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Looks Aren't Everything

If Toni Bishop's Restaurant & Jazz Club were to place a personal ad, it would read something like this: "South Florida sophisticate, worldly, passionate, and attractive, seeks soul mate(s). Must adore fortysomething, financially secure, urban professionals who enjoy fine food and drink, a refined environment, and men with turbans playing jazz piano."

Not that the place needs much help landing customers -- at least during happy hour. The three-month-old Las Olas eatery, which took over the freestanding building that was formerly Mario's, is a looker. High ceilings and dramatic Art Deco chandeliers provide enough room and light so that a grand piano and standup bass look puny next to the dance floor. Decor and linens are the refreshing alter ego of fine dining: Everything is black, from the patterned rug to the tablecloths and napkins. Divorced folks, singles, and the yuppie crowd have already discovered the lively bar scene, which is accompanied by eclectic jazz performances (I'm not kidding about the turban) and plenty of social smoking.

If Toni Bishop herself were to place a personal ad, it would be written similarly: "South Florida sophisticate, worldly, passionate, and attractive, seeks..." Bishop is a well-known jazz singer and recording artist who's performed in and around Miami and Fort Lauderdale for the past 20 years. Her latest CD, Toni Bishop's Incredible Love, is due for release right about now. I used to go to her 3 a.m. shows at the Van Dyke Cafe in Miami Beach back in the early '90s, when she was a fixture there and I was energetic enough to stay out all night. Her vocal stylings are a bit unusual; when improvising, she sometimes reproduces parrot calls and monkey screams. Considering her history in the area, it makes sense for her to finally have her own venue, where she performs three times a night on weekends. In fact, her shows are so popular that reservations for dinner, particularly for those tables closest to the stage, must be made a week to ten days in advance.

The soul mate(s) she attracted, co-owners Abe Lang and Jan Shapiro, aren't entertainers, but they love jazz. Especially Lang, a retired businessman who owned the Mattress Giant chain, which he founded and then sold. He's the money guy, our waiter confided. Funding and refurbishing the restaurant was "like buying a candy bar to him," he told us.

Good thing the cash required to keep the operation running is so piddling. Bishop may be filling the restaurant on weekends, and happy hour may be a big sell, but during the week, the restaurant appears to be sparsely populated. When Bishop's name isn't on the marquee to draw people in, the fare has to do the job. And it's hard to give two forks about the jazz performances when the $30 porterhouse is tough.

The Continental menu is definitely overpriced; not one of the appetizers goes for less than a sawbuck. The wild-mushroom starter consisted of cultivated portobello caps. The $13.50 price tag seemed appropriate, however, when we lifted the top cap off the stack and saw the hunks of lump crabmeat. The crab glistened with butter, and the mushrooms were doused with a vibrant Barolo wine sauce. The same sauce accompanied the porterhouse entree, a 24-ounce monster, but the sauce wasn't flavorful enough to make up for the bland meat.

If expensive appetizers like $15 shrimp cocktail and $18 carpaccio -- not to mention the $45 Ossetra caviar starter -- stick in the craw, look for the soups and salads. Some are reasonably priced and tasty as well. French onion soup was outstanding, some of the best I've had in recent memory. The wine-y broth overflowed with soft, caramel-colored onions and was loaded with melted Gruyere cheese.

Salads include the old standards, such as caesar; sliced tomatoes and mozzarella; and mixed baby greens. A more intriguing choice was "Toni's chopped salad," a pleasant assortment of cucumbers, peanuts, and tropical fruits tossed with a fragrant lime infusion. The mixture was ladled over spears of pale green endive, which provided a solid, slightly bitter base to counteract the citrus-y and nutty flavors.

Among the main courses, European dishes included osso buco with polenta; poached snapper fillet in champagne beurre blanc; and bouillabaisse. But we chose to go south, figuring that Chilean sea bass with a shiitake mushroom sauce would be a wiser investment than lobster tail francaise. But after sampling the fish, we weren't so sure. The skin-on fillet was overcooked just enough to make the meaty flakes mushy, and the shiitake mushroom sauce was dark and heavy, obscuring the subtle flavor of sea bass. An underpinning of mashed sweet potatoes jibed with the shiitake mushrooms, and zucchini sauteed with Italian herbs -- the vegetable accompanying all main courses -- provided another contrast.

The fresh tuna steak with ginger-mango sauce also read better than it ate. The steak was unevenly cooked, with portions of it medium-rare, as requested, and other parts well-done. Crosshatched, it had a distinctly charred flavor, and we couldn't discern the sauce, so we asked for some on the side. Our mistake. The ginger-heavy coulis would have been more appropriately served with a cake.

Served medium-rare, three generously sized lamb chops drizzled with a rich porcini mushroom sauce were succulent, but again, the meat lacked flavor. And the mushroom sauce tasted just like those served with the wild-mushroom appetizer and the porterhouse steak -- how 'bout a little variety here? After forking up the gluelike, garlicky mashed potatoes that were lumped under both the lamb and the steak, we had the feeling someone wasn't minding the store. So we asked the waiter if the chef was in the kitchen. "Sort of," he said. "He's in and out, doing errands."

I can't imagine what kind of errands are so important they take an executive chef away from his kitchen during dinner hours. Whatever they were, we never even resolved the issue of just who the executive chef is. Our waiter said that he's Daniel Theme, a French chef who has cooked for many South Florida restaurants over the past ten years. But Miguel Aston, the maitre d', told me the executive chef is Dan Butler, a veteran of resorts and private yachts, "where he was the chef for many powerful people." Whoever the head honcho is, I urge him to oversee his kitchen.

And hire a pastry chef to whip up a real creme brulee, since that's what's listed on the dessert menu. Our order turned out to be "creme brulee cheesecake," a puny slice of plain cheesecake. We couldn't tell what was supposed to be "creme brulee" about it.

I like Toni Bishop as a performer and hope her restaurant succeeds. But the stodgy menu needs some retooling and reducing -- if I'm paying $30 for a piece of meat, I want it to be the juiciest I've ever had, jazz or no jazz.

The chef, whoever he is, should also consider echoing the music with his dishes. Jazz is composed of spur-of-the-moment, highly charged riffs, which can't be produced unless an artist has a serious understanding of the basics. I'd love to see the fare reflect that philosophy. Otherwise nobody's going to be writing personal ads for Toni Bishop's Restaurant. An obituary might be more appropriate.

Toni Bishop's Restaurant & Jazz Club. 1313 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-761-8664. Dinner nightly from 6 to 11 p.m; Friday and Saturday until 1 a.m.

Toni's chopped salad
$7.95
Wild mushrooms with crabmeat
$13.50
Tuna steak
$21.95
Lamb chops
$29.95
Creme brulee
$5.95


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