Taj Fine Indian Cuisine
Liz Dzuro
For once, the best is synonymous with the most. In the form of an $8.95 lunch buffet where you can fill and refill your plate with all the spice-redolent delicacies of India: a deliciously gooey sag paneer of spinach and homemade cheese; fragrant eggplant bharta; onion bhaji doused in cream and yogurt sauce; belly-warming channa masala; and creamy spiced peas and potatoes. There's the vegetable korma with cream, tomatoes, and raisins; three kinds of chicken; sweet pickled potatoes, coleslaw, and yogurt-cucumber dahi raitha; and a katchumbar salad of spiced onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Then you can return to the buffet table and do the whole thing again, backward this time, adding fruit chutney, hot sauce, and breathtakingly salty pickled vegetables, great for mopping up with endless baskets of handmade bread hot off the griddle -- dense, smoky naan and puffballs of fried poori. Gulab jamun made from scratch comes swimming in rosewater-infused syrup. It's a meal fit for a Delhi Sultan at Untouchable prices.
Rino's Tuscan Grill
Not many chefs can strike an ideal balance between simplicity and surprise -- they leave you either yawning over another plate of calamari or spooning up pig's-foot ice cream -- but Naples-born Chef Rino Balzano, well-schooled throughout Northern Italy, takes Tuscan classics and brings them up to date. Balzano, known for "miking up" to serenade his customers with Italian arias, isn't shy when it comes to employing the famous game meats of Tuscany, like rabbit and quail, that might seem exotic to American palates. But simply grilled or braised in rich stock with wine and onions, then tossed over a bit of homemade parpardelle or polenta, these dishes become instant favorites, the kind of meals to give you separation anxiety when they're finally over. Rosemary-infused pork chops ($28) and veal chops ($44) smothered with wild mushrooms and cooked over an open flame, a wild mushroom-topped oval of fresh buffalo mozzarella ($12), and a finale of zuccato cream-cake ($9) with a glass of Moscato di Asti ($10), plus a list of 500 Italian wines, are just a few of the great possibilities worth exploring.
Naked Grape Wine Bar
Wilton Drive got a bit classier when Brian BeCraft opened this well-designed store last year. Wines here are grouped by characteristics, such as fruity, earthy, etc., with more than 200 choices for under $25. Helpful placards accompany each selection and describe the wine's origin, flavors, and compatibility with particular foods. That's the kind of detail that makes winetastings at the Naked Grape both enjoyable and enlightening. About twice a month, BeCraft pours samples of 12 to 20 wines related by theme. In January, there were a variety of cabernet sauvignons, and February showcased wines from South America. Shortly before Thanksgiving last year, the tasting focused on wines compatible with turkey, ham, and, for the Pilgrim-inspired, game meats. Tastings cost $10 to $15, depending upon the number of wines offered, and hors d'oeuvres are ample and tasty enough to clear and satisfy any palate.
For decades, you could count on the checkered tablecloth and the bottle of Chianti, the proprietor who knew the latest dish on everybody who walked in the door, the bread soaking in garlic butter, and the 12 kinds of spaghetti all cooked in the same heavy red sauce. Then, overnight, they were gone. Our cozy neighborhood Italian restaurants morphed into places playing trance music and serving vertical appetizers. Today, your chocolate martinis are brought by tattooed hunks, but the tattoos no longer say "Rose" or "Mama"; they're Sanskrit hieroglyphs that translate to "Ohm." Papa Pistola's is a nostalgic glimpse back to that bygone era when a bottle of wine with dinner set you back 15 bucks instead of 50. From the Dean Martin, Al Martino, and Mantovani record sleeves that decorate the walls to the fried mozzarella, pasta fagiole, and homemade gnocchi to the sincerity of the servers and the very reasonable prices (about $14.95 to $17.95 for the entrées), Papa's not cutting any edges. But he's not cutting corners either.
Southport Raw Bar
Photo by Glenn Govot, courtesy of Southport Raw Bar & Restaurant
Those scary written warnings that accompany servings of un-cooked shellfish are so uninviting, it's a wonder anyone eats raw oysters or clams. Risking hepatitis or vibrio just to swallow something salty and slimy takes a particular breed of cat (or kitten). But raw oysters are, in fact, a delicacy and reputed aphrodisiac, and South Florida's a prime spot for both Gulf and Atlantic varieties. Unlike many other restaurants -- even shacks right on the water -- Southport always shucks oysters to order, instead of letting them sit refrigerated on the half-shell until they develop the texture of rubber cement, the way some establishments do. Observe as plastic milk-crates packed full of the bivalves make their way from coolers in back to tubs of ice at the shucking station. At $9 a dozen (cheaper during happy hour), the oysters fit in well with Southport's no-frills, slightly divey setup. The smoked fish dip and fried offerings (clams, oysters, catfish, scallops, etc.) consistently cost about half as much as you'd find elsewhere but are invariably twice as good; its Philly cheesesteak is enormous and authentic, and beer and wine flow freely (and cheaply). Besides, after more than six years of swallowing those sea-salty little items, we're still alive, healthy, and ready for more.
