Restaurant Reviews

A Star Turn

Banana splits. Original Motown recordings. Diners. The Mickey Mouse Club. The martini. Perry Mason. The Thin Man series. The Hope/Crosby road movies. Did any of these American cultural benchmarks beg for reinterpretation?

Nope. But they got it anyway.

And now, the Red Star Tavern, the latest addition to the expanding Palm Court in Fort Lauderdale's Galleria, seems determined to refashion another one of America's national treasures: the tavern.

Does the tavern need a conceptual overhaul? Apparently the RSDChicagto restaurant group thinks so. Owners of 10 other Red Star Taverns as well as ever-multiplying Bluepoint Fish Clubs and Stonefish Grills, this group couldn't wait for construction outside the mall to finish before opening its new glam watering hole.

So, like it or not, this "hip, contemporary" tavern is here. And it's awfully pretty. If you're used to taverns with countertops full of cigarette burns and water marks from too many years of sweating highball glasses, get ready. The Red Star's red leather bar stools, rich wood paneling, and wide, flagstone columns climbing to 30-foot ceilings will make you long for a tall one. The swank fireplace separating the bar from the dining area promises to add a touch of warmth in the cool months ahead. Pile on deco-ish light fixtures, a large central bar topped with plasma televisions, booths private enough for international espionage, and table arrangements of stones and scented candles and you've got one inviting space.

Whether it's the kind of tavern you remember and love like your best friend -- the kind where waitresses don't chew gum (they crack it), people get loaded, make passes, belch, and maybe get into a fight or two -- remains to be seen. The Red Star is very young.

But the following cell phone conversation going on beside me at the bar during a recent lunch may not put your mind at ease.

Fortyish male business type, to co-worker: "The atmosphere is great... The martinis are huge... The atmosphere is gorgeous... Yes, you can bring your husband here... And the bartender is to die for..."

So. Brownie's the Red Star ain't. But with a clientele this in thrall to beauty and big martinis, you understand why this place is well on its way to becoming a late-night vortex of fabulessence, a quality dramatically present in the maelstrom of Blahnick and Prada around the valet stand outside the tavern on weekend evenings.

This intense awareness of style at a restaurant often means that the fare is only fair. And, sadly, this rule is borne out frequently when sampling choices from Red Star's lunch and dinner menus. (There's a late-night menu of appetizers and sandwiches for those hard-living types hungry at 3 a.m. on the weekend.)

The featured selections sound wonderful on paper -- just the things to accompany the well-chosen list of tap and bottled beers, "handcrafted" cocktails, and a cunning variety of wine from a menu with such darling categories as "Bubbly," "Blondes," and "Red Heads."

(A suggestion while we're talking about vino: The wine by the glass is served first in a carafe and then poured into a glass. Can we just stop that practice immediately and say no more about its pretentiousness -- let alone the waste of time?)

If menu items sound wonderful, the kitchen's delivery exceeds ho-hum but half the time. Granted, taverns have never been famous for subtle recipes and high dining. They specialize in comfort food guaranteed to soak up all the accompanying hooch. But their simple food often scores well on flavor. You may only be wolfing down a burger at the bar -- but the burger usually comes with tasty dill pickles and good greasy fries and ground chuck fresh and full of enough fat to make eating it only slightly less delightful than sipping a Lagavulin single-malt scotch.

Red Star's starter menu ($6.95 to $10.95) leans toward finger food, with such selections as spinach and artichoke dip, chicken tenders, crab cakes, and chicken wings. The three choices my group tried on a recent dinner hit the mark about half the time. The crab and shrimp quesadilla ($7.95) came with a well-achieved charred tomato salsa and avocado cream sauce but also arrived only a little warmer than a snow cone and missing the rich flavors of fish in the filling.

Nor was the onion stack ($5.95) more memorable. Onion rings, the perfect tavern food, need to be at least a little salty and greasy, and the onions need to sting the tongue just a bit. This stack of rings had neither the taste of onion nor that of a nicely salty batter. Much better was an order of calamari ($7.95). The pile of fresh, tender mollusks was fried in the same batter as the onions, but its mildness fit nicely with the richness of the seafood -- and with the cocktail and remoulade sauces that accompanied the dish.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
D.B. Tipmore