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Leapin' Armadillos

Kevin McCarthy offers customers a good wine selection -- but they'd better hurry
Larry Singer

Summertime's so slow 'round these parts, at least in terms of what restaurants are up to, that rumormongers have nothing else to do but jump to conclusions. Some of the gossip has panned out as truth: Café Arugula did indeed close. Both ZAN(Z)BAR and East City Grill were forced out by landlords who had scheduled the buildings for demolition. Dancing Bear was sold to Miami restaurateur Mark Soyka.

But other rumors have been suspect -- for instance, the one about Armadillo Cafe, a 12-year veteran of the Davie dining scene, closing its doors. Sure, the eatery might have shut up shop for vacation for a week or so in the beginning of the summer. Either that, or the yenta who slipped me this tidbit had simply called when the restaurant wasn't open for business. The truth is that Armadillo Cafe, which has regularly received both local and national attention for the chefs' inspired Southwestern creations, is not closed. It is, however, getting ready to split for new premises.

I can't say the move is a bad idea. Currently the Armadillo is located in a section of west Broward that tries really hard to remember when the area was strictly horse country. Building façades are Old West­style, even for new chain locations like Dairy Queen. Some parking lots still have hitching posts for horses. If the city managers could get away with not paving the roads, all in the name of "keeping it real" (and attracting tourist dollars), they probably would.

Armadillo was an anomaly when former Max's Place chef Kevin McCarthy and his partner, Eve Montella-Smith, opened the place back in 1988. Its décor, done in pinks and turquoise with bunches of chile peppers and cow skulls hanging on the walls, was distinctly Southwest rather than rural South. But instead of descending into cowboy-cliché anonymity, the eatery managed to rise to the top of the Broward County dining scene. So it's always been just a little out of place in its howdy-folks strip mall.

Now that the owners of the Armadillo building have sold out to Walgreens, the restaurant has a good excuse for a clean break from country hokum. The next set of digs will be located in a generic (read: no hitching post) shopping plaza right next door to Nova Southeastern University, which itself has expanded considerably over the years. With 11,000 square feet comprising a formal dining room as well as separate rooms for billiards and a lunch café (and thus plenty of attractions for a college-casual crowd), Armadillo is poised for quite a leap.

The thing about such leaps, though, is that there's no assurance that the restaurant will land on its feet. Typically it takes a while for things to sort themselves out, no matter how talented the chef or experienced the restaurateur. Armadillo hasn't even set a firm date for the move. The announcement printed in the menu, which the proprietors rightly felt their customers deserved, is a bit ambiguous, stating only that the switch will happen in late summer. But if you ask the topnotch wait staff, honest to a fault, it sounds as if late summer means more like late September or early October.

So while you don't need to run out and dine at Armadillo tonight, you might want to hit it in the next month or two if the place is a favorite of yours that you've neglected lately. You won't be alone. After we tried to order three separate bottles of wine that weren't in stock, our server told us that the restaurant wasn't under-ordering in anticipation of the move. It was simply getting busier and busier.

One likely reason for this, aside from the coming relocation, is that the restaurant has maintained its high standards for ingredients, using local produce whenever possible. For instance the hydroponic arugula salad, seasoned with a honey-chipotle dressing and garnished with black beans and roasted corn, is billed on the menu as "grown a mile from my home in West Davie." I can only assume the personal pronoun refers to one or both chefs -- who, if a fabulously supple main course of grilled tenderloin of ostrich is anything to judge by, seem to be at the top of their game. The sliced ostrich, doused in a port wine­and­sun-dried cherry sauce, was free of tough tendons and wonderfully mild. Indeed the bird tasted as much like filet mignon as did the, well, filet mignon, which was stuffed with a delectable combo of spinach, roasted red bell peppers, portobello mushrooms, and sharply mellow Asiago cheese. The beef was finished with a vibrant but not intrusive demi-glace reduced with Madeira and flavored by roasted shallots.

When it comes to entrées, the kitchen has always done fish well -- salmon roasted on a cedar plank is a favorite with customers, as is grilled yellowfin tuna served with red, yellow, and green salsas. But I find that meats here are more enticing, because the chefs favor full-flavored flesh. For instance they'll serve leg of lamb over the more typical rack or chop, and I'll go for that muskier flavor every time. The inch-thick lamb medallions, exuding juice, barely needed the nap of sun-dried tomato­and­roasted garlic sauce. Ditto the veal flank steak, a less stringy cut than that from a full-grown cow. The veal had been marinated in herbs and fruit juices, then slathered with sautéed wild mushrooms. The mushrooms struck me as being like venetian blinds for a gorgeous bay window -- simply not necessary.

Since I found the carnivorous stuff so tempting for main courses, I decided to get my seafood fix with the appetizers. "Armadillo clams" ruled the polls: All my guests pronounced the bowl of white-water clams, steamed in white wine and garlic and stewed with jambalaya staples like tasso ham and Texmati rice, the hands-down winner. I also enjoyed some fresh shrimp, grilled with a splash of tequila and placed over corn cakes that had been saturated with chipotle-spiked butter. Fried potato cakes, fluffy on the inside, were also terrific, paired with a slice of smoked salmon pastrami. But this dish could have used more of the menu-billed horseradish cream, which proved invisible.

Servers are well trained and thoughtful. When it became apparent that we were going to share starters among a party of four, the waiter asked the kitchen to add another shrimp and another piece of salmon to their respective appetizers, since the usual portion contained only three of each. He also whisked away our bottle of Stag's Leap Sauvignon Blanc, which smelled spoiled; not only did he not try to argue with us (a rarity in South Florida), but he took it to one of the owners, who confirmed that the bottle was off. As it turned out, the whole case had gone bad -- we opened another bottle just to see before switching to a Frog's Leap Sauvignon Blanc, which was fine. What this means is that the restaurant is storing wine correctly and that the supplier in this case was at fault.

There's no one to blame but yourself if you leave Armadillo without desserts, one of the restaurant's signatures. Caramelized pecan/bourbon/chocolate-chip pie with a shortbreadlike crust was a treat, as always, but chocolate-cinnamon fritters, dusted with confectioner's sugar, made an even more sumptuous ending. I've always maintained, though, that the eatery's presentation here is dated -- a dessert tray, featuring a soggy assortment of the evening's sweets, is brought to each table. A glossy dessert menu would be a better expression of Armadillo's fine-dining intentions. I can only hope that, along with the cow skulls, the proprietors lose the tray idea in the move. At the same time, I hope they keep just about everything else.


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