I Heart Mac & Cheese in Fort Lauderdale Is a Brilliant Concept That Needs Better Execution

Chef Michael's famous lobster mac. Click here for more photos from I Heart Mac & Cheese.
Chef Michael's famous lobster mac. Click here for more photos from I Heart Mac & Cheese.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

At I Heart Mac & Cheese in Fort Lauderdale, chef/owner Michael Blum's dream is to be the Colonel Sanders of mac and cheese. To prove it, the South Florida chef has built a fast-casual restaurant model devoted to the comfort food of America's youth.

Located in the busy Southport shopping plaza on SE 17th Street, the new eatery serves supersized, customizable bowls of the favorite childhood meal, tricked out with a seemingly endless array of specialty add-ins and toppings.

Born and raised in Long Island, Blum grew up in a home that celebrated fine art. He graduated from the University of Arizona in Tucson and later continued his studies in Hyde Park, New York, where he became first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America.

Today, Blum will tell you he was one of the first chefs to introduce lobster mac and cheese to South Florida, a popular dish he served as far back as 1994 when he opened his first restaurant, Michael's Kitchen, in Hollywood. It's a combination that's been seen on menus nationwide ever since, much like the truffle mac and cheese of the past five years.

When Blum relocated to Kitchen 305 in Sunny Isles Beach several years later, his whimsical and colorful dishes were called the "Cirque du Soleil" of dining. They made the restaurant a popular destination celebrated for both its imagination and attention to detail, with Blum as the charismatic ringleader, earning him a spot in Restaurant Business' "50 Great Ideas" issue.

Chef Michael Blum shows off his famous lobster mac.
Chef Michael Blum shows off his famous lobster mac.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Now — fueled by an almost-maniacal, contagious energy — Blum has since launched several creative projects, including a line of specialty knishes, a catering company, and a side project with the Tipsy Boar in downtown Hollywood, where the chef injected nostalgic inspiration into the menu with the addition of childhood favorites including his "famous" macaroni and cheese.

The "aha" moment that gave life to I Heart Mac & Cheese came when Blum replaced the standard pasta station at his high-end catering gigs with a mac and cheese bar. He watched as guests began taking meats and seafood — everything from filet mignon and Chilean sea bass to the raw bar's jumbo shrimp — to add as fancy toppings to their bowls of pasta and cheese, and the wheels began to turn.

"The light bulb went off," Blum says. "This is mac and cheese for people who are serious about mac and cheese. And I think I've come close to building the perfect restaurant."

Just a few weeks old, the newly built space feels as if you've walked into a dairy dream. Black-and-white wallpaper features caricatures of cows, chickens, eggs, and cheese. Vintage glass milk bottles hang from a handmade chandelier. Reclaimed wood and stone tables give the dining area an earthy, pastoral appeal. It's a beautiful space to stuff your face.

To keep things moving, Blum opted for the efficiency of a fast-casual, assembly-line format. Here, there is no such thing as too much cheese. And though ordering might require some serious self-restraint, it's possible to keep it simple (and affordable) with a basic bowl, a sizable 16-ounce portion of precooked elbow pasta drowned in a generous helping of his signature cheese sauce.

Blum says he spent years perfecting it. Rather than rely on the standard recipe a saucier learns in culinary school — melting cream or milk to form a basic béchamel — he created a secret blend of dehydrated cheese powders mixed with water instead of milk or cream. The cream-colored liquid is ladled from a steam heater over a heaping pile of cooked pasta available in gluten-free, whole-wheat, and standard varieties.

Cuban Sandwich mac
Cuban Sandwich mac
Photo by CandaceWest.com

From there, the entire amalgam is run through a conveyer convection oven to further melt, bake, and broil your bowl from top and bottom. Order mac and cheese plain and simple — a standard bowl of Blum's cheese sauce and tender-cooked pasta — for $3.95, which you can also snag for 99 cents all day during the restaurant's Mac Madness Mondays. The price rises as you tack on any of the 40 or so specialty add-ins.

