I´ve had it with stratospheric restaurant tabs. Summer´s coming on, season of the dockside conch fritter, the chicken fajita, the mahi finger, the icy Corona with lime wedges. Grilled $3 burgers just taste better between June and September. Looking forward to hurricane season and calculating extra expenditures in canned beans and bottled water, I feel my fists reflexively tightening around the couple of bills I´ve set aside for eating out. Naturally, in my cheapness, I have no intention of sacrificing quality or frequency. I just want my yummy on a budget. So it happened that I scanned the horizon (or anyway, my sharp-eyed colleague K. scanned the horizon and told me what she saw), and off in the distance, tacking smoothly into the sunrise, I spied potential relief. ¨Ahoy!¨ I called. ¨Swing yer boom over thisaway and fire up that galley stove!¨
The boat I had my eye on was the month-old Jib Room on Oakland Park Boulevard. Lauderdale attorney Deborah Carpenter-Toye, a bouncy strawberry blond who looks to be in her 40s, opened the Jib Room with her husband, Brian Toye, in the space that used to house Jumpin´ Jack´s Bar and Grill. The Carpenter-Toyes must have read the same Zagat report I did last year and, figuring they needed a hobby, chose the most grueling and frustrating business known to man. Zagat had gleefully fingered South Florida as the place in the country where people eat out the most. We chow down an average of 3.8 non-home-cooked meals a week here, edging past the two next-highest cities, Los Angeles (3.7) and Las Vegas (3.6). Almost makes you want to open your own restaurant, doesn´t it, you masochist?
The second bit of lousier news from Zagat was that South Florida also takes first prize for the most expensive restaurant meals in the United States, edging out New York and San Francisco. Apparently, average cost of a dinner out here is $38.56, up 6 percent from last year. We South Floridians are both hungry and loaded. Until I stumbled into the Jib Room last week, bleary of eye and light of pocket, I´d begun to think 38 bucks in South Florida was the average price of an entrée.
It was as if Deborah and Brian Carpenter-Toye had heard my plaint and provided a happy solution -- how rare is that in the legal world? They´d plunked down a mid-priced neighborhood café, serving jolly things like chicken pot pie or snapper and shrimp bake, with a full liquor bar, in a convenient location. Not only that; they´d hired Luis deGennaro and his wife, Jennifer, to run the kitchen.
DeGennaro and Jennifer are beloved of local Italian food fans -- they had their popular café, Pá deGennaro in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, for years; they worked at Ruggero´s down the road on Oakland Park Boulevard for a while; and then they packed up their recipe for John Albanese´s famous chicken livers with hot peppers and headed to the Jib Room. The DeGennaros´ presence makes for a bit of schizophrenia in the menu, which is about 70 percent Caribbean island and 30 percent Italian. That´s OK by me; what´s the point of a neighborhood café that doesn´t have all the many and various things the neighborhood wants to eat? I´m pretty sure that if you can´t find something on this menu that makes your mouth water -- junkanoo chicken, seafood stew, center-cut pork chop, chicken pot pie, homemade ricotta gnocchi -- you are a dried-up old curmudgeon who doesn´t deserve the taste buds God gave you.
Many things recommend the Jib Room beyond the average price of the entrées ($10.95 for penne a la vodka! $15.95 for a pork chop!). One is Deborah herself, who comes right over, grabs your hand for a firm shake, and focuses like she´s slipping your pertinent info into some brilliantly organized file drawer (name -- check. Wants tuna cooked medium -- check. Drinks Stoli -- check). From the minute you walk through the door into those two comfortable rooms with their turquoise and lime-green and pink panels, the scratched hardwood floors, and the glow from the double tropical fish tanks, she behaves like a woman who´s readily invested in getting you to come back.
And the food at the Jib Room is good. Not uniformly great, maybe, but interesting and comforting enough that you´ll easily pick out a favorite half-dozen dishes to keep in rotation during your 3.8 visits per week. We were pleased with the appetizers we tried -- grilled (not fried) mahi fingers ($6.95), marinated, spicy, salted, and served with a really delicious creamy cilantro and roasted garlic dip. We liked our chicken livers too ($7.95), melt-in-your-mouth offal soaking in a creamy reduced wine sauce with rings of hot pepper: silk against crunch, velvety richness cut with heat, and a Madeira-soaked crostini at the bottom of the bowl. I´d eaten this dish at Ruggero´s; the sheer heft of this gigantic plate of internal organs seems a little daunting. I think they could get away with downsizing it -- even a liver lover like me recognizes that you can have too much of a good thing.
