My favorite culinary stars have crossed in Fort Lauderdale this month, jumped the broom, eloped in the dead of night; let's pray this heaven-sent marriage is one of uninterrupted bliss. The result is Bova Prime. May they never have to dust off the prenup.
And yet, the number of interested parties hanging around in this particular bedroom during the moneymoon could fast fade the dewy bloom of ardor: Let's see if we can get the family tree straight. Chef Toby Joseph has been lured away from Cero at the St. Regis, where he was executive chef, to take over Bova Prime in the space formerly occupied by the freefalling Riley McDermott's on Las Olas Boulevard. Bova Prime is a sister operation of Bova in Boca. That Boca Bova, which opened almost three years ago, is one of the best nuevo Italian restaurants in our vicinity, and it takes its name from rich owners Tony and Laurie Bova, who transformed their older restaurant in the same space, Mario's of Boca, into a wonderland of ducks roasted on spits and homemade pastas cooked al dente. Tony and Laurie partnered with much-beloved Lauderdale lawyer Scott ("Passion. Integrity. Commitment.") Rothstein somewhere along the way, the same Rothstein who has accumulated enough area real estate to form a small city, should he decide to secede, and generated enough hype to power the next six local elections. Rothstein has told this paper he plans to eat at Bova Prime every night and entertain his clients there (his law office is in the same building) and presumably to machinate with Republican Party operatives over baked clams and dry-aged Delmonico steaks, to plot revenge, which is best served cold as a Hendrick's martini. Rothstein can keep his Ferraris and his Bentleys; they hold no magic for me. But in this, the eating and drinking part, I envy him.
I too would like to have dinner at Bova Prime every night; unfortunately, New Times took one look at the receipts for my tab and insisted I move on. But the morning after my last meal there was a difficult one, because I woke up with the smell of first-cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil still on my fingers and the sense-memory of roasted baby artichokes on my lips. I wanted more: The result was that I spent an entire weekend baking focaccia, trying to replicate the wide crumb and crackling crust of the bread offered so cavalierly at Bova Prime — almost as an afterthought — and many loaves later had to defeatedly admit I couldn't do it. Bova Prime serves two kinds of focaccia, a plain one infused with olive oil and salt and another topped with fresh marinara; they're even more delicious paired with the imported olive oil and syrupy balsamic vinegar the waiters bring to the table — none of the cheap stuff here! If rich Republican attorneys are good for anything, it's their preference for foodstuffs imported at great expense: Japanese Kobe steak, Italian olive oil, French wines. The rest of us can sort of attach ourselves, like the proverbial lamprey suctioned to the shark, and go along for the ride.
I never ate at Riley McDermott's, which was merely one of many restaurants that have occupied this space in four years (Red Coral and Zucca, both equally short-lived, preceded it), but the word I heard was not good. The room itself hasn't changed much through its iterations: a soaring, gasp-inducing vault with an upper-level tier that seems to float over the diners below, a long bar, and an enveloping coldness thanks to all the metal and stone and icy light that isn't mitigated by the tiniest hint of cozy. The place is like an echo chamber; you get to hear Pet Shop Boys covers coming at you in surround sound as well as the painful confidences of nearby diners as viscerally as if they were your own. If the place were mine and I had all the money in the world, as the Bovas and Rothstein evidently do, I'd put fox-fur throws on all the chairs and a roaring fire pit in the center of every table. Or at least, maybe, some douchebag-absorbing panels?
The whole vibe strikes me as very late '80s, very American Psycho, but I'll live with that as long as they keep serving the langoustines ($23 as an appetizer, $38 as an entrée). Our waiter confided that some diners have been appalled by the presentation of these ("You'll have to use your fingers — are you all right with that?"), which basically offers the grilled crustaceans, split down the middle, on a plate with their long feelers and forelegs intact, an arrangement that might seem off-puttingly arachnoid to some. A langoustine (and I have to look this up every time, because I can hardly believe it) is not a shrimp nor a lobster nor a crawfish but an animal that combines the best qualities of them all. Chef Joseph and his minions have kept an eye on the fire and let these spidery little animals cook just enough so they can be forked from their shells with ease (I didn't, in fact, need to use my fingers), and they are sweet and tender, delicately laced with the scent of fire, beyond all reckoning. I fell in love with grilled langoustines at Bova Prime.
There were other dishes to swoon over too. A beautiful tray of baby artichokes dipped in olive oil and fire grilled, served with whole sprigs of rosemary and grilled lemons ($12) effectively coated the mouth (and chin and fingers) with pleasure. You can choose one of three ways to have your calamari ($12) — either fra diàvolo, as we had it, in a peppery, shellfish-broth-scented tomato sauce, or with zucchini and Meyer lemon sauce, or with cannellini beans and grape tomatoes. We also had the arancini ($8), four medium-sized rice balls stuffed with shredded braised short ribs, fontina, and buffalo mozzarella — served on a thin layer of marinara, they were exceedingly soft and flavorful inside and had a nice, crunchy crust. A plate of Parmigiano Reggiano came with a saucer of green and black olives ($8). The generous chunks of cheese were certainly the real deal, but I've had this same plate served in other restaurants as a freebie — I'd spend my money next time on the baked clams or the meatballs, the grilled octopus, the Calabrese sausage, or the eggplant involtini.
The menu here is virtually identical to the one at Bova Boca, with the addition of steaks (hence the "prime"). They're serving not only dry-aged specimens like Delmonico and bone-in New York strip but Kobe beef brought in from Japan and billed at market price. I'm a little surprised the menus are so similar, since it doesn't give Joseph, who's a wonderful chef judging from his work at Cero, much to show off with. But nothing we ate was less than perfectly executed, and only one choice seemed less-than-inspired: the rigatoni Bolognese with veal ($24). Not that the pasta wasn't al dente or the tomato sauce and ground veal unbalanced — with handfuls of freshly grated Parmesan, it all came together nicely but didn't rise above the thousand plates of Bolognese we've all eaten in our lives. Not, at any rate, like the seared scallops ($38), milky white, buttery, and sweet, with the finest golden crust, served over a green-pea and asparagus risotto. I need to invent a new vocabulary to signify perfection: I'd use it to describe those fat grains of rice, each guarding its separateness but in harmony with the whole (if only human beings could learn this trick!), having fully absorbed the green flavors of pea and asparagus and the deep umami of the Parmesan.
What a magnificent meal that was — and so was the flaky and rich fillet of snow-white snapper ($34) served over the same risotto. Nor did the luscious macaroni and cheese or the deeply flavored escarole and white bean side dishes disappoint (each $8) nor the charming cheesecake lollipops we had for dessert ($8) — one flavored with lemon, another coated with white chocolate and another with dark. I could eat this stuff every night. And if I were Scott Rothstein, I would.