It's Park Avenue, Chinatown, Little Italy, and Central Park rolled into one. It's a movie set worthy of Woody Allen. It's It's New York, the strangest theme restaurant yet to debut in Fort Lauderdale, and it's downright scary.
South Florida has been the testing ground for many a conceptual eatery, and each new one seems to be more outlandish than the last. But It's New York, which opened in late January, takes the New York cheesecake. For starters, customers enter the 400-seat restaurant through a replica of a subway car, complete with seats for diners waiting for a table, lacking only the graffiti to make it look realistic. On the first floor of the two-story, 12,000-square-foot eatery, various NYC landmarks have been reproduced: a Chinese pagoda, a storefront from Little Italy, the Empire State Building.
The main dining room's faux trees resemble the foliage in Central Park. A smaller room in the rear of the first floor is veiled by a rose arbor like those found in the hidden courtyards of Greenwich Village. And upstairs in the Empire State Room, a 65-foot panoramic view of New York City, shot by photographer Richard Berenholtz, plasters the walls.
No wonder the place cost $3 million to design and manufacture. But for all its nods to authenticity, the restaurant was actually built in Portland, Oregon, then shipped in pieces to the NorthPort Marketplace on 17th Street Causeway (which, as home to four different concept eateries now, including Planet Hollywood, McMurphy's Irish Sports Pub, and World Mardi Gras, is itself something of a theme park monstrosity). Even split among the four owners of It's New York, that's a lot of dough to invest.
Of course the management team has good reason to be confident. The six-week-old restaurant is backed by a ton of concept-restaurant experience. Founder and president William J. Post has headed the Levy Restaurants, a national restaurant and food service conglomerate, for the past two decades. His partner and cofounder Jeffrey Summers runs a successful design and marketing company. Vice president of finance Margaret Smith was an executive with the Walt Disney Company and Hard Rock Cafe International. Vice president and executive chef Michael O'Donovan, trained in culinary techniques at the Regional Technical Institute in Galway, Ireland, has worked in such diverse environments as Buckingham Palace and the local seafood house Charley's Crab. Working for Levy Restaurants, he oversaw food service operations at the Arlington International Racecourse and Comiskey Park in Chicago.
The reasonably priced menu reflects the decor, ranging from Chinese appetizers to deli sandwiches to pasta main courses. In some ways It's New York may be just the thing for the homesick Easterner who can't find a good pastrami sandwich. The restaurant's signature sandwich -- the It's NY deli melt, a triple-decker, overstuffed combo comprising pastrami, corned beef, and roasted turkey -- was terrific. Dripping with melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, the filling could barely be contained by the grilled rye bread. The meat itself was just as my grandmother would have ordered it: hot, piled high, and rimmed by the tiniest amount of fat (an all-important ingredient). Accompaniments of crisp French fries and mellow coleslaw made finishing the melt an undeniable challenge, which most diners don't meet. The staff is forever wrapping up food to take home -- including the rich slices of cheesecake, which are hefty but impossible to resist.
The New York pizza, served on a wooden paddle, is also a testament to the Big Apple, lauded all over the world for its pizza pies. The Little Italy pie was perfect to share as an appetizer or order as a light meal, the thin crust heaped with sausage, pepperoni, green peppers, mushrooms, and onions. Our only complaint was the lukewarm temperature of the pizza; real New York pizza is supposed to come close to raising blisters on the roof of your mouth.
In other respects, though, It's New York is damaging the reputation of the city that never gets any shuteye. The "all-day breakfast" that I ordered -- smoked Pacific Northwest salmon hash served with eggs and hollandaise sauce -- tasted as if it had been sitting around, well, all day. The too-salty hash was overcooked and fishy, and the scrambled eggs were shellacked with a hardening hollandaise sauce that had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I'd have settled for lox on a bagel, but It's New York doesn't offer it. I guess the Lower East Side delicacies (aside from pastrami et al.) aren't as worthy of representation.
SoHo munchies, however, obviously are. An entree of Manhattan meat loaf, made with veal and seasoned with wild mushrooms, is supposed to remind patrons of the city's upscale, artsy bistros. But the proportion of ground veal to filler -- mostly bread -- was so low the slices of meat loaf tasted like toast -- and burnt toast, at that. Gluey mashed potatoes topped by congealing pan gravy didn't help matters, either.
The management team also wants us to believe that it can prepare Chinese and Italian foods as expertly as any eatery in New York or, for that matter, in the local area. It can't. The Chinatown combination, an appetizer plate, was attractively presented with vegetable egg rolls, beef and chicken satay skewers, and pan-seared pot-stickers. But none of the items succeeded in evoking New York's very traditional Chinatown -- particularly the beef satay, Thai in origin and as dry and cracked as a Manhattan sidewalk. The three egg rolls, while crisp, were too heavy on the ginger, and pot-stickers were so minute they were as hard to find as a parking space on Broadway. Chinese chicken salad was a vast improvement, the shredded napa (Chinese cabbage), bok choy, bean sprouts, red bell peppers, and grilled chicken tossed with an appetizing sesame dressing. But Chinese chicken salad was created in California.
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A main course of ravioli al forno -- one of half-a-dozen pasta choices, which include Sicilian-style lasagna and Caribbean shrimp linguini with andouille sausage and jerk spices -- was both undercooked and overcooked, depending on where the fork landed. The mushroom-stuffed ravioli, topped with garlic butter and grated cheese, were virtually inedible -- mushy here, petrified there. And the mushrooms were way too earthy for our tastes; they may be grown in fertilizer, but they're not supposed to taste like it. In addition the Little Italy pasta salad was supposed to be gnocchi tossed with grilled chicken, tomatoes, green onions, and balsamic vinaigrette. But they weren't potato dumplings; the pasta was shell-shaped, garnished with asparagus, and relatively flavorless.
Finally, the restaurant falls prey to the misguided notion that it can please all folks all the time, which must be why it offers New England clam chowder next to a briny chicken-noodle soup and jambalaya next to the New York strip sirloin on the menu. But in doing so It's New York strays from its theme: to offer foods both common to and representative of the Big Apple. Consequently it fails to convince me that New York is, as New Yorkers call it, the destination of choice. Perhaps Post and company should take into account why many of us who are originally from that metropolitan area choose to live down here: to get away from it all.
It's New York. 1850 SE 17th Street Cswy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-463-7878. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Chicken noodle soup $3.95 (bowl)
Chinatown combination $10.95
Little Italy pizza $9.95
It's NY Deli Melt $10.95
Ravioli al forno $11.95