Here's what I get for being a snarky little bitch. I get to eat my words, one at a time, sandwiched between rounds of buttery brioche and a layer of juicy Kobe beef, washed down with a designer "Las Olas" martini made of gin, agave, and elderflower liqueur.
This all began with an offhand remark made by one Stephen Starr, restaurateur from Philadelphia. Starr is a big deal up North: He started out running nightclubs and is known for his showmanship; he has partnered with famous Japanese chef Morimoto on a couple of projects, and his new Steak 954 at the W Hotel in Fort Lauderdale is his 19th restaurant, following Buddakan, Morimoto, Alma de Cuba, Pod, Tangerine, the Continental, and Barclay Prime, among others. Starr himself is rich as Croesus, and I don't need to tell you that keeping 19 restaurants afloat is tougher than juggling jellyfish.
The remark that Starr made in an old interview was that he saw himself as being a soldier fighting a war against food critics. I had a merry time blogging about this metaphor and also discoursing on the $100 Kobe cheese steak on 954's menu. I thought Starr's whole high-end steak-house concept was hackneyed, and I didn't see a damned thing on the published menu that looked even remotely interesting: onion soup, whipped potatoes, bronzino, duck breast, New York strip: yawn and yawn.
Not that I was alone: There's a core of Starr-haters in Philadelphia who regularly report on his restaurants' mediocrity.
So I took five people to 954 for dinner last week. Not one of us found a single dish, or even a single element of a dish, to be less than spectacular. It was an interesting and delicious meal from a beginning of Kobe sliders and crab cakes to an ending of sticky toffee pudding and Vietnamese coffee.
The new W is delightful and forbidding in equal parts. There's something in those vast expanses of gray stone and concrete that recalls basements of industrial buildings, an austerity that leaves the hotel feeling unfinished, as if workmen had just now ripped off the dust cloths and scurried away. But there's a fierce visual interest in the lighting, which ranges from floating neon halos over the outside entrance to tiny lamps hung on long, long filaments. In the foyer of the restaurant, there's the much ballyhooed aquarium full of jellyfish illuminated by blacklights, mesmerizing anyone coming or going. Water, water is everywhere. The total effect at 954 is subtle: It's only a medium-sized jellyfish tank, after all, and the rest of the place is composed of muted beige and gray and turquoise against a wall of glass overlooking the ocean. Tasteful and elegant — nothing like the circus act I'd expected from hearing the hype about Mr. Starr. Only the thumpy club music, on a relaxed night with the restaurant half-empty, seemed jarring.
Jason Smith was hired away last March from Table 8 in Miami, where he worked with Govind Armstrong, to be chef de cuisine; and pastry chef Tai Chopping's last gig was at the Batali/Bastianich production Del Posto in New York, where Chopping was a much-beloved fixture of sweets. Hiring these two is the equivalent of controlling the center of your chessboard with a well-positioned queen and a castle: It's hard to see how you could fail with such talent in the kitchen.
The dinner menu is relatively straightforward. The point is to take some rather tarnished culinary pennies, dull from long use in many hands, and make them shine as if they were newly minted Krugerrands. We didn't order anything from the raw bar, but based on the quality of what we ate, my hunch is that the oysters, local shrimp, Maine lobster, and red snapper are the best your money can buy. We shared appetizers around the table: "original Kobe sliders" ($16), the odd sounding big-eye tuna and foie gras tacos ($19 for three), and a crab cake ($18).
Let's start with the sliders. Starr has perfected these at his Philadelphia eatery Barclay Prime, and they are one of his signature dishes that I haven't heard a peep of complaint about. You get two (that's eight bucks a swallow), and they're terrific: set on buttery little brioche buns with little else to distract from the steamed, chopped Kobe. One of them has a little layer of sweet, carmelized onions, the other a bit of savory melted Gruyère. Our expert burgermeister judged them some of the best she'd ever eaten. The crab cake too was perfectly executed: all crab, no filler, with a lightly crackling, buttery crust. And the tacos were the big surprise — tuna plus foie gras sounds mildly gross. It isn't, though, because the foie gras mousse is laid on with a light hand, so it adds depth and richness without overwhelming the mild, savory tuna. A drizzle of avocado aioli against the crispness of a perfectly made tortilla shell and you're in business.
These are lovely little snacks as an accompaniment to a menu of inventive cocktails (all around $10). My favorite was one made with vodka and ginger beer, which had a spicy-sour bite.
Our main courses were equally good. The 14-ounce bone-in veal chop ($43) and 16-ounce dry-aged New York strip ($47) both had a nicely caramelized crust and were cooked to temp, seasoned to the verge of being oversalted. I preferred the veal chop, so tender and milky and sweet. We ate these with deeply sautéed mushrooms ($8) and gratin potatoes scented with truffle oil ($9). My favorite entrée of the night was a whole filleted bronzino ($34) served with pretty baby carrots, artichokes, and fava beans; but black cod in miso broth with bright-green baby bok choy ($27) was a contender. We also had a chopped salad ($11) full of crisp, fresh carrots, tomatoes, and peppers, tossed in a zingy Italian dressing.
I didn't try the outrageously priced cheese steak, but I discovered the reality is far, far worse than I thought. The $245 Kobe porterhouse Starr is hawking makes the cheese steak look like an affordable splurge — and maybe that's part of the psychology.
Desserts went beyond even our by-now-heightened expectations. They were true works of dexterous and charming art, delectable to look at and to eat. A beautiful little pineapple soufflé ($10) came accompanied by homemade pineapple ice cream — it had the soufflé's lightness coupled with the solid creamy richness of bread pudding, and both had layers and layers of flavors that were familiar and hard to identify (there was a bit of sugar-coated fennel frond, for example, and a looping, crunchy squiggle of very thin candy.) A sticky toffee pudding tower ($8), neither too cloying nor too dense, was accompanied by a scoop of pomegranate sorbet. We agreed that these too were some of the best desserts we'd ever tasted.
There isn't another restaurant in South Florida in this league if you've got a yen for pricey meat, fresh seafood, and potatoes. The service was wonderful too. The true test will come with longevity: Will Starr and company be able to keep up this level of service and food? But for now, at least, I'm gonna shut up and eat.
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