What Would Bruno Eat?
I should have been researching schnitzel and strudel recipes, but I got sidetracked by YouTube video clips: Sasha Baron Cohen's fey-gay Austrian fashion-victim "Bruno" interviewing homo-hating Pastor Quinn of Little Rock, Arkansas, about the etiquette of showering in groups. Or Bruno torturing college wrestlers on Daytona Beach with faggy allusions. Or wielding the velvet rope like a truncheon at Miami's Crobar ("You're not dressed right. Go and change your shirt, make an effort, this is a nightclub not, like, a shopping mall"). I laughed until my stomach was so sore I had to medicate with cold leftover venison and pomegranate glacé straight from the fridge.
If Baron Cohen's wince-inducing Bruno epitomizes everything that might possibly go wrong with Austrian youth bad hair, terrible manners Josef Schibanetz, originator of that divine pomegranate-venison dish and chef/owner of Josef's, epitomizes everything absolutely right with Austrian grownups. Over the four years that they've been open in Plantation, Beth and Josef Schibanetz have created an adult-centric food fantasyland, a compact and serene landscape of soft lighting, subtle wall paintings, and Austro-Italian-inspired décor, cuisine, and wine not that you'd guess it as you zoomed past yet another faceless strip mall on your way to the middle of nowhere. The regular customers at Josef's and there are many are a fiercely loyal bunch, given to ganging up in blog-land on anybody who dares issue a harsh word against the place. With good reason. I agree with many of them who think Josef's is one of the best restaurants in Broward; maybe due to its small size and remote location, it's certainly one of the most hospitable. Beth, who runs the front of the house, greets diners by name and seems to have filed her customers' preferences for table location, wine, and seafood in the expansive recesses of her heart.
I've been thinking about good manners lately, after a public flaying by my sister last weekend as we sat in a toity Boston eatery. Restaurant meals en famille inevitably end in heartburn, if not tearful blow-outs in the bathroom; this time my sin was forking up a wolf-fish filet with my left hand. According to my Emily-Post-channeling sibling, Americans must only eat right-handed anything else is wrong, wrong! Brits and Europeans fork with their left, but they have to keep tines facing ....oh, forget it. That's one definition of good manners, anyway. Another version is a little easier to navigate; the only rule you have to follow is to make the people around you feel as warm, as relaxed, and as comfortable as possible, no matter how they're wielding their utensils. It's the opposite of what "Bruno" does to his squirming, sacrificial interview subjects. At Josef's, Beth Schibanetz emanates a higher power of graciousness. As you settle into your table, you feel your heart rate dropping like a swami's. You can actually forget yourself, your flaws, and your failings for ten minutes and pay attention, instead, to the truffle-stuffed ravioli.
Josef's has something else going for it: It's the only restaurant in our vicinity serving a menu inspired by a region of Italy all but unexplored by tourists: Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and its major city, Trieste. This northeastern coastal province has been yanked around by first one country then another for hundreds of years it was first Roman, then it was gobbled up by the Austrian Hapsburgs (interspersed with brief reigns by the Spanish, French, and Venetians). It was annexed to communist Yugoslavia under Tito after WWII, wrenched back by the American military during the cold war, shaped by waves of Greek and Turkish immigrants, and finally returned to Italy in 1963. The Schibanetzes get back there whenever they can, scouting for new wines and ingredients. Josef's menu embodies the region's spirit of cultural revisionism, and also Austrian-born chef Schibanetz's peripatetic schooling in kitchens from Brennan's New Orleans to the galleys of Holland America cruise lines.
