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Restaurant Reviews

A Strip-Mall Oasis

OK, here's a question: What does a chef who is a native of Lebanon, speaks five languages, has trained in Paris restaurants, and has attended culinary school in Oslo, Norway, do next?

Easy -- he marries an American girl from Davie and opens a restaurant in a strip mall in Cooper City.

Sure, that's the shorthand version. I've condensed the 27 years that Aboud Kobaitri, proprietor of La Brochette Bistro, has cooked professionally, not to mention his now-16-year marriage and his two practically grown kids. I've skipped the dozen or so years the 46-year-old executive chef held the helm at Charade and Food Amongst the Flowers in Miami-Dade and La Reserve in Fort Lauderdale. After all, it does seem odd that Kobaitri's worldwide experience should have culminated in an 84-seat, French-influenced bistro located in southwest Broward County, of all places. Let's face it -- when Kobaitri moved to Davie lo those many years ago (he now lives in Pembroke Pines), the city wasn't exactly International Central. It still isn't, despite the multicultural flight from Miami-Dade after Hurricane Andrew.

Or then again, maybe this is exactly where he belongs. Not only does La Brochette Bistro stand out from the other local shopping-plaza eateries, but a meal there is an education. You can trace Kobaitri's training in dishes such as soft-shell crab, pan-seared, napped with a lemon-caper beurre blanc, and served with couscous. You can glimpse his personal history just by asking about the name of the restaurant, which he christened after a favorite eatery in Norway because the appellation reminded him at once of France and of his own country. (Cooking en brochette basically means skewering and grilling -- a French term for a common method in Middle Eastern cookery).

And according to Kobaitri, you can analyze his personality by cataloging the contents of the restaurant, which he opened seven years ago. Indeed, every room in the place is full of kitschy items he has found. One of Kobaitri's passions, in that very little free time when he's not putting in a 14-hour day at La Brochette, is scouring flea markets for old kitchenware and decorative objects. He labels them antiques, but I'd call most of his booty collectibles, a kind word for a lot of junk. He crams everything from French Art Deco advertisements to Italian pepper mills to bronze sculptures of ducks into the restaurant. Add in the floral-patterned wallpaper, the raised dais of a dining room, and the flat-weave carpeting, and you've got someone's grandmother's condo after she's given up the family home but kept all the furnishings. He needs only some lace doilies to complete the picture.

The place has its own kind of charm, and one of the benefits of dining here is that, much as at your grandmother's house, a good appetite is a blessing. You should come on a day when you haven't eaten much, because Kobaitri, who mans the grill and saute pans himself, serves up a terrific amount of food. His smoothly professional staff, by the way, is not above chiding you for not cleaning your plate. You've been warned.

That said, don't expect most of the items to arrive via brochette. Though it's easy to assume that skewers are the theme of the restaurant, Kobaitri abandoned the concept a few years into his stint. "People think brochette means shish kebab. It really just means to be grilled," he says. "But if I'm going to call something brochette, I will serve it on the skewer."

He's not kidding -- the conch fritter starter, which the menu insists is "on" brochette, consisted of a dozen fried balls pierced through their centers. The fritters were pleasantly nongreasy, a warm golden brown, and attractively presented with a sweet lime dipping sauce. The only thing they needed more of was conch, for a nubbier texture. On the other hand, the conch fillet schnitzel appetizer was all mollusk. The pounded conch had been battered and fried to a crisp finish, then drizzled with a tasty caper-lime sauce. As if to prove the conch was real, a giant conch shell was used as a garnish. We didn't need the reminder, though, for the dish toughened up just a little as it cooled, as conch will.

A kinder, gentler starter, baked Brie en croute, revealed Kobaitri's Parisian roots to great effect. The meltingly smooth cheese, buttery and mild, was encased in puff pastry and sauced with a honeyed fruit chutney. He also offers escargots and French onion soup gratinee, if you're in a French frame of mind. But it's actually best not to come in here with a particular craving. Although Kobaitri presents a fixed Continental menu with a dozen or so entrees, including roasted duck with orange-ginger sauce or a tender veal Oscar, the veal scaloppini topped with huge shrimp and touched with what tasted like Pernod, he makes nearly as many special main courses. Our server rattled these off like a doll with a pull-string, but he didn't mind repeating them and offering his opinions, which we found helpful. In fact, he talked us into a tuna steak seared with ginger, which was served almost sushi-rare and succulent, over a brochette of jumbo shrimp.

Two other main courses were somewhat disappointing. A pounded pork fillet had been rolled and stuffed with goat cheese and julienne vegetables. We found the broccoli inside it a poor foil for the tangy cheese, however, and the meat had been grilled too long, taking on an unpleasantly charred flavor. The other letdown was ostrich, which our server, with a poker face, described as "Big Bird." This meat, scarce as the dodo bird in South Florida restaurants, seemed more like steak -- seared medallions of ruby red. But Big Bird was a tough sell that night, quite literally. Maybe he should have been pounded, too.

All main courses were accompanied by a scoop of gluey but flavorful mashed potatoes and preceded by a lovely house salad that beat out the caesar salad appetizer, which was fishy with anchovy paste. But no matter how refreshing the house greens are, I'd recommend going easy on the roughage in order to save room for dessert. Workaholic Kobaitri bakes all the sweets himself, including a sumptuous chocolate layer cake filled with hazelnut mousse, and a milk-chocolate creme brulee as smooth as a con man.

Like Kobaitri himself, the wine list hails from around the world, with top bottles going for less than 50 bucks. (You can get a good DeLoach zinfandel for about $34.) As with the entrees, though, the list tends to change every so often and isn't terribly long, so it helps to be flexible. And if you desire something you don't see, just ask. Kobaitri knows that in his own place, which he opened because "he hated working for other people," doing what he wants often means doing what you want -- an attitude that makes this internationally cultured chef even more of a boon to Cooper City.

La Brochette Bistro. 2635 N. Hiatus Rd., Cooper City, 954-435-9090. Lunch Wednesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. till 2 p.m. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 till 10 p.m.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick