Such is the case with Himmarshee Bar & Grille in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the first innovative eatery after Mark's Las Olas actually to deserve the big buzz that heralded its opening. It wasn't much of a secret even in its early days, given the pedigrees of owners Tim Petrillo and Peter Boulukos, both Mark's Place and Mark's Las Olas veterans; critics and diners alike loved it. But when "HBG," as the pair affectionately call it on the menu, first opened its doors in 1997, the Himmarshee Village area was as sleepy as an owl at noon. Given the lack of foot traffic in the neighborhood, you could usually get a table on a whim. Now you can't get a parking space or even locate a valet on a weeknight. If you're planning just to drop in for a bite without a reservation made a few days ahead of time, then you better count on spending a little time with a martini at HBG's Side Bar.
That isn't such a bad thing, really. Side Bar adjoins HBG and takes over from the Cement Bar, the noisy, clublike space of the split second level of the restaurant; Cement Bar is now a dining room reserved for private parties. If you like bars, you'll love Side Bar, a winding, high-ceilinged room with glossy bar tables. The relocation of the bar makes HBG no less noisy, though. Live folk music spills out from Side Bar into the main dining room, and the industrially inspired HBG, with its wealth of hard, glittering surfaces, amplifies rather than muffles the steel strings of wine-inspired conversation and the percussion of forks against plates.
Any little change can send even a practiced pilot into a tailspin, and when I last spoke with Petrillo about one of his other restaurants, River House, he was concerned about the ongoing construction at HBG. In addition to the renovations and the then recently acquired (and mediocre) River House, Petrillo and Boulukos had also opened the neighboring Tarpon Bend, which draws a more casual crowd than does HBG. My concerns were that the combination of stresses would show at HBG.
I needn't have worried. At their first restaurant, the boys remain at the top of their game. While the combination of HBG, Tarpon Bend, and River House might not be quite the hat trick for which the partners were hoping, HBG remains the winning goal.
Because the ever-changing menu ranges far afield -- creativity is the only glue -- it's possible to mismatch dishes, which will dilute the HBG experience. If you're going to share appetizers, my advice is to choose carefully and match intentions, if not influences. For instance the starter of grilled marinated squid, spiked with sweet onions and a lemon vinaigrette, was terrific in its own right. The squid performed true to its nubile nature, with a partner of purple potato salad giving it a Peruvian verve. Crisp risotto cakes, another appetizer, were also mildly flavored, paired with an herb salad and a musky truffle vinaigrette.
But the subtle tendencies of both those dishes lost against the superior strengths of a nut-crusted goat-cheese salad, warmed rounds of cheese layered over field greens and green apples. Refreshing stuff, and a nice segue into porcini gnocchi, the star of the appetizer list. Pungently sauced with truffled mushrooms and garnished with pine nuts, prosciutto, and parings of aged ricotta, the cloud-light gnocchi excelled.
That is not to say, of course, that only the more obvious flavors win at HBG. An entrée of oak-grilled dolphin made great use of light Mexican applications: tangy tomatillo salsa, corn tortillas, avocado vinaigrette -- nothing too rich or overwhelming. Likewise spaghettini with white clam sauce inspired the palate rather than destroying it. Though this entrée, like the penne with grilled vegetables or the sesame-crusted tuna, could sound mundane to a jaded patron, the curly homemade pasta could please the pickiest Italian. Along with the small, fresh white-water clams, the vital sauce included tomatoes, pancetta, and chiles for added oomph.
Diners should be careful, however, to match strength with strength. If you start with something like the porcini gnocchi, oak-grilled dolphin could taste bland. Go instead for a grilled filet mignon with its regiment of caramelized onion mash, cremini mushroom ragout, crispy onions, and red wine sauce. The meat was grilled a little too long for my taste, so in the end I preferred the braised short rib main course. A little fatty and a lot rich, the meat didn't need much prodding to fall off its shelf of bone. The short rib had been slowly braised in Jamaican spices; the sauce had fully permeated the meat. A mattress of boniato mash and roasted calabaza squash was a pleasant foil for the wine-dark sauce.
A thoughtfully chosen wine list offers some viogniers and pinot noirs, though we were distressed after ordering when the waiter returned with the menu, shaking his head regretfully. Other snafus included service slow enough to make the waiters on South Beach look mighty speedy and uncomfortable tables that aren't big enough for the parties they're intended to seat. We also didn't care for a berry¯key lime pie dessert with a too-thick and soggy crust, though it was loaded with plump berries.
Still, such complaints are minor, especially when the final bill arrives. At HBG, despite the high quality of the ingredients and the cost of expanding the restaurant, the prices remain refreshingly reasonable. Not dropping a week's salary for one evening's meal is surely worth the inconvenience -- sigh -- of having to make a reservation.