The last time I'd stepped through the door at 2671 E. Oakland Park Blvd., I'd skirted under a neon martini glass and around an ashen-haired biker hobbling gamely on metal crutches. The biker, not as tough as he looked, was one of the trio of big shots who owned Ruggero's Italian restaurant. Ruggero's served Sunday gravy every day and also a dish I still crave: chicken livers with hot peppers in Madeira sauce. The place was typically haunted by bottle blonds and guys who made a living moving electronics in Queens. Friends of the maitre d' at Ruggero's called him Joe Cadillac. That suave old cat knew how to take care of a girl who wanted her martini dirty and her noodles al dente. The aesthetic was red and plush like the interior walls of a beating heart. Somebody was always crooning "I've Got You Under My Skin" at the piano bar.
It was sexy in its way, but that show has moved on, taking with it the heavyweight boxing champs and Harley kingpins, the ironic and courtly servers, the flocked wallpaper and velour upholstery. Packed away: sheet music for "My Funny Valentine" and recipes for Nonna's meatballs and ricotta cake. Joints like Ruggero's don't so much close down as they get temporarily absorbed back into the invisible mycelium of Italian restaurants. Like one of those gigantic funguses that stretches underground for thousands of miles, sending up the occasional fruiting body under a tree or a rock, Ruggero's, or something very like it, survives forever.
Christine's, the restaurant that replaced my old hangout, couldn't be less like its predecessor. If the old was a fleshily perspiring mushroom, the new is a tropical lily, hothouse-cosseted. Imagine brassy cousin Nencia from Long Island with her big mouth and loud hair going in for a makeover and emerging as Gwyneth Paltrow: Such is the magic that's been wrought at Christine's. The gleaming wood floors are the color of sun-burnished clouds; the décor, white, silver, and palest gray, as understated as a strand of heirloom pearls. Cool, WASP-y, translucent, subdued, this is a restaurant gliding around in velvet Prada slippers, batting its white-blond eyelashes.
Christine's, 2671 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Open Monday through Friday for lunch 11:30 a.m. till 2:30 p.m., dinner Monday through Thursday 5 till 10 p.m., till 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Call 954-566-1919.
A sculptural wine rack undulates along the back wall, and floor-to-ceiling glass with brushed metal accents divides the dining room from the upper-level bar. There, a jazz group called Lyfe (sax player Lawvawn Emunah and his slinky-voiced wife, Precious) plays '70s gold-standards: Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle — voulez-vous cucher avec moi? At least twice during dinner, I put down my Villeroy & Bosch salad fork and stood up to take a gander at Precious as she spun out "What's Love Got to Do With It?" or "Sweet Thing." And Precious is only one jewel in a trove of treasures at Christine's.
I'd grown so jaded! When a press release arrives in my inbox these days, it seems to do so with an audible sigh. More "New American Cuisine" from someone who'd worked someplace. A chef sure to pull from his or her culinary bag of tricks corn crusts, key-lime glazes, chorizo, and goat cheese. "If there is something on the menu not positively delicious, we have yet to find it," brayed Christine's P.R. "Oh yeah?" I said aloud. "Let me have at it." If there's a food critic alive who wouldn't blow coffee through her nose reading this kind of drivel, I have yet to find her.
But I here report glad tidings just in time for Valentine's Day. Love is in the air, and Christine's has totally stumped me. Not a single undelicious dish arrived from Chef Steve Shockey's kitchen the night we dined there. Nothing even remotely less-than-spectacular, in fact. Even Shockey himself, formerly of Max's Grill in Palm Beach Gardens, was delish; youngish and lanky, he stopped by our table to ask how we'd liked our food and what we'd ordered. The man was as sweet as Texas pie and as earnest as any novitiate. By the time we finally laid eyes on him, we'd been falling ever more madly in love with him for hours. His introductory amuse-bouche, a "crouton" of polenta topped with crab salad, was a mouthful that slowly rifled overlapping leaves of cream, buttery crunch, and clean, muscular shellfish; sensations that followed one another like pages turning in a beloved book. The flavor lingered, refusing to be absorbed — I literally closed my eyes to savor it.
"If the rest of the food is as good as this bite," we mumbled to each other, barely able to mouth the words for fear of jinxing it.
