It sounds like a dessert shop. It looks like an elaborate mausoleum, with marble and flowers everywhere. But Hot Chocolates eats like a gourmet's fantasy. The upscale fusion fare, rife with European influences, ranges from ragout of escargot to homemade spaetzle to confit of duck with tomatoes and mushrooms. Not bad for a supper lounge that turns into a disco after hours. Stick around if you want to see where Hot Chocolates gets its name -- couples tend to melt all over each other on the dance floor. And definitely drop in for a fine meal served with flair but thank goodness not with marshmallows.
Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill
This contemporary eatery in Towne Center makes the most of the pan-Asian fad with a menu of mixed-up ethnicities. Fortunately most of the dishes are not fusion Asian -- they remain true to the countries that inspired them, like chicken imperial rolls (Vietnam), Shanghai noodles (China), and teriyaki salmon (Japan). No matter what ethnicity you feel like noshing, you can satisfy your craving here. And if you can't find something on the menu, you can visit the "market," where a host of veggies and a dozen homemade sauces await the customer, and create your own stir-fry. The guys behind the counter will then toss your combo into a wok for you. Hard to find a restaurant that caters to the patron more or one that has a more complete handle on what exactly pan-Asian is -- or should be.
It no doubt sounds like gastronomic blasphemy to declare that a chain restaurant turns out superior ribs. But the barbecued ribs at J. Alexander's really are something special: big slabs of Danish baby-back ribs covered with a dark sauce that's not too tangy and not too sweet. The ribs are pork -- beef can't compete -- and they're slow-cooked to moist, falling-off-the-bone perfection. And unlike the highly variable ribs at so many barbecue joints, they're consistently good, which to our mind is an undervalued virtue when it comes to ribs. Skeptical? We took a gang of folks from the Deep South's Barbecue Belt to J. Alex's for the ribs, and they left with their bellies full and smiles on their faces.
Jacaranda Italian Family Restaurant & Pizzeria
And you thought Sicily's top export to the U.S. was goodfellas? No, it's pizza, stupid. Nick and Joe, who were both born in Sicily, started making pizza in Queens decades before hunkering down in Plantation 21 years ago to bring real ethnic taste to that vanilla town. And what a taste it is: whole-milk cheese, plenty of succulent sauce, and from dough made fresh every morning, a crust with a just-right chew that gives the jaw a wonderful workout. Throw on some sharp, spicy pepperoni and some freshly cut onions, and you really have something. One of Nick's credos is "No skimping." And he doesn't. But other than top-shelf ingredients and plenty of them, he says there's only one real secret to making kick-ass pizza: hard work. And his bustling restaurant -- which makes a quick pizza and almost never gets an order wrong -- is a testament to that.
If the coffeehouses of the 1990s are a throwback to the Cheers era, Chocolate Moose is a perfect example. It's a place where, if not everybody knows your name, at least owner John Helverson makes a point of it. "That's Joe," he says, pointing to a white-haired man in his fifties. "He's having some personal problems and comes here every night. It's his home away from home." The customers are an eclectic group ranging from teenagers to seniors. On a recent Thursday night, the place was packed for open-mic night (there's also singles' night, psychic night, and gothic night). Two dozen or so people sat at tables, at what passes for a "bar," and on recliners, listening to a young blond woman in jeans serve up a decent guitar-backed rendition of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer song, of all things. In the back of the room, a tattooed twentysomething couple sitting on brushed velvet couches played a lively game of chess. A bookcase offers such diverse fare as The Guinness Book of Records, Favorite Houseplants, and Smart Women, Foolish Choices. The owner samples hundreds of coffee beans before choosing his faves, and one of his proud inventions is the White Cow, a blend of espresso, white chocolate, and vanilla. There are also a few wine choices for those who prefer a stronger form of liquid relaxation, and the décor is warm and inviting, with a roaring fake fireplace, heart-shape candles, and miniature stuffed moose scattered throughout. But as on Cheers, the friendship and good-natured ribbing are what bring people back.
