Openings and Closings

First Look: d.b.a./cafe in Fort Lauderdale

"Good food, good wine and good service." It's a simple statement, but manages to sum up what a trip to new Fort Lauderdale restaurant d.b.a./cafe is all about, according to its owners.

It was especially intriguing for South Florida chef Steve Zobel, who fell in love with the concept for d.b.a./cafe the moment he read the Craigslist ad that had posted when the owners were in search of an executive chef. 

"[The owner] wrote this ad that I just loved, something about liking great food and wine, with a relaxed vibe. It was honest," said Zobel, who had moved from a position as the executive chef at The Atlantic Resort's East End Brasserie to take over the kitchen at d.b.a./cafe.

Today, d.b.a./cafe is open for lunch and dinner after quietly opening its doors the week before Thanksgiving in the Whole Foods shopping center off Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. Here, Zobel says he will stay true to the concept's original ideals, creating good food for a reasonable price. Above all, he said, the concept is meant to be "fun," a hangout spot where patrons come to relax and enjoy themselves.

The menu, a departure from the stringent French fare Zobel has focused on for the past decade, also presents an opportunity for him to be more creative than in the past.

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"We want this to be a comfortable place," said co-owner and former Il Mercato Cafe and Wine Bar owner Mike Lynch, whose restaurant industry experience spans several cities over the past decade -- including New York, Miami and most recently Norway. 

Lynch and co-owner Tom Moynihan, worked together to build the cozy eatery, a 2,000-square-foot space that exudes New York City chic, fusing slate colored floors with exposed brick and a copper-tinged ceiling for a homey, rustic feel. Soft lighting from hand-made mason jar lighting and eclectic music help complete the vibe. Inside, choose from a mix of seating, be it the booths that run the length of one wall, or one of several tables near the front where floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto a small -- but quiet -- outdoor patio space. The bar at the back seats 10 to , perfect for those dining solo or looking to grab a quick lunch. 

Unlike his former gigs at high-end, French-themed restaurants like Brasserie and -- before that -- New York City's Triumphe, at d.b.a./cafe Zobel serves up comfort food-style fare and housemade pastas with a unique twist. Think fresh ricotta cheese gnocchi with gorgonzola cream sauce, or a chicken schnitzel sandwich with cranberry compote, mayonnaise and fontina cheese. 

The dinner menu is a mix of small plates, salads, housemade pastas and entrees -- as well as a boatload of sides ($6-$29). All entrees are offered in full or half-portions that allow patrons to create their own tasting menu, said Zobel, or share with friends and family. 

Although the menu items rotate monthly and with the seasons, right now Zobel is offering what has become fast favorites, he said, including his own pan-seared sea scallops with porcini mushroom butter, as well as an apricot glazed duck confit served atop acorn squash crepes and alongside a pile of thinly-sliced, slaw-like roasted brussels sprouts. Now able to foster creativity in the kitchen, Zobel's sous chef has contributed his own creation -- and another crowd pleaser -- an onion-crusted snapper highlighted by a saffron vanilla buerre blanc, and paired with a mushroom risotto and spinach. 

The lunch menu offers soups and salads, sandwiches and "other stuff" -- an omelet, market-priced fresh catch of the day, and whatever fresh pasta Zobel has dreamed up ($7-$12). There's even chicken wings -- d.b.a. style -- for those who just want to sit and watch the game.

"My whole philosophy is to make you feel like you're walking into your own home for dinner -- for this place to have that relaxed vibe like you're in your own living room feel," said Zobel.

Another pleasant surprise is the wine menu, which features a unique selection of well-priced wines by the glass and bottle. A compilation of researched staff picks, the growing menu includes many of Lynch and Moynihan's personal favorites, and they offer up a creative selection of specialty boutique wines Lynch guarantees you won't find anywhere else. That means whites like Viognier, Arneis and Gewurtztraminer -- or reds like Barbera, Garnache and a Gam Noir rose ($6-$9/glass). 

Among Lynch's favorites at the moment: orange wines like the Vodopivec Vitovska from Italy, pictured above, one of three such varietals sold by the bottle at d.b.a/cafe. If the $75 a bottle price tag is too hefty, inquire after a per-glass option. Lynch, who sees orange wines as the next big trend, is so eager to share his picks, he'll open a bottle to let you see for yourself. Or take a look at the specials board, which offers up suggestions for pairing both wines and beer with Zobel's fare. 

"This is a wine list for people who want to try something new, and for a good price. I wanted to make it easy to say 'yes' to something you might not otherwise think to try," said Lynch.