Many restaurants are like adolescents -- they suffer from identity crises. Who am I? Do others see the "real" me or just what I present outwardly? And while we're at it, who am I going to be when I grow up?Nevis, in these terms, is clearly a budding teen. The month-old restaurant, located overlooking the Intracoastal on NE 32nd Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, hasn't quite decided on its character yet. The eatery's named for a Caribbean island, and the décor -- billowing sailcloth overhead, canvas-covered banquettes, wood floors -- is fitting, especially since most of the tables are dockside and benefit from the breezes blowing off the water. Hurricane lanterns give off a little light, though not quite enough by which to read the menus, and bottles of wine and water are placed in galvanized metal tubs rather than formal wine buckets. As for the bill of fare, it's a bit less island than it is South Florida fusion; South African chef-proprietor Twain Schreiber (one of several owners), who's worked at Maxwell's Chop House and Café Arugula, among other SoFlo eateries, has termed it "American eclectic." So far so good. The upscale eats match the informal elegance of the surroundings.
But the interior of the restaurant, a supper-club lounge reminiscent of places like Tantra or BANG on South Beach, seems a little forced. Nevis used to be Durty Nellie's, a fun but skanky dive known for its on-the-house hot dogs and free-flowing Budweiser. (The site was also, briefly, the Cancun Beach Tequila House.) Now the only item left from the Durty days seems to be the floor, which slopes dangerously for women with high heels and a buzz on. The lounge, called the Copper Room, features oversize armchairs, pressed-copper tables, and enough candles to attract a goth following. In the corner a club DJ spins electronic beats, which would be fine if the sound were limited to the lounge, or if the dance music started after the dining hour was over. Unfortunately for the gastronome -- or even just the average customer looking for a soothing meal by the water -- a zillion or so speakers dot the exterior landscape, blasting regurgitated disco loud enough to shake the wineglasses and practically guarantee dyspepsia.
And then there's the service. Oh, the service. Simply put, it's far too casual for a restaurant that asks for this much money from its patrons. (Appetizers cost up to ten bucks, and entrées run into the mid-twenties.) Our particular server knew the prices of menu items and specials but didn't have the vocabulary to describe them. When we asked her to elaborate on a dessert called, intriguingly enough, a crème brûlée "sandwich," she portrayed it as crème brûlée "between two flat flour things." The flat flour things turned out to be sheets of phyllo dough, which actually failed to sandwich a rather dense ball of caramelized crème brûlée. A second sweet, which she said didn't have a name yet, was described to us as chocolate, white chocolate, strawberries, and corn flakes. She couldn't even tell us whether it was a kind of cake. Follow my thought bubble: ??? We had to order it to discover that it was something like a mousse cake, with layers of white and bittersweet chocolate separated by strawberries and surrounded by a snowfall of cereal. I admire the innovation and creativity the chef is bringing to his work, but really -- nix those flakes.
Some of the service problems could be simply solved by paying attention to details and hiring more staff. The restaurant wasn't full, but we still had to request the basket of focaccia and sun-dried tomato bread after we noticed that every other table had gotten one. Paying our bill took a good 20 minutes because the lone server was busy pouring bottled water for another party.
But in the end, the responsibility for the serving staff belongs to management: Employees need to be trained. Our server couldn't rattle off a list of beers when we inquired about the selection; instead she asked, "Well, what do you want?" She also couldn't open the bottle of wine we'd ordered, not because the cork was too hard or too soft, but because she didn't know how. In the end a neighboring patron gave her a lesson, and the chef, who was delivering a pair of main courses, came over to finish the job. She had already ruined the cork, so he had to take it out in sections. He had the grace to turn his back as he struggled, but he should have whisked the bottle away rather than try to serve it to us after that dysfunctional display. However, he almost began to pour it, putting us in the position of sending it back.
So the restaurant is young and a touch ill-mannered, like a teenager. But as with many adolescents, there's a great deal of potential here. For one thing, and it's a big thing, the freshly prepared dishes range from very good to truly excellent. The menu is small but varied enough to ensure a good selection, and the chef supplements with specials. We sampled two du jours as appetizers. The tomato-mozzarella "tower," a stacked presentation of sliced plum tomatoes and bufala cheese over mixed greens dressed with a touch of balsamic vinegar, was boring, but there was no denying the tomatoes were extraordinarily juicy and the mozzarella fresh. (Nevis is bringing in some terrific ingredients.) Lobster bisque proved much more lively, full of not just lobster flavor but lobster meat, with a mildly peppery bite that counteracted the cream.
The truth is, though, that the most exciting dishes are already on the menu. Coconut crab dip, a starter, comprised shredded crab mixed with coconut cream and what tasted like the sting of cayenne pepper; scoop this up with homemade cottage fries for proper textural contrast. The Cajun shrimp appetizer, a little less zingy despite the implication of its name, was three huge prawns, lightly grilled and set down on wilted, garlic-flavored spinach, surrounded by a cooling pool of peach salsa. Delicious.
Main courses really grabbed our attention, not just for their superb presentation but also for their size. Lamb chops, the priciest dish, featured four large mustard-brushed chops fencing in a mountain of vanilla-infused mashed sweet potatoes, plus another side dish of grilled zucchini and summer squash. At $26 it was frankly a bargain in the current fine-dining climate. A large New York strip with a port wine sauce, encrusted with caramelized onions and surrounded by a double dip of corn-and sweet potato hash, also had a generous serving of the grilled vegetables. Despite the tastiness of this dish, it was impossible to finish.
The chef also excels at fish preparations, most of which are accompanied by the same side dishes: wasabi mashed potatoes and the garlicky wilted spinach. A fillet of snapper in a beurre blanc, though it could have been boned more carefully, was wonderfully aromatic and light, crunchy with pine nuts. Tuna steak, seared with sesame seeds, made for a heartier meal but also a refreshing one, since the fish was served ruby-rare. The only quibble we had was with a fillet of grouper, which had been cooked too long on the skin side, resulting in some overbrowned and dried-out flesh.
If there's one piece of advice I would give Nevis, it's not to bow to the peer pressure of behaving like neighboring eateries Shooters and Charley's Crab. We have enough glandular-oriented hangouts on this stretch of the Intracoastal. And as far as the club music goes, we have plenty of supper lounges, too, such as nearby Hot Chocolates and Christopher's. What we really need on this piece of property is the fine-dining restaurant Nevis could be. And from what I saw, despite some barflies and potential clubbers, Nevis displays promise, especially in the culinary department. Were its promise to be fulfilled in atmosphere as well, I for one would be more than willing to wait for the place to grow up.
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