Tiki Waterfront Sea Grill
Bikers, boaters, and bobos rub beer bellies under the thatched roofs of Tiki's upper- and lower-story bars at the Riviera Beach marina, shaking booty to live music on sunny Sunday afternoons. It's Old Florida meets Eastern Europe: luscious Romanian girls, wearing last-decades' gold eyeshadow and hot pants, maneuver baskets of peel 'n' eat shrimp, hot blue crab dip, and Bahamian conch salad through the throngs. But it's Tiki's crunchy grouper sandwich that keeps reeling you back: a glistening slab of prime catch rolled in panko breadcrumbs, deep fried, and tucked into a pillowy Kaiser roll with tomato, onion, lettuce, and a lemon-struck tartar sauce along with a heap of crisp shoestring fries -- all of it as ideally proportioned as the maiden who serves it to you.
Annie's Fresh Fish & Baked Goods
Good Jamaican and Caribbean food abounds in South Florida. Drive ten minutes from anywhere and you can get decent jerk and oxtails that taste pretty much the same as the ones you had elsewhere. Are they all using the same recipes and sharing one big kitchen? Annie's is one of a handful of places where such thoughts never occur. The jerk is not just tender but scented through and through with peppers, cinnamon, and allspice. Fish are cooked fresh, not ladled from a steam table. Rice and peas are moist and fragrant, not dry and starchy. Even the steamed cabbage has a certain something to it. The sorrel and bracing ginger beer are made on the premises. And save room for dessert: The "Off-the-Chain" spice cake really is.
You thought old-fashioned hibachi pyrotechnics had gone the way of the samurai? Not so, Grasshopper: The spinning knives and the flying fillets are still dancing through their paces at Sakai Japanese Restaurant, where -- depending on how sociable you feel -- you can reserve a seat at one of four communal hibachi tables. Kids, of course, love to belly up to the hibachi to see old Iron Chef play with his food (where else is tossing around your vegetables socially acceptable?). Watch him, all but stony-faced, as he twirls his knives like batons, cracks raw eggs midair, and composes a flaming volcano from a stack of raw onion rings. Choose steak, shrimp, scallops, chicken, and lobster in some combination ($19 to $35); hibachi dinners include soup or salad, fried rice, stir-fried vegetables, and noodles -- you can't go away hungry. Sushi and excellent vegetable, tempura, and tofu plates are available in the quieter front room, where you and your party can shutter yourselves away from the madding crowds in a completely private booth, sliding the paper screen closed behind you with a satisfying whoosh.
Colombino Italian Bakery and Deli
You make a submarine for 20 years, you get to know what you're doing. The current owners of Colombino took over the decades-old business just five years ago, but the family's carrying on a serious tradition to exacting specifications -- while Taco Bells and Subways have sprung up around this tiny deli and bakery like pokeweeds around a violet, nothing can stop the hot ovens from churning out dozens of warm loaves of Italian bread six days a week (the deli is closed Monday) or the "upstate N.Y. style" pizzas or the buttered steak, sausage, and veal parmigiana sandwiches or the stuffed breads bulging with pepperoni and cheese. It's the "Italian assorted" sub (six, nine, or 12 inches from $3.19 to $5.39), though, that defines the genre. Stuffed into one of those warm, crusty rolls, a mound of salami, Italian ham, capiccola, and provolone is drizzled with olive oil and vinegar, given a shake of oregano and a handful of tomato, sliced onion, and torn romaine lettuce leaves. The art of the sandwich is indeed a living art.
EuroBread & Cafe
Let us school you on the croissant. The best ones are covered with a thin, tan crust that's hard enough so that it resonates a little if you tap it with your fingernail but thin enough to "break" when it's given a little squeeze, like the shell of a robin's egg. Inside, the bready material should be slightly moist, with enough body so that it shreds rather than breaking or balling up when it's pulled apart. It should have a scent of butter, and it should taste like a morning in Provence. All right, maybe we're getting too subjective with that last bit. We must be under the influence of EuroBread & Café, the French bakery in Coral Ridge (there's another one at 6847 Stirling Rd., Davie), where the walls are painted an earthy yellow, like Provence clay, and the croissants are always fresh. There's a buttery smell in the air, as well as the scent of baking bread. Try all of their croissants -- the chocolate croissant, with its schmeer of bittersweet chocolate inside, or the almond, which is sweet-toastier, with a sprinkling of crisp almond slices. We'll settle for the croissant plain, warm from the oven, maybe daubed with a little strawberry preserves or English marmalade.

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