Historic Sundy House
Liz Dzuro
Qualifications for fine outdoor dining are few and simple: The outside of the restaurant has to be especially appealing in some way. Whether that allure comes in the form of foot traffic, as it does on Las Olas Boulevard, or from a great view, as it might from a beachfront eatery, doesn't matter. Or does it? Remember, outdoor dining is nothing without the dining part. And Sundy House is easily the most magical place to dine outdoors because of the aromas, not just from the botanical garden, with its ponds and bridges, but from the innovative New American cuisine being prepared inside. It's also hard to argue with the tropical flowers bedecking this beautifully restored house and porch, especially when your entire body is being caressed by temperate breezes and your palate is being stroked by local fish garnished with fruity salsas.
Lester's Diner
Photo by Kristin Bjornsen
Stainless steel and neon outside; deep-cushioned booths, a thick menu, and friendly waitresses inside. Lester's is one of those old-fashioned diners that beckons with its authentic look and its home-style comfort food. And at the restaurant's original location in Fort Lauderdale (250 E. State Rd. 84), the 24-7 schedule beckons even those with munchies in the weest of hours. Whatever has kept them up, nocturnal eaters will find something to satisfy their hankerin' in the pages and pages of menu items. Eggs always hit the spot, and they're here in every form imaginable, from tangy eggs Benedict and fluffy omelets to eggs served with corned-beef hash and grits to eggs and gyros. Breakfast offerings also include thick Belgian waffles topped with ice cream or whipped cream, as well as French toast and buttermilk pancakes. That covers maybe a quarter of the voluminous menu, which also boasts Italian and Greek specialties, steak and seafood specials, stir-fry, barbecue, and mainstay diner fare such as burgers and deli sandwiches. The lengthy list of dessert items baked fresh on site features such favorites as brownies, key lime pie, and Black Forest cake. Of course, no retro diner worth the chrome on its napkin holders is complete without a soda fountain, and the one at Lester's offers an assortment of sundaes, splits, ice cream sodas, and thick, creamy shakes.
Canyon
The key to a good margarita is real tequila, about which plenty of amateurs don't know the first thing. Hint: If you think tequila looks like warm piss after a tennis match, just give up now. You're probably one of those folks who believe the best pizza is made by Domino's, in which case you shouldn't be drinking anyway. But if you understand that real tequila has to be made from only 100 percent blue agave cactus, then you know what it's supposed to taste like. Not only does Canyon use blue agave, but Canyon's patented recipe calls for a second variety of cactus, the prickly pear, in lieu of lime juice. Used to being questioned about their regionally recognized margarita, the waitress is quick to point out the purple-liquid-filled vat on the bar where Sauza Hornitos tequila infuses the peeled prickly pear fruit for 48 hours. The finished product, to which sour mix and triple sec have been added, is served frozen or on the rocks (the house's recommendation) in sleek martini glasses. We prefer it frozen, so that every icy, biting sip burns a trail down our throats. If you're looking for the typical margarita experience of washing down chips and salsa with gulps from quart-size glasses, this place is not for you. But if you're looking for a memorable margarita and don't mind spending around six bucks for one, saddle up and head down to Canyon.
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Joel++Stahl
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We should note right off the bat that this eatery isn't really one of the most expensive; in fact it just barely makes it into this category. That's fine by us -- we can just order more courses. And a four-course meal is truly impossible to resist in this 50-seater where everyone is treated like "family" even if you've never stepped foot in here before. Start with antipasto, laden with roasted peppers and fresh provolone, before moving on to thick, rich pasta e fagiole. Main courses, whether they're enormous portions of linguine with white clam sauce or plates of chicken scarpariello so overburdened you can almost hear them groan -- no, wait, that's your stomach -- will bring endless (read: endless) pleasure. But that's no excuse to wave away the espresso with anisette and a dish of crème brûlée topped with stewed strawberries. Just be sure to give as good as you get -- the staff likes to tease if you don't clean your plate.
When a restaurant resembles a trailer from the trailer park that sits behind it, you can bet it's reasonably priced. In fact the motto at Little Italian Tavern (LIT) is that it's cheaper to dine here than it is to dine at home. Cheap doesn't always mean good, but fortunately LIT lights a fire under typical Italian fare -- fried mozzarella, for example -- and gives it a welcome boost. Choose from a zillion pastas priced under ten bucks, sophisticated blackboard specials such as beef braised with leeks and endive, and a decent selection of South American and Italian wines, and you can still get out for less than $25 per person. Despite the parity, do make sure to stock your wallet with cash: LIT doesn't take a shine to credit cards.

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