Ah, the benefits of a music education. Now, I'm not such an advocate that I believe anyone can learn to play an instrument. I'm not so sure that Mozart makes you better in math. I don't think that all babies are born with perfect pitch and that tone-deafness is only a bad habit learned from those who sing to infants out-of-key (who were themselves sung to by folks who can't carry a tune). Or that violent lyrics can stimulate savagery, while soothing tones will have an opposite effect.
But general knowledge of music -- how to hear it, read it, or play it -- makes such an impression on memory that Alzheimer's patients who have lost the ability to speak can still sing. I'm grateful on a daily basis for my own musical studies, from which I gain uncountable returns that aid me in my culinary goals. For instance, playing the flute has enabled me to hold my breath underwater long enough to retrieve the mangoes that fall into the drain at the deep end of my pool. The guitar has toughened my fingertips so much that I can grab a hot baked potato from the oven without mitts. And training in vocal techniques has given me insight into why restaurants such as Forté Jazz Café are, on many different levels, so aptly named.
In terms of musical direction, forte means that a passage is to be played loudly or forcefully. The word's other definitions imply power and intensity as well -- a forte is one's best point, and it's also the part of a sword that is stronger than others.
Fort Jazz Caf
429 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. till 11 p.m. Call 954-467-6788.
As far as Forté Jazz Café goes, the moniker makes good on all three: About six weeks new, located on the Intracoastal next to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the restaurant is a resonant indoor-outdoor presence, where live music vies with the gentle lapping waves. Executive chef Mike Smith's brightly composed American regional fare makes a dramatic statement (reflected, it must be said, on your final bill).
Like its sibling, Harbour Grille in Dania Point, this restaurant's interior is pleasant if a bit starchy and overchilled. Still, the real attraction is the outdoor dining, where a casual bar dominates one end of the dock and linen-covered tables fill in the rest of the space. The only drawback to sitting outside versus in, aside from the occasional rainstorm, is that the lights from the Swimming Hall of Fame, when they're activated, tend to blind the patrons facing east toward Seabreeze Boulevard. But events and meets that might cause such a problem are rare enough to be easily avoided.
Should the fluorescence become a nuisance, servers are willing to accommodate you. We did encounter a swim meet one evening and changed our table a few times before finally settling for a view that wasn't the equivalent of staring straight into the sun. The waitstaff was fairly patient about the whole thing; after all, the servers have to gaze into the glare too. And while they could use some more seasoning -- specials read off the back of notepads leads me to believe that the servers don't learn the fare by tasting it -- the dining experience here is more elegant and upscale than you might at first suspect, yet set to that evocative, relaxing South Florida beat.
Chef Smith's appetizers draw influences from Asia to New Orleans, with items ranging from Asian-spiced and sesame-seed-dusted tuna, served in a fluted rice paper shell (think taco salad), to oysters La Forté, a take on oysters Rockefeller. The former boasted rare pieces of seared tuna, adorned with Japanese condiments: citrus-ponzu sauce, pickled ginger, and wasabi. A bed of wakame salad, sliced into "noodles," added some welcome texture to the tuna. As for the oysters, they were delectably fresh and inventive, topped with an artichoke-spinach "mousse" and shrimp, then glazed with béarnaise. If such richness were a sound rather than a taste, it would be a smooth, velvety tenor.
Salads play a major role in the starters. Jumbo shrimp stuffed with lump crabmeat and yuca (a pleasing alternative to breadcrumbs) were accompanied by tomato-basil and tropical fruit salads. More like a salsa, the mango-papaya mixture carried through the local, Caribbean theme, and the spiced tomatoes were an interesting alternative. If these two roads forked in the wood, though, I would take the one lined with tropical fruit trees.
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That said, I'd probably leave the tropical mixed salad behind. A veritable orchestra of mixed baby greens and multihued grape tomatoes, the salad's quality was unimpeachable, a crisp ode to gardens everywhere. But a billed roasted-corn-and-hearts-of-palm vinaigrette was too subtle for the slightly nutty-bitter greens, and the vinaigrette lacked emulsification of the ingredients, leaving the hearts of palm and kernels of corn as a scatter of garnish that added no flavor to the dressing.
Regardless, the majority of the main courses display classical training and technique. The results are remodeled dishes that benefit from education and still manage to be contemporary -- the culinary equivalent of pop singers who studied opera. Grilled breast of duckling, a succulent medium-rare, was partnered with a particularly accomplished duck confit, then updated with sweet potato pancakes and a vibrant but not overweening ginger-honey sauce. Exceptional rack of lamb, slow-roasted and crusted with a familiar combo of mustard and herbs, was sweetened with pear relish and moistened with an aromatic rosemary-Cabernet reduction. As for beef Wellington, it comprised an entire filet, ruched with smooth paté and an earthy duxelle of mushrooms. The foresty flavors of juicy beef, liver, and mushrooms were contrasted perfectly with a tender pastry lid and a dusky wine sauce. Sounds delicious, but not so modern? Scan down the list of main courses and you'll discover the same preparation made completely with vegetarian ingredients: tempeh (soy), grilled eggplant, zucchini, squash, and tomato, smothered in a broccoli sauce. Not a bad way to forego the flesh, I'd say.
Those who've sworn off beef could also indulge in a variety of fish and seafood compositions with a ton of local temptation, including Florida spiny lobster with a cumin drizzle and saffron-lime sauce or baked, stuffed grouper with jumbo lump crabmeat, a touch of Reggiano cheese, and a swirl of key lime beurre blanc. I'd give first chair to the Atlantic mahi-mahi, baked to ultimate tenderness with a garlicky rum sauce in a banana leaf. A mélange of garnishes, most notably caramelized plantains and roasted-root vegetables, also featured a rummy flair, but a portion of annatto-scented rice helped cut the sweet alcoholic notes of the dish.
Which of course meant that despite stomachs being sated, palates get primed for dessert. We encountered the chef one evening when he hand-delivered an apple tart we hadn't ordered, then again when he brought us the correct almond tuile piled high with strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries in sabayon. As a bonus, he let us keep the apple tart, though it reminded us of a rewarmed Danish and paled in comparison to the mixed berries. He then surveyed the dining room and deck and greeted other customers, willingly engaging in conversation about himself, his menu, and the restaurant. Quite honestly, I haven't seen an executive chef in Fort Lauderdale leave his lair since... well, when I remember, I'll let you know. Until then, you'll find me singing the praises of Forté as forte as my lungs allow.