Restaurants like Christine's don't come along every day. Hard as I worked, rolling my critical eye this way and that, fingering the linens and cross-examining the waiter, I couldn't unearth a single flaw. The napkins were spotless and the server exemplary, the wine glasses clear as bells. When we showed up on Saturday night, the place had been open only a month, and just four or five tables were full, plus a handful of drinkers at the bar — the staff had the leisure to be perfect. They're clearly on their best, new-restaurant behavior. If co-owners Gregory Rhatagen (who owned the Grateful Palate on 17th Street Causeway) and Daniel MacMillan lose their vision or stamina or money, they'll have plenty of time to slide into mediocrity. But at least for this week and maybe next, Christine's is one of the best restaurants in Broward County.
If we all go now and drink their lovely Antinori Chiantis and single-aged malts, if we spoon up their truffle butter and lemon-thyme jus and shrimp grits with the enthusiasm they deserve, maybe Christine's will remain one of Broward's best restaurants indefinitely. Valentine's Day is upon us, gentlemen. Might I suggest...?
Being very good, even great, of course, isn't enough in the restaurant business; sometimes, it's no asset at all. But in a fair world, the service alone at Christine's would guarantee its fortunes. Our waiter was handsome, though not handsome enough to distract us. He appeared and receded as necessary, neither nervous nor intrusive, replacing silver and pouring water. He was so graceful that we barely noticed him except as a sort of reassuring background presence, and when we asked dumb questions about the food — What was the green stuff on our kampachi? These round blue things with our foie gras? — he didn't puff up or condescend or fumble: He knew what the hell he was talking about. Have I ever had service that made me this comfortable?
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Excellent service converges with familiar dishes that are in fact wildly imaginative. A Creole crab cake ($15) of hefty lump crab is made strange with applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onion, and wilted escarole in a pool of tasso gravy. You may have eaten 10,000 crab cakes, and God knows you'll find one on every menu from Key West to Seattle, but you've never tasted one like this, with its Deep South registers. I'd forgotten that pig and crab loved each other so devotedly; I thought of soft-shell crab and bacon sandwiches and was glad for the memory.
Our silky, fatty, farm-raised Hawaiian kampachi (the appetizer is $13, entrée $28) had been quickly pan-seared, then sliced nearly transparent, arranged around a hot-sweet, pleasantly musty spinach and shiitake salad in a bisque-colored kimchee sauce, like Korea-inflected sashimi. Shockey takes a different route with his kampachi entrée, tossing the grilled fillet with shiitake mushrooms, sea beans, and soy broth. An appetizer of seared Hudson Valley foie gras ($18) came perched over a sour green apple slaw on brioche toast, surrounded by a candied pool of purple berry gastrique; this goose got loose in the forest and force-fed itself huckleberries. Our server recommended a honeyed French sauterne to drink with it.
I had what must have been the pork chop of a lifetime, courtesy of Niman Ranch ($25) — a couple of inches thick on the bone, grilled medium rare. It came crosshatched, beautifully seasoned, and oozing smoky juices alongside a timbale of tiny cubed sweet potatoes, wilted Swiss chard, and sautéed onion. We ate a wahoo fillet ($25), a long, fast-swimming local fish that was paired with celery root purée — halfway between sweet and tart and wonderfully earthy — and drizzled with truffle apple brown butter. I'd thought wahoo was good for nothing but sashimi because it dries out so easily when cooked; this one was moist and flaked gently. A beef tenderloin fillet ($31) from Harris Ranch, a single-source beef company that processes meat on its own feed lots, turned out to be yet another menu standby that Shockey had turned on its head: a thick fillet doused in Maytag blue-cheese butter and served with fluffy roast garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach.
Shockey's bittersweet, excessively rich chocolate soufflé ($8) dissolves on the tongue the way you hope your darling's heart will melt in your hands on February 14 — if you aren't much of a poet, I suggest you let dessert speak for you. A banana-layered cheesecake ($8) with a cookie-crumb crust is romantic in a homier vein, but its essence is all American. "New American" cuisine is the slipperiest of culinary monikers: A chef can translate as he pleases, but often he's just mouthing a gibberish of international methods and ingredients. Shockey focuses himself by drawing on Southern and Southwest traditions and buying from respectable American farms and fisheries — goose liver from New York; Florida wahoo, shrimp, snapper, and clams; farm-raised pork, chicken, and veal. He drizzles these basics in sauces, butters, gravies, reductions, essences, and broths that read as fun, improvisational, and wide-ranging within our borders: tomatoes, corn, beans, berries, peppers, potatoes. The results are as smooth as the jazz playing on the mezzanine. And love's got everything to do with it.