How Sweet It Is
I never believed that bit about little girls being full of sugar and spice. My experience has been that little girls are mostly made up of piss and vinegar and that they don't even begin to sweeten up until around age 20. Then they have a moderately "everything nice" decade. Then come jobs, mortgages, kids, and mammograms. At 50 or so, they get menopause, and from then on, you will most likely get your ears boxed if you so much as look at them cross-eyed. Don't get me wrong; I think this is totally a good thing.
Maybe the idea of naming their café "Sugar n Spice" was sort of an inside joke to the two middle-aged lesbians who run the place, ladies who probably know far better than most what kind of stuff girls really are made of — once they've been through, you know, years of therapy and getting paid 70 cents on the male dollar and having to explain to old Aunt Mina for the 100th time that, no, they are still not dating any nice boys and have no plans in that general direction. Deep down, we females have an inner Camille Paglia that sooner or later we all learn to tap into.
Thus, I'm deducing that the sugar and spice at this Lauderdale café has got to be coming from the kitchen in the form of peppercorn sauce and pear tarts as well as in the cheerful, candy-colored décor, which relies on hot pink, sun yellow, electric blue, and a profusion of gleefully mixed patterns. Some of this, like the checkerboard floor, is left over from the old Herban Kitchen, a long-running gay-owned café beloved of New Times staff. Herban Kitchen was famous for its homemade soups, bread, and delicious salad dressings, for the inexpensive prices it charged for its comfort food, and for the general air of jollity that prevailed among the servers. Magically, little of this has gone missing since the new owners took over. There's faux-leopard upholstery on the seat cushions, and the menu has changed, bien sur, leaning toward slightly Frenchified country comfort food to reflect the principals' experience and background. But when you tuck into a plate of lasagna or fettuccine Aix en Provence, it still tastes like a home-cooked meal, and the hospitality is just as genuine.
Veronique Leroux, the sole chef, is the French half of the duo; Jean Doherty is from Dublin and single-handedly waits tables. They've managed to run two previous restaurants in precisely this minimalist fashion, the last in the little town of Vienne, France, where they featured Texican food and line-dancing lessons. Their dream of moving to Fort Lauderdale was realized when they learned that Herban Kitchen's owners were looking to sell — immigration rules dictated that they had to buy a place already set up and running. Herban had recently expanded, doubling in size and taking on a new partner/investor, and word on the street was that the new setup had created insurmountable difficulties. Leroux and Doherty jumped through the hoops, filled out mountains of paperwork, repainted furniture, and built the new central wine bar, and in February, the smell of French onion soup started wafting through their doors and down Oakland Park Boulevard.
Filling the three-way role of chef, sous chef, and line cook has evidently taught Leroux how to put together a menu in which every ingredient in the larder maximizes its potential. Thus, you'll find more than one entrée prepared aux amandes (sole, tilapia) or "Niçoise" (tuna, salad, tilapia, veal) or "Milanese" (veal, chicken). Shrimp, for example, can be served scampi style, stuffed into a wonton, or fried in coconut batter; they can be flambéed in whiskey, served atop a salad, or tossed with mushroom, cream sauce, and grilled chicken over pasta. Leroux's recipes are straightforward in a way we don't often see in South Florida, so dining at Sugar n Spice feels almost nothing like the typical restaurant experience and quite a lot like dropping in on a friend who is both a good cook and an accomplished home economist. The homey flavors of these dishes are so distinct from what we're used to getting from local restaurants that they seem like an entirely different genre.
Not that those flavors aren't deeply yummy. The soup du jour was chicken vegetable recently ($2.95 for a cup, $5.95 a bowl), and it was a delicate, thoroughly vegetal broth, as if every molecule of flavor had been extracted. Chunky calamari had been fried golden and were served with a lemony tartar sauce ($7.95). Doherty also brought us a complimentary "amuse" of batter-fried, salt- and pepper-flecked zucchini strips with a marinara dipping sauce on one occasion (practically the only way my significant other will eat squash is deep-fried) — they had a lively, well-seasoned crunch and a melting interior. We also had the "roasted goat cheese salad" ($7.95) in which goat cheese is spread on rounds of good baguette, toasted under the broiler, and served warm on a chopped romaine salad with French beans. The kitchen had run out of "surf and turf shrimp" wontons wrapped in fried potato threads one night we visited, but these sound interesting, as do the coconut-battered shrimp in the "tropical shrimp cocktail."
When it comes to entrées, the sole aux amandes ($24.95) must be one of the better deals in town (I've paid as much as $50 for sole in South Florida). The French really know what to do with a piece of fish, and this one is moist and melting under its blanket of beurre blanc, scattered with toasty slivers of almonds. Both chicken dishes we sampled, one in peppercorn sauce and the other prepared à la Niçoise with black olives and tomatoes, were surprisingly tender, juicy, and richly flavored, given what can happen to an innocent chicken breast in a restaurant kitchen.
"Vero is a perfectionist," Doherty confided on one trip to our table. "That's why we don't do hamburgers — it takes too much effort to get them exactly right." Certainly the quality of fish and chicken attest to Leroux's high standards. Her tomato Niçoise sauce is probably a bit sweeter than I like my marinara, and the copious quantity of green peppercorns in the whiskey-flavored cream sauce might seem like overkill to any supertasters out there (I love green peppercorns and can practically eat them straight from the jar), but these niggling caveats feel ungenerous. Particularly when you consider the sides: meal-sized dishes of gratinéed potatoes dauphinois baked in butter and cream, lightly crusted on top and fragrant with nutmeg; or the fantastic halved, grilled tomatoes Provençale ($5.95) coated with bread crumbs and fines herbes; or the luxurious, olive oil-infused ratatouille ($6.95) with its shiny ribbons of multicolored peppers and onions; or addictive, batter-fried green beans ($3.95).
There's also a gratin macaroni made with béchamel and Swiss cheese; onion rings; and shoestring French fries, making the place a vegetarian's paradise, so long as that vegetarian isn't counting calories. And if the vegetarian also happens to be a lush: The macaroni is delicious with Doherty's favorite rosé, a Rhone Valley Chateau d'Aquéria ($6.50 for a glass or $33 a bottle) from the Tavel region of France, famous for its rosés. I'm practically fanatical for rosés after this long hot summer, and this one is not only refreshing but it's a great bargain.
Leroux's homemade pear tart ($6.50) is the poire version of tarte tatin: buttery pie crust topped with glistening, sweetened slices of ripe, baked pears — it's served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, and it's delicious. As is the ultralight yet deeply flavored chocolate mousse ($5.50). Desserts this good are calculated to gently smooth the edges off even the briniest old bitch: Maybe I've got a grain or two of sugar n spice left in me after all.
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