Restaurant Reviews

Luxuriant Lunch

Lunch can really hang you up the most.

Especially when the outside air is the texture of angora. When you're hungry and have a 30-minute lunch "hour." When you can't stand the thought of another desk-side scoop of chicken salad.

Cheer up. Chin up. In downtown Fort Lauderdale, we now have our own al fresco food court -- Las Olas Boulevard west of SW Eighth Avenue. On these few blocks, just a few years ago, you had to scratch and sniff to find a decent burger (and were usually left with takeout from the then-hopping Hyde Park Market). Now there are bistros, boites, joints, cafés, dives, and entertainment complexes for all budgets.

All these new choices have fired up the competition, apparently to the point of self-combustion. Not only did Atlanta Bread Co. on Las Olas and Third Avenue recently close but the heavily discounted lunch offers up and down the street are sending signals that the market may not be able to sustain the 40 to 50 options now available.

Which door should you enter? It depends. What do you want to eat? In the mood for a place filled with attitude? Or do you want a quick and painless bite with your buddies? There are two spots that capture all the virtues -- and many of the vices -- of the present state of the Las Olas lunch.

450 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, Friday till midnight. Dinner 5 p.m. till midnight Saturday, till 11 p.m. Sunday. Call 954-462-9119.

Timpano Italian Chophouse is not among those restaurants that shill for business on the lunch-hour sidewalks. Since it opened more than four years ago, its lock on the upper end of the Las Olas noon-meal market has slowly strengthened to the point that it rivals the Tower Club and Jackson's -- or it would if it were members-only and not a chain.

Across the street from Brasserie Las Olas, the dark-wooded and white-linened Timpano has exactly the degree of quiet clubbiness that the Brasserie, with its train-station noise level and size, lacks.

And the differences don't end there. If the Brasserie is for junior suits on the way up the ladder, Timpano is where their bosses go to rank the young Turks.

Give points to managing partner Jerry Merlo's two rooms with bar and patio for executive atmosphere.

Then take them away for the quality of service and food.

Finding top-quality wait staff who are snap-to efficient before 3 p.m. may be like asking Kobe and Shaq to make nice. But during a recent lunch at Timpano, my amiable waitress committed the cardinal sin of farming out my table to her equally amiable colleagues, without explanation, but showing up punctually to collect a tip.

You can't blame the kitchen for serving complicated recipes that might cause delays. Predictably, Chef Vincent Sciarotta's not-cheap lunch menu plays on the restaurant's name, saluting steaks and pastas with a smart selection of appetizers, paninis, soups, and a few seafood dishes thrown in for balance. You should escape the meal with a bill of about $20 to $25 per person, including appetizer.

Despite all the emphasis on safe-and-sound eating typical of a steak-house chain, my experiences with the food at Timpano have not always been smooth. Friends and I have enjoyed a pleasant chicken in cream sauce, a decent giantoni with chicken and mushrooms, a superb saltimbocca. But I've also suffered through a bone-in Delmonico al forno so salty I could have been licking Lot's wife, and a lasagna Bolognese heavy enough to sink a Soprano in Sheepshead Bay.

In other words: The diners here may be powerful, but it seems their taste buds often need a physical trainer.

And a recent lunch indicates that things may have slipped a little since earlier in the year, when the restaurant was given a Best Power Lunch nod by this newspaper.

After being greeted by waitress number one and enjoying a delicious, warm roll (served by waiter number two in a breadbasket that would have made a better sculpture) and a dipping sauce of green olives and olive oil, I started the meal with "one of a kind" Maryland crab cakes ($12.95). With suspicious speed, the dish arrived courtesy of waiter number three: two small, warmed-over but well-seasoned cakes, covered with squiggles of a lemon chive aïoli sauce. Nothing exceptional, but when you go with the flow, you need to expect that the thrill may be nil.

My entrée, however, served by waiter number four, was a thrill of a different kind. My hefty-man-sized bowl of rock shrimp oreganata with angel hair pasta ($12.95) included a bevy of red bell pepper slices and a lemon oregano sauce so tangy, it would have pursed the lips of Mother Theresa. The pasta had even locked strands from sitting too long in the pot. Briefly discouraged, I regained a more sensible perspective from one of those moments that make this job worthwhile.