Josef Schibanetz, whom we spotted when he occasionally ventured out of the kitchen, a big, graying bear emerging from his den to peer quizzically through eyeglasses perched on his nose, has come up with many outstanding concoctions. Offerings change daily and seasonally, so you might find anything from frog legs to ahi tuna on the menu's "suggestions for tonight." But all the dishes venture well past conventionality. The ahi tuna steak is served with a grilled Portobello mushroom, goat cheese, and Sicilian tomatoes; fiocchi is stuffed with four cheeses taleggio, robiola, ricotta, grana padano and roasted pear. He tosses Austrian-style spaetzle with speck, sage, and caramelized onions. Fresh burrata, a pillowy, creamy white cheese imported from Puglia, is served with beefsteak tomatoes and roasted peppers. You might start with a shrimp casserole laced with grappa and Edam cheese, or a crispy soft-shelled crab dusted with pistachio and served with fennel salad. And while blackened Louisiana red fish and Maine lobster stuffed with shrimp and crab might seem a long way from northern Italy, the spirit of experiment and the freshness of ingredients is as cosmopolitan as the city of Trieste itself.
We ordered the soup and the seafood of the day for starters: a beautifully light spinach soup ($6.50), its clear, bracing broth emanating garlicky vapors, and a plate of smoked trout ($12) with a peppery mustard sauce. The trout was firm, sweet, and moist, with echoes of forests and winter fires; beside it, a single emerald-green leaf of pristine and buttery head lettuce. Other appetizers include sautéed calamari with hot peppers, white wine and tomatoes, and a hazelnut-crusted warm goat cheese salad with a lemon-honey-hazelnut vinaigrette. Prices on appetizers range from $8 to $14.
An autumnal entrée of rare, roasted loin of venison ($35) had been seasoned and seared; the medallions were paired with a tart baked pear topped with gorgonzola and a bright ruby-red sauce of pomegranates. This dish was full of sharp flavors, its colors and textures as varied as a northern fall landscape. The sweet-sour flavor of pomegranate held its own against the rich, head-clearing cheese; the assertive, salty venison played off the mound of buttery whipped potatoes. Luscious. A pounded and butterflied veal chop ($36), prepared Milanese style with a coating of egg, breadcrumbs, parmesan, and herbs, came topped with the simplest accompaniment: a flawless green salad tossed in olive oil and vinegar, and a half-lemon to squeeze over it. This may have been the most beautiful veal chop I've ever been served in a restaurant a creamy-pale interior of delicately seasoned meat under a perfect home-style Milanese crust. A side dish, served family style, of snappy French beans, roasted potatoes, and lightly charred red peppers was impeccably presented, each vegetable basking in its own unique flavor. Tables around us were tucking into chicken baked in a clay terrine, plates of pan-fried wiener schnitzel, crisp halves of honey-roasted duck with pine nuts, and herb-roasted rack of lamb.
Desserts change seasonally too a berry tart, a flourless chocolate cake, a scoop of homemade basil-mint gelato. We went with the classic, a charming twist on the apple strudel ($8.50). Layers of baked apple come balanced between the thinnest, flakiest sheets of brittle pastry I've ever seen, dusted with granulated sugar, vanilla sauce pooling in its crevices and hollows. And after we'd polished that off, one final touch a little plate of two complimentary chocolate-dipped strawberries arrived.
This month, Josef's has opened for lunch on Thursdays and Fridays only an experiment Beth says they'll continue if they get enough traffic. Some of the dinner items appear at lunch: veal Milanese, the homemade fiocchi, along with new offerings like an apple and fresh mozzarella tart, and a lump crabmeat cake. Prices are in the $10-$15 range.
This is deceptively simple food, put together with utmost care. The personality and freshness of home-cooking are paired with the sure hand of an accomplished chef. Twenty years ago driving through Austria, we stopped, late, at a remote inn where the host and hostess roused themselves to serve us dinner in an empty, darkened dining room. We got the feeling we were their only guests for the night, but the supper they brought us tasted clean and clear, like the Austrian alpine air outside their open windows, and they welcomed us in spite of the late hour. It made America seem very far away, a lifetime away, a cluttered, noisy, restless country that I suddenly had no wish to ever get back to. We sat in that shadowed dining room for a long time while our hosts cheerfully poured us glass after glass of reisling, as if they had nothing better to do and their warm beds weren't waiting. We left Austria the next morning. Sitting over a long meal at Josef's reminded me of what I'd left that day. And it gave me something to be glad I'd come home for.
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