The first thing you notice when you pull off North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale into the arched entranceway of Sublime restaurant might not be the enormous spotlighted marquee announcing the place. It might not be the stationary sign, a towering green monstrosity that advertises the restaurant's "world vegetarian cuisine" and connected "lifestyle emporium." It might not even be the sheer size of the building, which is comprised of environmentally friendly materials and encloses a market and a 175-seat dining room.
What you're likely to first notice are the delicious aromas that waft over the asphalt -- scents that make your mouth water, you'd almost swear, just like it does for chargrilled beef.
In fact, the breezes are beefy, and they spring from the neighboring Houston's, a realization that disappointed the committed carnivore in my party. "For a second, I thought this might almost be good," he grumbled. Keep in mind that this is the same fellow whom we had to coax into accompanying us by swearing that you can make delicious dishes out of vegetables. "Sure you can," he'd answered. "You just add meat."
1431 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale
Call 954-615-1431. Lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. till 2:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5 till 9:30, Friday and Saturday till 10.
Cynicism aside, local vegans are probably thrilled to have a neighborhood restaurant with a higher consciousness and a gastronomically minded mission statement in their midst. Most everything at Sublime, from soup to nuts -- including split pea soup with diced carrots and candied walnuts on the spinach salad -- has been harvested via sustainable or certified organic practices. Teas have names like "morning rise," "sweet meadow," and "moonlight spice;" the wine list sponsors bottlings that come from chemically unadulterated crops. Even the martini olives, not to mention the vodka in the glasses, are organic.
But such customers, who have been deprived of options for far too long in these parts, are frankly an easy sell. On the open market, the competition gets tougher. But I figure that if Sublime's high-end inventive dishes -- such as the polenta short stack, sandwiched with oven-roasted tomatoes, arugula, garlic, and shallots -- could win over a meat-and-potatoes devotee, it can certainly impress the less-stubborn majority of the dining public. After all, we omnivores are usually -- pardon the term -- game for anything. Unless we're cultists of the Atkins sort, in general, we hardly avoid vegetables and whole grains; some of us even favor a diet rich in green, red, and yellow stuff.
But sad to say, Sublime isn't as convincing to nondisciples as it needs to be. My objections to the place are the same I often have to other specialty restaurants: Faulty execution and a touch of reverse discrimination mar what could be a genuinely pleasant experience.
Owned by veteran restaurateur Terry Dalton (proprietor of the dearly departed, sorely missed Unicorn Village restaurant in Miami-Dade County) and animal rights activist Nanci Alexander, the four-month-old eatery clearly has an agenda. Full disclosure: The place is actually the headquarters of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, and the website states that "one hundred percent (100%) of Sublime's profits will be donated to organizations that promote animal well-being, and a vegan lifestyle." (The phrasing tends to make one wonder exactly for whom the vegan lifestyle is intended: animals or humans.) Though most of us would agree that protecting animals is admirable, not everyone appreciates the politics and practices of such groups. So it's wise to be informed from the get-go.
Though the atmosphere is restful and Zen-like, some of the design elements are dramatic. Windows are actually encased waterfalls, strictly vertical and never-ending. Lofty ceilings, skylights, and earthy hues of amber and green evoke the sentience of primitive forests. Widely spaced, polished, hardwood tables, muted light fixtures, and plenty of fresh potted greenery update the interior.
A dinner starts off promisingly with whole-grain nutty loaves complemented by judiciously spiced hummus and a meltingly soft, herbal, bread spread. Munch on these while you scan the menu and it's easy to find yourself torn between starting with a cooked appetizer such as the fire-roasted jumbo whole artichoke or something raw from a more distant corner of the world, like the sea vegetable salad, composed of an encyclopedia of brown algae (hijiki, wakame, kombu, and arame).
We opted for spicy tempura cauliflower frito misto, which is something of a misnomer. Frito misto translates to "mixed fry" and generally refers to a variety of ingredients deep-fried and served on the same platter: Squid, zucchini, and mushrooms are popular items for tumbling together. At Sublime, the cauliflower frito misto appetizer was unilaterally the cruciferous albino, but it was well-prepared, the florets tender inside a crisp batter. The billed spiciness was delinquent, however.
