The All New Same Old
Of all the foodist trends to come and go in recent years, the one I'm fervently hoping will survive the swings of fortune and fashion is the fancy cocktail. I'm happy to report that in the couple of decades since New York bartender and mad scientist Dale DeGroff first poked his nose into an ancient tome called The Bon Vivant's Companion, the "cocktail revolution" shows no signs of flagging. The Companion, first published in 1862, contains, as we learn on the frontispiece:
"Clear and Reliable Directions for Mixing all the Beverages Used in the United States... Embracing Punches, Juleps, Cobblers, etc., etc., etc., in Endless Variety."
DeGroff, who was working at the Rainbow Room, took inspiration from this bible of booze and began experimenting with infusions, liqueurs, and freshly squeezed juices. Twenty years later, contemporary "mixologists" are as gung-ho as ever, aided by a spirits industry that's producing new flavored vodkas, variations on the theme of absinthe, velvet falernum, Creole gingembre, cachaça, and cordials redolent of melon, pomegranate, rose petals, and pear.
DeGroff begat a second generation of barmeisters, and one of them was Nick Mautone. Mautone, along with New York restaurateur Don Pintabona, were the consulting angels who launched Trina restaurant at the Atlantic Hotel in Fort Lauderdale four years ago. Trina is one of a small handful of showcase restaurants in Lauderdale — youthful, upwardly mobile, swank, and ambitious (3030 Ocean, Johnny V, and Cero are in this category), and it shares with Johnny V, at least, a cacophony of fans and detractors so divided in their praise and criticism that the buzz has come to sound like religion or politics. For the most part, it seems to me, there was general agreement when the place opened that here was the sort of restaurant Fort Lauderdale aspired to — a gastronomic gauntlet thrown at the feet of Miami. "Take that," Trina seemed to say in dulcet tones of lavender syrup and verjus. "Fort Lauderdale has arrived."
Trina owed its reputation in no small part to Mautone's cocktail, beer, and wine lists — handily the most sophisticated in the city. And Pintabona had done something intriguing with the menu — centering it on his family's native Sicily and drawing influences from Greece and Africa. There were tagines, lamb, and roasted tomato flatbreads, Marcona almond soups, grilled octopus, his grandmother's recipe for cavatelli updated with duck and mushrooms. Not every dish was a winner, but at least it held your interest. But Pintabona and his crew have moved on. A little over a year ago, chef Brian Kay was wooed away from Hot Tin Roof in Key West, where he'd been turning out fanciful "conch fusion" dishes (I remember roasted corn quesadillas rolled up like ice cream cones and served in a rack; bites of seafood ensconced in tiny bowls hung from an iron swing set) to head Trina's kitchen. Moroccan-born Farid Oualidi was brought over from the French-Med La Cigale in Delray Beach, where he'd been head chef, to work as Kay's sous. Word was circulated that the menu had been reshaped, scrapping Sicilian and moving toward all-embracing Mediterranean. Kay kept some of Pintabona's originals, particularly the flatbreads, got rid of most of the pastas, and nudged the menu into the mainstream with entrées of salmon, grouper, steaks, rack of lamb, roast chicken, and Chilean sea bass. The emphasis on seafood remains intact, but for the most part, Pintabona's unique vision has been smudged out.
For a hotel restaurant, where you've got fabulously wealthy guests from all over the place jonesing for their filet mignon and escargots, this might be a savvy move — but it's a sad loss for the Fort Lauderdale culinary scene. You can't throw a wet grouper around here without hitting a restaurant serving, well, grouper. Or "bouillabaisse." Or rack of lamb. Or, as we found on Trina's special Dine Out Lauderdale menu (a prix fixe served Sunday through Thursday until November 15 for $35), braised short ribs and duck confit. The revamped Trina is so firmly of the culinary moment that it's practically erased itself; it becomes one of the faceless many, like those girls you see tottering around Himmarshee on a Saturday night in identical outfits with identical hairdos.
Only the cocktail list retains its natty, inimitable swagger. None of the original drinks are still on this list, but the new ones are just as fun and brainy. Even the signature Trinatini has been gently revised (probably with costs in mind) — it used to be made of vodka, mandarin napoleon, fresh lemon juice, lavender syrup, and pomegranate molasses; now the recipe calls for vodka, gran gala (Italian orange brandy), lemon juice, lavender, and clove. There's a delicious lowball called the Moroccan Odyssey made from cachaça sugar-cane liquor, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, fresh orange syrup, and lime — zingy and sour and all too easy to put away; the "garcito" whips together vodka, crème de cassis, basil syrup, and lychee; a drink called "I Like..." takes jalapeño-infused vodka and softens it up with peach liqueur and peach purée, pineapple juice, and honey. You want to drink your way right down the list and then start from the bottom and work your way back up. They're worth every penny of their $12 price tags.
