Oh So Sweet
The Victoria Park neighborhood is eerily serene by Fort Lauderdale standards. Maybe it's all that tropical foliage, surreal as a rainforest painting by Rousseau. A family of peacocks roosts in the black olive trees; pristinely renovated bungalows retreat behind curtains of bromeliads and orchids. If the Park makes it into the news at all, it's usually to preview the annual holiday home tour, to detail the doings of the Victoria Park Civic Association, or just to chart the stratospheric real estate prices.
There was, of course, the time a couple of years ago when one fed-up resident shot a peacock -- it was mating season -- that had set up its noisy love nest in a contractor's yard. And, oh yeah, that scuffle over Larry Flynt's new sex-toy warehouse on Sunrise Boulevard. But other than these exceptions, this is a haven for imported gift shops, coffeehouse bookstores, and New Age emporia, of hunks lolling around poolside at some guest house or other.
And the sedate, 20-year-old Victoria Park Restaurant is in perfect harmony with this peaceable kingdom. Patricia McDonnell and Gary Boylan bought this almost impossibly long-lived French-Caribbean restaurant five years ago. They fine-tuned the menu and polished up the interior, a transformation so gradual it was like watching a cygnet become a swan. Only lipstick traces of the old place remain -- a dish of grilled Jamaican pork, a plate of Provençal escargots. They've transformed Victoria Park from a ho-hum neighborhood pit stop into one of the best restaurants in the city. Their kitchen can take a simple and modest proposal -- say, a salad of grilled pear and arugula -- and move it into the realm of the unexpectedly sublime.
People love this place. It's commonly said that eating at VP is like dining in an old friend's living room -- a friend who happens to be an uncommon chef with a terrific wine cellar... who's thrilled to ferry you plates of mozzarella Napoleon -- a fresh cheese layered with prosciutto and tomato -- and dishes of veal Marsala redolent with wine and sautéed mushrooms. A friend who picks perfect glasses of wine to accompany these dishes. With more friends like these, we'd all lead charmed lives.
Frankly, not too many restaurateurs are content to keep only a modest 12 tables -- when Boylan and McDonnell left their East Coast corporate power jobs and turned to the restaurant biz, the husband and wife were evidently serious about downsizing. Boylan, a big man with a white ponytail and a Jersey accent, used to be a senior executive at Revlon. It's hard to imagine this unassuming soul making corporate heads roll -- maybe a couple of years in Paradise have mellowed him. He's still a perfectionist; he's told me that he works to remember his customers and their preferences -- sometimes by surreptitiously jotting down notes. As a host, he's gracious and steady. If those dozen tables are full, he'll gently turn you away with a reminder to make a reservation next time; but when we were last there, he managed to accommodate everybody, much to our relief.
You sink into the pillowy banquettes or put your elbows on the starched white tablecloths here and think about what it is, exactly, that makes Victoria Park so attractive. Painted chairs, a trompe l'oeil window, warm colors, a sloping metal roof. There are also a few knickknacks. Beyond all that, it's the contented buzz of contented customers lingering over their simple, fresh appetizers and salads.
McDonnell and her brother Michael staff the kitchen, putting out a menu as petite as the dining room: eight appetizers, ten entrées, and a handful of specials in a style they call "eclectic American." Food is prepared with apparent lack of fuss but maximum flavor. The salads are spectacular. My grilled pear salad ($9) -- a grilled half of the fruit that had been marinated in port wine -- was unexpectedly, delightfully savory, not sweet. Topped with a gratin of melted gorgonzola, it was surrounded by peppery arugula. And that scattered with more of the mild, delicately flavored gorgonzola and walnuts, finished with a balanced, nuanced port vinaigrette. I've had their warm mushroom salad too ($9), and it's the gustatory equivalent of putting on a mink coat -- soft, silky, and rich; you don't so much eat it as sink into it. Sautéed portabellos and shiitake mushrooms top mixed greens, tossed with a sherry-soy vinaigrette. We also shared a perfectly prepared plate of Provençal escargots ($9) with garlic and parsley butter, sopping up the lavish juices with VP's homemade rolls.
Lately, it appears they have a yen to stuff things. There's a veal filled with gorgonzola, spinach, and prosciutto ($20.50), a flounder with crab and shrimp ($22.50), and jumbo shrimp with crab and lobster ($23.50). The special when we visited was chicken breast stuffed with wild rice and apples ($21.95). Veal Marsala ($19.50) and steak Diane ($25.50) are prepared like the classics they are, served with creamy mashed potatoes and crisp green vegetables. A couple of pasta dishes, a rack of lamb ($23.50), a grilled duck breast ($20.50). That's it.
In the interval between courses, Boylan brought us two tiny dishes of lemon sorbet, a nice old custom I haven't seen since the early '60s. And a change of flatware. You're allowed to breathe, get your focus. I don't know if the American Empire really is in decline, but we should at least be glad that the intermission with sorbet hasn't been entirely lost. While I was rolling the ice around on my tongue, it occurred to me that you'd never have to contend with customers yakking on cell phones at Victoria Park either. Boylan and McDonnell have done something to imbue this place with an air of rare civility.
When my special chicken breast arrived, I was mentally and physically ready for it, anyway. It was a subtle triumph. A breast had been split, filled with wild rice and diced Granny Smith apples, and then the whole thing rolled around in a walnut crust and drizzled with Bordeaux sauce. The chicken was tender, the rice al dente, the apples crisp, the crust crunchy, and it was served with a snappy fistful of green beans. The dish was a textbook demonstration of the way textures and colors can play off one another.
Our stuffed flounder ($22.50) wasn't as thoroughly amazing, we thought -- it lacked the pizzazz of the chicken. Pale tender fish was stuffed with more pale and tender shrimp and crab, the whole drizzled with a delicious, pale lemon beurre blanc. It was served with more pale mashed white potatoes and, quite inexplicably, whipped sweet potatoes. It was a dish conceived with 6-month-old infants and toothless crones in mind. In fact, if I were recovering from a dreadful disease and laid up in some wildly expensive sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, it's exactly the dinner I'd want every night.
Being relatively young and healthy still, we'll opt for an entrée with more muscle next time.
Neither of us was mentally prepared for dessert, though. I've never had room for one of the McDonnell team's sweets before, so I had no idea what we were in for. When the tray was brought out, Boylan introduced us to the key lime pie, the bourbon pecan chocolate pie, and the profiterole. Another favorite, warm apple tart, was waiting in the kitchen. We chose the profiterole ($6.50), not least because I've been trying to get the nerve to make it at home for about ten years. I'm giving up that dream -- Victoria Park's is unsurpassable. Desserts are like lovers -- your most recent is always your favorite -- but this profiterole truly breaks your heart. You can take the elements apart -- the desperately flaky pastry, the sweetness of the ice cream, the silky, salty, bitter Belgian chocolate sauce, the hot and cold, the deeply dense and feathery light -- but there's just no describing what it all means when it comes together. Call it beyond reckoning.
There's a little bit of a mystery too in how Victoria Park Restaurant, with its quiet, romantic dignity and perfect manners, has managed to retain our affection and loyalty while its flashier gastronomic cousins metaphorically gyrate on every tabletop. Maybe some mysteries in life forever remain mysterious.
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