Ditto for the "spicy vegetable roll," which contained daikon radish, microgreens, avocado, tempura tofu, and a drizzle of sweet chili sauce. Though microgreens can offer a kick -- the assortment of ten-day-old plants, harvested with scissors, usually contains immature mustard varieties that for some reason are hotter than when they are fully grown -- the zing was in absentia. In general, the sushi was bland and the sushi rice alternatively mushy and hard. I'd rather get a cucumber roll in an established Japanese restaurant.
Due to a minimal application of black olive tapenade, a dish called "tomato carpaccio and arugula" was more pungent, but the labeling was confusing. The menu listed sun-dried tomatoes and potato croutons; this translated into thick slices of fresh but not wholly sun-ripe red and yellow tomatoes topped with fried potatoes that resembled hash. As a salad, this worked, but it would have been far better with either generous disks of ripe, juicy, heirloom tomatoes -- Brandywines, Zebra, and Ugli varieties would make a nice assortment -- or expertly measured, intensely flavored, carpaccio-width slices. If the ones I was served had been sliced with a properly adjusted mandolin, then I'm Corelli.
Oddly, a pizza decorated with red bliss potatoes, caramelized onions, red bell peppers, and spinach had the consistency I was looking for in the carpaccio. The crust here, a function of the restaurant's signature, custom-built, hearth oven, was crunchy perfection. But the topping was overwhelmed by a too-generous application of fresh herbs. The whole thing tasted like unsteeped tea (call this one "overrun kitchen garden").
Main courses are the same mixed bag of inspiration and disappointment. Our meat-eater opted for an entrée of wild mushroom and truffle risotto, one of the only true vegetarian dishes his wife can get him to eat with relish at home by labeling it "pasta." He enjoyed the topping, a heaping helping of tempura-battered mushrooms and pencil asparagus. The risotto itself was mushy, however, a problem that may originate in the choice of brown Arborio rice as the core ingredient -- even rice purveyors like Lundberg Family Farms admit that "this rice is not as creamy as white Arborio. Brown Arborio makes an excellent paella, but is not as well suited to risotto-type dishes." This is an occasion where dubious health benefits lost out to the realistic requirements of traditional recipes.
Brown rice, mixed with diced fruits and nuts, served better as a filling for stuffed cabbage. But I couldn't imagine how many times the cabbage, as brittle and lacy as a New Jersey windowpane in January, had been cooked. A plate of "wok-seared yellow curry noodles" was on both the bland and the mushy side; an infusion of sea salt (hey, that's legit, right?) could have helped here.
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Perhaps the most intriguing dish was a simple sandwich -- basically a patty composed of a variety of chopped cremini, Portobello, shiitake, and button mushrooms mixed with a soy-based coagulator (in place of eggs). Juicy and drippy in the best of ways, this was a mushroom "burger" worth running the exterior gamut of Houston's real thing, though for some folks, that might feel like breaking a strike line.
In fact, one of the reasons I appreciate dining at restaurants like Sublime is the lack of guilt. I didn't have to worry about accidentally snacking on an endangered species, thus fueling an industry; I didn't have to be nervous that I might unintentionally be feeding my lactose-intolerant digestive system with hidden dairy.
Apparently, I did have to be concerned about my weight, however. Though we didn't order extravagantly -- and, as my friend who can put away a 16-ounce filet mignon, said, "It's just vegetables, for Christ sakes" -- our ultrathin waitress decided that we were overeating. First, she declared she wouldn't bring us more bread because we wouldn't be able to finish our starters. During the grazing appetizer portion of the meal, she inquired twice whether she should "go ahead and put your entrées in" or if we wanted to forget about them. When clearing away our main courses, she noted disapprovingly, "Obviously you won't be having dessert."
Au contraire, my judgmental friend. I'm not sure where you get off monitoring our intake, especially in a restaurant where the clientele's diet is so restricted that you practically have to sign a membership card to get a table. But despite telling glances at feminine waistlines and touchy-feely caresses of the masculine shoulders of our partners, she couldn't deny us bittersweet chocolate cake. Sublime's version tasted like the one my mother used to make for my sister, who in her youth was allergic to eggs and milk. Mom's secret ingredient was a quarter-cup of vinegar, which leavened just like eggs with no one the wiser. If only Sublime were as subtle.