There are 14 cheese additions to choose from in all, including Gruyère, Havarti, smoked Gouda, feta, and Monterey Jack — even a vegan option. Proteins offer another round of flavor, four-to-five-ounce portions with everything from short rib, hot dogs, and smoked brisket to chicken and lobster for an extra $4.95 to $8.95. Throw in a few vegetables priced at 50 cents a pop for good measure. Then top it with a handful or two of cheese puffs, Cheez-It crackers, Goldfish, or Flamin' Hot Cheetos for no additional charge.

If you're not the type to create your own dish, the menu offers several chef's creations too. There's a Philly cheesesteak with short rib, provolone, and caramelized onion, and Buffalo chicken topped with rotisserie meat, diced celery, shredded carrots, and blue cheese. One of the more adventurous menu items — the Cuban — is pulled-pork-pickle-ham-and-bacon macaroni and cheese, and also one of the most creative, a South Florida favorite reinvented.

The bowl is rife with all the necessary ingredients — even sliced pickles — but the precooked cubed ham is still cold when my dish arrives, and the fat hunks of pulled pork are tough and bland. The best part is the bacon and mojo sauce, lending a flavor blast of seasoning and salt. The dish could do without the puffs of stale chicharron, however.

Super kale mix salad
Super kale mix salad
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Of all the signature chef's creations, you might be tempted to order Blum's "famous" lobster mac and cheese, his original 22-year-old recipe reincarnated for a fast-casual setting. He's been doing this flavor combination for years, marrying squeaky, plump lobes of sweet lobster meat with chopped scallions and tender pasta doused in his creamy cheese sauce and topped with even more melted Gruyère and Muenster.

But after its 30-second conveyer belt melt, this latest I Heart Mac & Cheese version is disappointingly bland. A lobster half-shell is proof that the dish is worth $15.95, but stringy globs of melted Muenster cling to the shell instead of melting into the cheesy sauce, blocking my fork's path from bowl to mouth better than Hassan Whiteside.

The lobster meat — precooked and twice baked now thanks to the conveyor belt heating — is nearly flavorless. But it's the chef's near-watery cheese sauce that's most disappointing. Created to facilitate fast-casual service, it's nothing like the rich, creamy, and gluttonous indulgence you'd expect from a place built to exalt dairy and pasta.

Although the original I Heart Mac & Cheese concept was mac and cheese, Blum's customizable toppings made it easy to add salads and potatoes too. If you don't want pasta, you can dress up your greens and spuds or order them plain. The level of customization is up to you.

On a return visit, I sample Blum's mashed potato crisp bowl, his riff on a popular knish recipe he's been using for years, a doughy pocket that could be likened to a mashed potato empanada. The dish, tricked out with the cheeseburger toppings, arrives chock-full of ground beef smothered in perfectly ooey-gooey melted cheese and sliced pickles, its creamy texture offset by a sprinkling of crunchy Cheez-Its in a Super Bowl-sized portion. But then, halfway through, a forkful of raw dough reveals itself at the bottom of the bowl, perhaps another kink in that conveyor-belt cooking process. (As of publication, this dish has been removed from the menu.)

There's no doubt Blum is a talented chef, and it's easy to see his genius for building a customizable crazy mac-and-cheese bar. I Heart Mac & Cheese has the potential to be great, the type of place you want to go on your cheat day, or when you're celebrating a special occasion with calories in place of currency. But it's not there yet. 

I Heart Mac & Cheese in Fort Lauderdale Is a Brilliant Concept That Needs Better Execution
Photo by CandaceWest.com

I Heart Mac & Cheese

1489 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale. Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Call 954-533-4195, or visit iheartmacandcheese.com.

Chef Michael's famous lobster mac, $15.95

Cuban sandwich, $9.95

Basic mac and cheese, $3.95

Mashed potato crisp bowl, $3.95

Cookie dough cone, $1.95

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miles
I Heart Mac & Cheese

1489 SE 17th St.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316

954-533-4195

iheartmacandcheese.com


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