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.