Restaurant Reviews

Hope Springs on Ely

Don't expect a sign when you go looking for Hope's Restaurant.

And don't expect linen and lanky waiters in bow ties either. And if you're searching for that romantic evening you once found in a booth at Yesterday's, you'd be better off splitting a bologna sandwich on the number 11 bus.

You might, however, go to Hope's to look for some of the best Caribbean food this side of Annie's Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale.

Hope's, now three months old, is all about Audrey Hope. There are five million people in the urban sprawl of South Florida, and Hope is one of the best. A small, robust woman from British Guyana whose eyes snap with confidence, Hope's been cooking since she was 9 years old. Taught by her mother, she started with the basics: how to make rice, then chicken, then red meat, then how to use thyme and cumin. Much later, in 1978, she came to the United States with her sister and worked in a number of jobs, always cooking, always experimenting with getting the taste right.

Finally, after working in a jewelry store for a few years, she got the message. "I always wanted to have something of my own," she says. "And this restaurant in this location serving this kind of food seemed like the best idea."

Not that Hope didn't have to wear some significant blinders to get her dream off the ground. The location of this eight-table restaurant isn't exactly awash in chic bistros. Nor does the outside lighting around the low-slung peach and white building serve as much of a welcoming beacon. Even the building could do with some major renovations (more on that later).

But Hope's is all about perseverance -- of the owner and the customer. Once you've committed to turning on Ely Boulevard and going the few short blocks north of Sheridan Street, you've crossed the culinary Rubicon. The white curtains made of remnants (and held up with plastic leaves) may not completely hide the mysteries of the streets outside, but their innocent charm signals your entry into another world.

When I entered that world recently, I immediately ran into Lucretia Hope, 8 years old, doing her spelling homework at a table by the entrance. While she struggled with English vowels, her sister Shornell was handling some of the restaurant's steady takeout business at the six-seat counter, which occupies almost a quarter of the room -- and seems to double as a neighborhood watering hole.

My small group took a table in the middle of the room that was decorated with hot sauce bottles and artificial flowers. There, we met another Hope daughter, Jessica, wearing a "Caribbean Public Service Association" T-shirt.

It turned out Jessica would be our waitress -- indeed, the waitress for the entire establishment -- for the evening. She pulled it off with people-do-this-all-the-time ease. Drink orders were not a problem. Hope's serves beer, wine, and alcohol -- just so you know you've got something to go with those pickled pig's feet and jaw breakers for sale in the large glass jars at the end of the counter. (The "alcohol" served can be, if you've a taste for it, such famously potent and internationally acclaimed Caribbean rums as El Dorado.)

Don't ask for a menu -- they don't exist. Instead, Jessica will point to the two three-by-six-foot white boards on the wall behind the bar and help you understand anything you have questions about.

And you might have some questions. The white boards don't say much; they're as limited as the kitchen is small. If you're in the mood for breakfast, you can go for a grits and eggs with toast ($1.99), eggs cooked any style ($1.95), all the way up in cost to omelets for $3.99 and a T-bone steak for $9.99. Don't look for logic in the prices.

Hope describes her food as Caribbean/ American. But she hasn't limited herself to Jamaican grub and called it "Caribbean," as is so often the case in Broward County. You won't find the menu loaded with jerk chicken or rotis -- though Hope will make them for you if you ask nicely. (As a considerate nod to Jamaica, the bar serves Red Stripe.)

Hope also hasn't paid too much attention to the cuisine of her Guyanese homeland, which is about as Caribbean as food from Mazatlán. She has cannily seized on the understanding that in her neighborhood and South Florida, Bahamian cooking has a wider appeal and can generate more customers than a typical Guyanese dinner of wild meat and swank (lemonade). The restaurant's dinner/lunch menus change often but always show the island love of fish and chicken. Sometimes you'll find parts of both that you don't recognize on your plate. But close your eyes to the chicken feet. Good taste is timeless -- and blind.

You won't go blind with confusion studying the limited menu selections, so it's easy to settle on something quickly. The menu concentrates on fried or stewed treatments of fish and chicken. The fried snapper ($8.99), whose lightness of batter and jubilant use of spices such as thyme and allspice will make you not mind at all that it doesn't come filleted, is a smart choice -- well-cooked (by Hope herself) and just-caught fresh. Ditto the tilapia stew ($8.99), in which the delicate flavor of fish swims confidently through a tomato-based sauce seasoned with onions and garlic, and the chicken curry ($8.99), influenced by India but with enough fresh white meat and cunning use of onion and garlic to make the meat pop with flavor. There's also crab ($6), shrimp ($9), and lobster tail ($12).

The touch of American cooking in the menu comes mostly in the hit-and-miss side dishes -- an unremarkable potato salad that could use more seasoning, a more-is-never-enough rice and red beans, and an overcooked macaroni and cheese flavored with that most difficult of spices -- cumin. With the entrées, you'll get fresh iceberg, two halves of a hard-boiled egg, and fresh cucumber covered by some bold, if bottled, ranch dressing.

Beverages are limited -- generic colas are a big seller. And among the few desserts offered is a pleasant guava duff, a kind of shortcake made from eggs, butter, and flour and seasoned with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and guava pulp. The shortcake, covered with a guava-based sauce, grew a fan base at my table quicker than Maroon 5.

Making up for the slackness in these areas are the portions. The red beans and rice alone could satisfy a navy. Add to it a two-inch square of macaroni and cheese or an ice cream scoop of potato salad, a whopper of a fried fish, and a big starter salad and you'll need lawn-cleanup-sized doggy bags.

Not that any one of the Hopes won't gladly prepare one for you. While they're putting it together, you may find out that the artist who made the African busts on the corner of the bar counter is prepared to render one in your likeness or that Audrey Hope is currently working on a $25,000 development grant to fix up her restaurant, which is located in an area ripe for the growth of small businesses.

The whole Hope clan accompanied my party to our car to say goodbye on my last visit. You often hear food critics prattling on about "unique dining experiences." Hope's qualifies. I hope it also springs eternal. 2806 J.A. Ely Blvd., Hollywood, 954-920-6696. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner 9 a.m. till 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; till 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.