food — littleneck clams, fat shrimp, fresh scallops, and mussels tossed in a hearty, peppery tomato sauce, infusing it with their musky, seabed flavors, and this served over narrow, ridged quills of garganelli pasta that act like a sauce magnet. That tomato sauce is full of personality, sassy as a puttanesca, and if I had one meal to eat day after day on a desert island, it would be this one. Just writing about it makes my mouth water.

We also had an eight-ounce New York strip ($23.95), grilled to a juicy-pink center along with smashed potatoes infused with milk, butter, and pepper and more of that crunchy broccolini. The steak was fine with its light dressing of scallion butter — but anybody ought to be able to cook a decent steak given a good piece of meat. This one was accomplished, not particularly distinguished — just a dish to satisfy any meat-and-potato fan.

Over dessert — a crumbly, French-style apple tart with almond paste and a shot of amaretto ($10) and a scoop of coffee ice cream served in a chocolate bowl with shot of Kahlua ($9) — we eavesdropped on the next table: They'd sent back their chocolate cake ("It tasted like it was four days old"), and they'd been served only a single, stingy piece of bread with dinner. They were right about the bread — it's a scrumptious, crusty sourdough that leaves you yearning for more — we hadn't gotten enough of it either. Our coffee ice cream was forgettable and overpriced, but the apple tart was the kind of dessert you fight over for the last crumb. I can't speak for the chocolate cake — our waiter had gently warned us away from it.  

Our service had been lovely — exacting degrees of friendliness and formality, with unidentifiable people sort of floating around. I couldn't figure out what they were doing, exactly — like that elegant redheaded woman in flowing skirts — except maybe infusing the place with a sense of gracious hospitality. One felt very taken care of. In fact, any more pampering and we might have drifted off to dreamland at our table, like Dorothy in the poppy fields of Oz or Ulysses' men among the lotus eaters. Such is the power of the Flower.


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