The flamenco guitarist stands on a small podium between sidewalk tables at Café del Mar. The fingernails on his right hand resemble Lee Press-Ons, thanks to a talon-sharp file and a bottle of clear nail polish, and he uses them to pick complicated patterns while alternately holding the instrument over his head, behind his back, and even the conventional way. A karaoke backbeat provides accompaniment loud enough to require patrons to shout and still be misunderstood by the waitstaff. An assistant trains a spotlight on the musician and keeps it glued to him as he wanders from his perch into the middle of Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, where he stops traffic as effectively as a Brinks truck leaking cash. An associate hawks the three CDs he has recorded.
After returning to the podium, he is joined by the CD vendor; she doubles as a dancer who wears less clothing than Britney Spears (not counting the colorful fishnets wrapped around her various body parts). A fan blows back her oil-black hair while she valiantly stomps and vogues as he strenuously strums and sweats. Nearly the entire evening, they both ignore an elderly customer who frolics next to them so gleefully that he could be playing a bit part in a movie like Moonstruck or My Big Fat Greek Wedding; he is a regular, a true fan who comes to Café del Mar every night despite his 80-odd years. His fervor seems to infuriate the dancer in particular, who grimaces profoundly. But the diners, who don't have to put up with him night after spotlight-stealing night, shout encouragement. The show, it seems, is everything at this sidewalk café, and this customer's enthusiasm, regardless of whether it's welcomed by the performers, is both courageous and contagious.
In fact, there is a distinct vibe here that even jaded folks who fondly recall the Fort Lauderdale Strip days should acknowledge. The truly talented guitarist plays flamenco tunes as if he's channeling the Gipsy Kings. The dancer, though not as gifted, projects an amusing cattiness.
It's too bad the polish and energy fail to extend to the fare.
Open for about six months in the former Evangeline's oceanside setting, Café del Mar bills itself as Mediterranean. Certainly that designation is in keeping with the name, a highly popular one I've seen employed by eateries ranging from a French seafood place in Miami to a Greek taverna in Naoussa, a village on Paros (an Aegean island where my husband proposed about, well... a lot of years ago).
But this incarnation of Café del Mar, which offers a range of pedestrian salads, antipastos, and pastas, is more strictly Italian than it wants the foot traffic to believe. Sorry, but I have the same reaction to this kind of food as to dancers who pose and pout: Yawn. Show me something more novel than chicken parmesan or even a basic dish that is supremely done -- said chicken parmesan was fine, but there was no special zing -- and I'll be back for more than dancing on the table.
Café del Mar can't yet claim preeminence based on cooking skills alone. The dishes we sampled ran the gamut from eh? to OK, but nothing impressed us beyond measure, aside from the guitarist's many flicks of the wrist per millisecond. A bruschetta trio was singularly unimpressive. Described as "giabatta" (could they mean ciabatta?) -- bread grilled and combined with three toppings -- the dish comprises six small slices of toast. Two each were topped with tomatoes and basil, shredded arugula in vinaigrette, and an assortment of roasted vegetables. None of the concoctions proved particularly vibrant, maybe because, in such a simple dish, the ingredients are supposed to promote themselves. Mushy tomatoes, bitter arugula, and unrecognizable bits of squash and eggplant that even the server couldn't identify don't make much of an impression.
The same biting arugula garnished the bresaolo carpaccio, almost overwhelming the thinly sliced, cured beef. The slightly dry meat, imported from Valtellina, Italy, was dressed with a touch of golden olive oil and a grind or two of white pepper, both of which enhanced the bresaolo's somewhat smoky flavor. Next time, I hope the kitchen opts for younger greenery that can provide a more pleasantly flavored counterpoint. After all, the tangle of greens under a marinated seafood salad, rife with supple calamari rings, mussels, and small but succulent shrimp, was tender and mild. Indeed, for about $9, this generous serving can suffice as a light meal or an appetizer to share.
The pastas are also plentiful, though I'd forgo the porcini mushroom risotto. It tasted muddy rather than earthy, the grains of rice simultaneously lumpy and mushy. An advertised "truffle essence" seemed conspicuously absent, as did salt and pepper. We fared better with a ground sirloin-heavy rigatoni Bolognese, a hearty country dish that was flawed only by the addition of too much olive oil.
Main courses are limited to two chicken, two meat, and three seafood dishes. Of the fish plates, the "Snapper del Mar" was something of a misnomer. Described on the menu as a whole baked fish, it arrived as two tail-on fillets that appeared pan-fried. We thought it a bit overdone and somewhat high-end on the price scale for a locally sourced, ultra-common fish. But the taste was sweet and fresh, bolstered by a saffron-flavored cream sauce studded with tomatoes; it provided more sustenance than the overly buttered Basmati rice and the carrots that accompanied it.
If no entrées appeal, check the blackboard at the patio entrance. There, you can glean specials like an herb-flavored rack of lamb that suffered just a bit from being too fatty. Unfortunately, noise and lack of server concentration may prohibit you from obtaining these offerings. We had to ask for the specials of the day, and even then we couldn't quite hear the descriptions.
Café del Mar has good qualities beyond the flamenco. The management has a sense of humor, asking whether we wanted to sit at the "AT&T table," where we could reach out and touch someone. The wine list, an international collection, features some reasonably priced Italians such as the Ca Bianca Gavi di Gavi for $29 and Castello Banfi's Rosso di Montalcino, a young Brunello, for $33. True wine aficionados will want to note the collection of Amarone, Barolo, and Super-Tuscan vintages ranging from $50 to $100-plus. Compared to the rest of the wine menu, these might sound pricey, but they're actually a terrific value for little-seen wines in these parts.
If it sounds like Café del Mar might have more appeal for the Fort Lauderdale Strip enthusiast than the wine snob, however, that's because it does. Witness the extensive list of frozen drinks, made with Fat Tuesday mixes and poured into oversized martini glasses that could double as fish bowls. When you consider the see-and-be-seen, cruisy nature of Café del Mar and Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard in general, this makes the eatery a match as fitting as, say, guitarists and manicures.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.