Game, Set, Munch
A couple weeks ago, I was just getting over a terrible case of food poisoning, and not even lunch at my favorite gourmet sandwich place, Johnny V's Kitchen on South Beach, could tempt my appetite. At any other time, a light meal there would have been ideal, but the prospect of consuming anything at that moment was making me dizzy. I was so deep into feeling sorry for myself -- what good's a restaurant critic who can't eat? -- that it took me a while to realize the waiter was standing in front of me. He looked at my face, then down at my untouched meal. "Are you feeling all right?" he asked.
I often don't clean my plate for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the portions are too big, or I've sampled more than one meal. Other times I simply don't like the dish. Always, though, I'm interested in a server's reaction to a customer who clearly hasn't done the food justice. I'm happy when he asks if the dish I'd ordered was OK, and I don't have a problem with a waiter who has enough quiet conviction in his restaurant's fare to know there's nothing wrong with the dish -- like at Johnny V's.
But I couldn't help but giggle recently at the teenage waiter at Damon & Dano's, a six-month-old eatery in Sawgrass Square Mall in Sunrise. He was visibly disappointed when he saw our half-empty dinner plates. "Does this mean you don't want dessert?" he asked. I thought he was going to add something like, "But that's the best part."
Packing up leftovers in a Styrofoam container must be a common occurrence at Damon & Dano's, because the dinner portions are astoundingly large and preceded by a gratis mixed-greens salad garnished with cucumbers and tomatoes. But I always want dessert. The consumption of complex carbohydrates and simple sugars really has nothing to do with appetite, especially when said sweets are a cocktail of chocolate cake, mixed berries, mascarpone cheese, and whipped cream layered in a martini glass. Or an impressively smooth creme brulee, even one with a burnt-sugar topping that tastes like Heath-bar toffee. No matter what, silly teenager, there's always room for creme brulee.
Damon & Dano's is advertised as a "neighborhood grill," and in many respects it is. Big-screen TVs are tuned to sports channels, the prints on the walls are renderings of athletes, and a large, blond-wood bar serves as the centerpiece of the restaurant. The typical sports lug will, no doubt, enjoy the half-pound turkey burger, the Philly cheesesteak, or the "veggie grinder." Given their team's rivalry with the Bills, Dolphin fans will be interested in the huge portions of Buffalo wings (50 for $19.95). We, however, weren't very pleased with them. The waiter promised they wouldn't be breaded, but they were -- or at least they were dredged through flour before being dunked in the deep fryer.
Buffalo wings and sandwiches aside, Damon & Dano's is actually more high-end than the typical sports bar. Red-and-green plaid booths and cushioned chairs surround gleaming tables, and the dinner entrees, which range from egg-battered chicken breasts topped with artichokes to swordfish glazed with sweet-and-sour sauce, are elegant. They're also paired with suggestions for moderately priced wines from California. Jumbo lump crabcakes, for example, are guaranteed to go well with an Indigo Hills Chardonnay ($17), and the New York strip is a sure thing when served with the Anapamu Cabernet Sauvignon ($22).
We stuck with beer, despite the fact that the four or five on draft were domestic. An amber bock, put out by Michelob, complemented the Dano's Delmonico main course. The boneless cut of meat was tender and juicy, 12 ounces of glazed, char-grilled beef. The dark beer also went well with an unarguably good veal chop. Topping the menu at $22.95, the loin chop had been marinated in red wine and oyster sauce, then grilled. The mild veal had been prepared medium-rare as requested, and was accompanied, as were all the entrees, with mushy brown rice and a colorful stir-fry of broccoli, carrots, and zucchini.
Customers looking for a lighter meal can tackle the fresh catch of the day. The sea bass special was wonderful, a sweet, flaky fillet dipped in egg batter and sauteed with a buttery lemon sauce. Two tightly curled shrimp -- rather than the lump crabmeat the server had promised -- topped the fish, but they were good enough to forestall complaints. Fresh pencil asparagus added some green highlights. Damon & Dano's also offers pastas, though the angel hair we sampled seemed boring compared to the meatier entrees. Still, the garlic, basil, and chopped tomato sauce, spiked with white wine, was aromatic, covering a hefty serving of the capellini.
Although the entrees appeal to a broad audience, the proprietors are definitely going for mass appeal with the appetizers, which include fried mozzarella, fried calamari, and fried jalapeno peppers stuffed with cheddar cheese. But they're just not as interesting. The best of the bar food, stuffed mushrooms -- three large caps stuffed with mustard-flavored crabmeat, diced red bell pepper, and bread crumbs -- could have been broiled longer, to achieve the proper temperature. And a pile of Southwestern fries -- beer-battered julienne onions and jalapeno peppers -- were hot all right; the vegetables had been spiced with chile powder and were served with a zingy remoulade. But they were greasy. The Gorgonzola salad featured baby field greens and walnuts that were obscured by an eagle's nest of shredded fresh beets and a bland blanket of crumbled cheese.
Twenty years ago Sawgrass Mills and the surrounding area were nothing but, well, sawgrass. And a more appropriate name for Sunrise, which was mostly a retirement community, would have been Sunset. What mattered then, diningwise, were delis offering early-bird specials. Today, however, outlet, fashion, and strip malls, not to mention music and sports arenas, have heralded a new age for this once-sleepy suburb, attracting potential dining customers.
The restaurants need to catch up with the community. Despite appetizers that need to be rethought to match the sophistication of the main courses, consumer-friendly Damon & Dano's has a good head start. The restaurant has highchairs for the kiddies and charming young servers who are friendly and helpful, even if a bit awkward. Better still, the restaurant's open until late and has a lively bar crowd and happy hour for both the young and the young-at-heart. Sunrise may have a way to go, but at least it's finally starting to live up to its name.
Damon & Dano's. 12594 W. Sunrise Blvd, Sunrise, 954-835-2220. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m; Friday and Saturday until 12:30 a.m.
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