Now to the apps. We ordered a couple of Pintabona originals on a recent visit: the lamb flatbread ($16) and the grilled octopus ($13); a special of hot bluepoint oysters served in their shell with wilted leeks, champagne, and cream ($30); and a starter from the Dine Out menu, heirloom tomato napoleon with Manchego cheese. That lamb flatbread, a square, thinly crusted pizza topped with roasted tomatoes, feta, and onions sautéed with balsamic vinegar and ground lamb, is as vibrant as it ever was: the tomatoes sugary as candy, the feta full of bite and salt. There's sweet 'n' sour in the wilted onions, and the lamb is forcefully barnyardy; it's all held together by a wheaty cracker of a crust. This is one of a quartet of flatbreads offered at lunch and dinner — the rock shrimp, chorizo, and rapini I once loved is no longer with us, but the new alternatives are shrimp and clam; tomato, basil, and mozzarella; or chorizo, tomato, and Manchego. And though the half-dozen oysters were very dear at $30, they were delicious too — big bluepoint shells each holding a good slurp of what tasted like a fancy oyster stew, a creamy, luxurious, liquored-up broth, like well-seasoned satin, with the prize of a voluptuous oyster at the end of it — we tipped them right from shell to mouth, and they were terrific. Of all the new regime's revisions, this dish showed the most flair and imagination.
I have no idea what awful thing has happened to Pintabona's original recipe for grilled octopus. It's been three years since I had this dish, but I remember it as light and lemony, with a slightly charrish flavor from the grill and grassy with flecks of fresh oregano. Kay's version has exactly the same ingredients: fingerling potatoes, oregano, and sherry vinegar — but it's heavy and flat and ill-willed, reeking of dried oregano and garlic, the octopus overpowered by its mushy sauce. Blech. As for the heirloom tomato "napoleon," it looked nice enough but was really just a salad made vertical — onions, ripe tomatoes, Manchego. Tasty enough, nothing special. And the best thing about it, the layered presentation, fell apart at the first forkful.
Our entrées were uneven too. The Dine Out offering, duck confit with white beans, registered no more than a two on the flavor meter. This mild, soft duck meat needed something sharp, crisp, or salty to set it off — and although the beans had picked up some flavoring from the stock they'd been cooked in, they needed more oomph. None of the Dine Out offerings are taken from the regular menu — Trina has developed an entirely new set of dishes with an eye on costs (those short ribs, as so many restaurants have discovered, are real penny pinchers), and I think that's a mistake — the idea is to give folks a taste so they'll come back for more. Nothing I tried on the Flavor menu would bring me back for a second helping.
Our roasted black grouper ($29) too was ultrabland — overcooked in some spots, underseasoned, and with an almost watery texture, as if it had spent better days in the freezer. A bed of spinach and mashed potatoes beneath it felt pretty standard, although a silky pinot grigio sauce added a sophisticated note. Only the lobster and sea-scallop "risotto" ($34; the risotto is made of orzo) felt like it was up to the task of fine dining — butter-poached lobster tail and some seriously delicious sautéed scallops, rich and juicy, melded into the sweet, slightly gaseous flavors of truffle oil and asparagus and tuned up with a drizzling of blood-orange beurre blanc.
Of all the kvetching I've heard about Trina, the most vituperative has been aimed at the service. Even Pintabona confided when I interviewed him in the early days that finding good servers in South Florida was his biggest challenge. I've had service there that was OK, service that was hapless, and once enjoyed the attentions of a waiter working at the top of his game. On our last visit, service was nearly faultless, delayed cocktails and a missing appetizer only small blips in an otherwise excellent performance, and these gaffes were alleviated by an extra pour of rosé in an empty glass, gratis. Our waiter was beautifully poised, listing ingredients and reciting specials, offering enthusiastic recommendations and gracefully orchestrating the movement and flow of dishes. It was a slow, midweek night, so he and the general manager had plenty of time to lavish on us — but if they can keep it up in season and during busy weekends, they'll have the problem licked.
Would I go back to Trina? Or recommend that you do? Certainly. We'd sit on the patio overlooking the ocean, chewing contentedly on a warm flatbread or a dish of oysters, drinking cocktails transmuted from the feverish dreams of the resident mixologist. Afterward, we'd choose a couple of stogies from the equally excellent cigar menu. We'd be bon vivants. And we wouldn't want for anything, just maybe another round.
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.