Other apps passing our table looked wonderful: a pretty threesome of Kobe beef sliders ($12.95), a bowl of littleneck clams trailing fumes of coconut basil curry ($9.95). You could make a meal of small plates here, on the marinated skirt steak and the citrus steamed mussels. With dessert and a martini or two, you´d go away satisfied.
The price on the braised short ribs entrée ($15.95) is almost criminally low short ribs are appearing on menus all over Lauderdale and Palm Beach in the $30-plus range. So we hadda have it. Our noncarnivore ordered the grilled filet mignon of tuna ($19.95). Having heard raves, I went for the New England-style lobster roll ($14.95). And because we could, we ordered sides of mac and cheese and sweet potato fries (each $3.95; other sides include pigeon peas and rice and pineapple rice).
Quite a feast. The tuna fillet, I think, was probably most successful of the three -- cooked medium as requested (a little pink, not at all dried out) and served in a bath of tamari broth with orzo, wilted spinach, and strips of yellow and red pepper. The fish was excellent, nicely grilled with traces of smoke, and the peppers retained a bit of crunch. I thought the broth too salty, and there was so much of it that the orzo came loose and sort of floated around, hapless as loosed dinghies, but the tuna´s owner was pleased.
B. seemed to like his short ribs, which evidenced an unexpected spicy heat. The ribs were less unctuous than you might expect -- in texture, more like a pot roast, and the accompanying ricotta gnocchi had soaked up beefy broth, which made them plenty succulent and still chewy even as it turned them an unfortunate brownish-gray. But this is comfort food; I´m willing to forgive a lot of off-color gnocchi at these prices. Our mac-and-cheese side order was seriously state-of-the-art -- creamy and bubbling inside, crunchy on top, with exactly the right amount of tooth and a sublime richness. I´d be tempted to make my 3.8 weekly meals on the mac and cheese alone (you get this marvelous side when you order buttermilk-dipped fried chicken too, along with jalapeño corn bread and mango-honey butter).
I wished I´d ordered that buttermilk chicken or the steaming pot pie on its way to another table from my first bite of lobster roll -- generous enough with its flavorless, chewy lobster tossed in mayonnaise on a soft bun but ruined by some really bitter chopped celery. I found it inedible. Other customers, apparently, have raved about it (maybe the awful celery was a fluke), and the New England sandwich does carry through the seafaring theme. But we´re not in Maine anymore, Dorothy, and I´m wondering what the point is of dragging this vernacular classic so far from its native shores. The undersalted, mealy fries that filled the rest of the plate were no consolation. K. suggested that waffle or shoestring fries would have improved things; yes, particularly if they´d had crunch, a light oily sheen, and the fluffy interior that makes fries of any shape one of the world´s most delicious snacks and a beloved staple of neighborhood cafés. We´d done much better with the sweet potato fries, particularly good sopped through some of B.´s short-rib gravy.
The Jib Room´s signature dessert is its pistachio pound cake, also sold by the loaf (for $10.95). In texture, this excellent cake feels more sponge- than pound-like, but wow, is it ever to die for. It´s brimming with buttery flavor, yet it´s amazingly light; the bright, nutty flavor of pistachios is the kind of unexpected touch a jaded foodie is grateful for. I´ve never had anything quite like it. Our bread pudding (all desserts cost $5.95) started out dry and overcooked around the edges but yielded a beautiful, creamy interior to the pressure of our spoons. B. missed the cinnamon. K. wished for white rather than brown raisins. G. just kept eating.
Too much eating, I´m afraid, to really be able to appreciate the subtleties of a crispy baked Brie we´d also ordered for dessert (it´s an appetizer, $9.95), accompanied by a tart chutney of warm apples. To give this cheese its due, along with the nightly specials, the veal Sinatra, or the seafood stew, I´ll just have to sail back to the Jib Room one of these old nights.
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