Voodka in Fort Lauderdale: Style Over Substance
"Wee are Fwench, so can you please speek a liddle beet slowlee?" a 30-something mother asked of her waiter as he requested their dinner order.
"That's great!" the stocky, sweating, bald-headed server exclaimed. "We're sort of a French restaurant; the owner is French."
It was almost impossible to take the comment seriously, even if it wasn't directed at us. Moments before the exchange, we had peeled back the crimson napkin covering a breadbasket to reveal slices of a half-cooked sesame loaf with gummy centers. Whoever cut it didn't share the same reverence for bread as the French, who know better than to smush down a hot loaf while divvying it up. French cooking, for all its complexity and elegance, is as much about perfecting the basics — a crispy baguette, an unbroken beurre blanc sauce — as it is about perfectly deboning a duck, stuffing it, and baking it in a flaky pastry crust à la Julia Child.
Voodka on East Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale is described as a "Transcontinental Brasserie" but has followed a path similar to many of the restaurants that have come and gone in the neighborhood: throw a bunch of overpriced, trendy-sounding food against a wall and see what sticks.
A few minutes after talking up the French family, the waiter could be overheard bragging about the restaurant's cheeseburger to another table brimming with tourists.
On his word, we selected the foie gras burger ($29). The trend of combining the pricey, ultraluxe fattened duck liver with an unassuming hamburger began with superstar chef Daniel Boulud at his DB Bistro Moderne in New York City. Voodka's rendition sounded enticing, but what arrived was a too-thick, overcooked patty on a dense bun studded with slivers of rosemary. A healthy portion of the fattened duck liver was well-seared and covered in a bland demi-glace, but all of the richness was lost in between the tough meat and bun.
Voodka opened in early December, and judging by menus that were posted online then by third parties — the restaurant has no website or presence on social media at the time — has already overhauled its menu. A few seafood dishes have been added, a steak tartare was removed, and pork egg rolls ($12) were swapped for a "tuna tartar." The disk of unseasoned rice, topped with diced creamy avocado and raw tuna, was eerily similar to a dish at the popular Yard House chain of restaurants, which has several locations across South Florida.
No one could explain how a hyper-Americanized Japanese dish ended up in a restaurant with gaudy décor reminiscent of a Russian Mob front and a menu that looked like European catchall.
Co-owner Dan Ellia categorizes the restaurant as "international fusion" and notes he and chef Tim Baker will be altering the menu every three months.
The name Voodka would seem to hint at Russian cuisine or a cocktail-focused menu, and the restaurant does advertise flights of vodka served with caviar, but Ellia, in a thick French accent, characterized the menu thusly: "A little bit of American food, fish, meat, a touch of French. I would say it's like the Cheesecake Factory."
That was a strange comparison to draw, considering Ellia says he was born and raised in Paris and managed restaurants there as well as a now-closed South Florida French eatery.
Meat and fish have been the most popular choices for diners, Ellia notes. Yet a half-roasted chicken ($22) was dry and underseasoned, with a chewy skin that should've been crispy and salty. All entrées come with a side of truffled mashed potatoes and blistered green beans tossed in olive oil, crunchy sliced almonds, and bacon lardons.
Ellia seems confused when asked why all of the sides are the same, saying, "We just put on the plate what people love the most. It's easy, and people like it."
The sides were the only things not left on our plates, as servers, who were attentive but often forced to apologize for a slow kitchen, cleared them away.
The "Italian" risotto with grilled shrimp ($27) also went mostly uneaten. Four large, tail-on shrimp were well-seasoned with just a bit of char from the grill. Yet the Arborio rice was undercooked, making each mouthful gritty and crunchy, while the Parmesan cream sauce was screaming for salt or another ladleful of veal jus.
Voodka's menu was expansive to the point of being intimidating. Several heavy laminated pages were bound inside a blood-red snakeskin cover. There were sections for soups, salads, appetizers, pasta, risotto, "From the Land," "From the Sea," burgers, a kids' section, and dessert. Despite the menu's thickness, we found the kitchen out of many items on two nights.
On one visit, my guest requested the $24, nine-ounce fillet of Scottish salmon, but the grouper en papillote ($29) was the only one of four fish options available. The traditional French preparation calls for a delicate whitefish steamed inside a gossamer paper bag. We received a hulking, unseasoned, dried-out grouper fillet steamed inside a crumbling banana leaf with a lemony cream sauce and bland dome of jasmine rice.
On a second visit, we requested a half-dozen escargots only to learn that the garlic- and butter-soaked snails were also unavailable.
As tourists strolled up and down East Las Olas Boulevard, many couldn't help themselves from stopping and staring inside the restaurant's opulent interior. The large room is divided by a dark-wood and glass service station that forces most servers to hover about in plain sight. Most of the room is wrapped in exposed brick covered with framed black-and-white photos of everything from Marilyn Monroe to the Eiffel Tower. Glittering chandeliers hang from smoke-gray ceilings adorned with ornate, olive-vine moulding. Greco-style columns run the length of the room, and most diners are afforded the opportunity to dine while seated in quilted, oversized gray couches.
Yet the couches are too low for the large tables and forced us to sit upright at the edge of our seats while eating. Still, it was pleasant to sit back and relax while we waited, in one instance more than a half-hour, for our meals to arrive. There were even fleece blankets, which came in handy on a rare blustery South Florida evening.
The opposite side of the room was all high-top seating surrounding a small L-shaped bar. Behind it is a trio of flat-screen televisions divided by inlaid wall columns all back-lit with a purple/pink glow.
A lone female singer helped attract attention as she circled the room, softly cooing love songs in perfect pitch into a rhinestone-encrusted microphone. Clad in a metallic, form-fitting magenta dressed that matched her shoulder-length hair, she was yet another over-the-top accent designed to lure in unsuspecting passersby.
We suggest you keep walking.
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