Walls freshly painted a soothing khaki with cream trim? Check. Colorful paintings framed? Check. Gauzy curtains hung over the storefront windows, and table linens starched? Check. Gourmet, contemporary American menu in place, and chefs and waitstaff hired? Check.
Fine, then. You're the owners of Costello's, a restaurant in Wilton Manors, a municipality starved for decent eateries that cater to discerning diners, and you're ready for a successful run. Except for one thing: You forgot to put on an extra layer of skin.
Restaurateurs and their staffs have to be as tough as their steak is tender to survive. At the seven-month-old Costello's, the filet mignon, an inches-thick juicy cut of beef, is wonderfully succulent. But the waitstaff and cooks appear to be suffering disproportionately from what qualifies as no more than a glancing blow: a three-star, instead of a four-star, review from City Link a couple of months ago.
I confess, I didn't read the piece. But then, I didn't have to. Our waiter brought it up after one of my guests asked about desserts. "City Link complained that the key lime pie didn't have a graham cracker crust," our waiter complained. "Can you believe that guy? He's so anal-retentive."
When I called the restaurant later, Ralph Herndon, who identified himself as an owner, didn't even want to talk about it. I introduced myself, told him I write for New Times, then asked if he had a few minutes to chat.
"No, I really don't," he said.
"Is there a better time I can call you back?"
"No, there really isn't."
I persisted, and he finally agreed to take my number and have someone get back to me. (No one ever did.) "Where are you from again?" he asked suspiciously. "City Link?"
Now I'm not upset about the mistaken identity, nor do I care that some restaurateurs dislike speaking to critics who (they believe) have a hidden agenda. But I was a little disturbed about how the Costello's folks appeared to be completely thrown off their game by one printed opinion.
As it turns out, the restaurant's owners are John Costello and John Lombardo, who were out of town the first week I called. Herndon is actually a chef, and not even executive chef at that -- that honor goes to Patrick Tarantino. When I called a second time, Lombardo, who's worked in the restaurant business for 18 years, displayed a refreshingly positive attitude about criticism in general. "A bad article should be a wake-up call," he told me. "City Link didn't give us a bad review. But they said something like, we're 'not spectacular.' And that's good to know, because we want to be."
Lombardo's disposition was much more in line with what I'd experienced at Costello's, a warm, inviting, bookish place reminiscent of an old, big-city library with stone lions guarding the doorway. Only in this case, some of the restaurant's patrons, many of them well-dressed men from the nearby gay community, were lingering out front.
Given the apparent sophistication of the clientele, I was a bit surprised by the artlessness of the service. "The fish of the day is swordfish," our waiter announced, "sauteed with something I can't understand. I think it's called Cinco de Mayo."
Cinco de Mayo is the Fifth of May, Mexican Independence Day. "Do you mean pico de gallo, a kind of salsa?" we asked.
"Yeah," he said, snapping his fingers, "that's it."
I savor such moments. They go into a mental file which includes memories of the Greek restaurant where, after waiting more than an hour for my entree, I was presented with a mysterious, "Something has happened to your fish." Or the Cuban restaurant where I told the owner that the pressed breast of honey-garlic chicken tasted a little off. "That's probably because my two-year-old son's hand got caught in the press the other day," she confessed. "There was blood everywhere." Usually these inappropriate admissions don't do much for the appetite or bode well for the future of a restaurant.
But at Costello's, the kitchen made up for the service staff's mistakes. Though we were tempted to try -- as our waiter suggested -- a fish pan-fried with a Mexican holiday, we decided to try the paella, a special, instead. (Costello's offers a lengthy list of specials every night.) The paella was palatable if not perfect, vegetable-flecked rice dotted with shrimp, calamari, and mussels. True Valencia-born seafood paella has a strong shellfish taste, as all the ingredients are usually stewed together for hours. But this rice dish, which also accompanied entrees as a side (minus the seafood), lacked that seaside tang, as if the shrimp and squid had been sauteed at the last minute and mixed in. The shellfish was plump and supple, however -- no argument there.
In fact, all of the shellfish we tried were day-boat fresh. The assortment of shrimp, squid, and mussels showed up once again in a rotini seafood salad, a huge mound of spiral noodles threaded with bell peppers and a lovely champagne vinaigrette. A delicious appetizer was the fried calamari, which wasn't greasy at all and was complemented by a vibrant marinara. Shrimp cocktail, a simple dish that is so often ruined by bad shrimp, was super, the cocktail sauce zingy with loads of horseradish. And the three large, sweet shrimp that garnished an ideally cooked filet mignon main course were marred only by the excess of blackening spice on them.
The owners should reconsider the toasted-wheat pita points served with the rich and gooey baked-artichoke, cheese-dip starter; they tasted stale, as if they'd been sitting on a grocery-store shelf for too long. Crusty baguettes or crisp tortilla chips would provide a contrast in texture without the packaged taste. Another suggestion: The appetizer of tomatoes interspersed with slices of creamy mozzarella and topped with fresh basil and a robust balsamic vinaigrette? Make sure it's not mushy.
They should, however, keep the roasted stuffed pork chop exactly as is. The marinated chop was split and stuffed with a soft apple-bread stuffing, then roasted and topped with a cinnamon-y pear-raisin chutney. Excellent stuff. And the terrific veal ravioli special, an entree of al dente pasta stuffed with a generous amount of minced veal and vegetables and sauced with a soothing demi-glace, is bound to be a frequent request. Why not put it on the regular menu?
Portions are large, so whether or not the key lime pie has a graham cracker crust doesn't matter; desserts like banana split cake and black-and-white chocolate mousse seem superfluous after two hearty courses. Coffee and a chat with our waiter, whose lack of polish was somewhat charming ("I get hit on a lot in here, and not by girls," he confided), were plenty for me.
All the proprietors really need to do is keep track of their staff. Especially since the Lombardo-and-Costello team plans to expand by opening a martini lounge with jazz and swing music in the space next door. They already have a cook passing himself off as an owner, and pico de gallo masquerading as Cinco de Mayo. I'm sure they wouldn't want potential patrons getting the wrong idea about the use of the word "swing."
Costello's. 2345 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors, 954-563-7752. Dinner nightly from 5 to 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Baked-artichoke cheese dip
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Rotini seafood salad
Roasted stuffed pork chop