Restaurant Reviews

All the Bobos Love Hobo's

In case you've missed the saga of Lauderdale Chef Steven LaBiner's odyssey from riches to rags to riches in the past couple of years (feel free to catch the heart-wrenching audio slide show on the Sun Sentinel's website), I'll summarize. Hobo's Fish Joint, Coral Springs. Nice gig, open ten years. Serves fresh fish in semi-luxe surroundings to locals who dote on the place. New Times awards it a Best Seafood Restaurant in Broward designation in 2004. It looks like all is smooth sailing for the good Chef LaBiner...

And then, the unthinkable happens. Hobo's suddenly folds up shop. Last night of business, stunned regulars are standing in line for a final bite of Hobo's Big Time crab cakes, the blackened salmon with Caribbean macadamia crust. They're blinking back tears, shaking their heads in incomprehension. How could it happen? Turns out LaBiner owes a megabundle of money to some fishy loan-sharking operation, and Hobo's is bankrupt.

LaBiner takes a job at Michael Collins in Miami. It doesn't work out. He takes a job opening the glitzy new restaurant Fish, off the 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale, applying his successful formula. It doesn't work out. And all the while, he's nursing a dream: to reopen his beloved Hobo's.

After months of setbacks and triumphs, mysterious kitchen fires, nefarious contractors, loyal waitresses who drive hours for the chance to work with the old crew again, LaBiner reopens Hobo's (this time in a remote building on Powerline Road in Deerfield). Within two months, he's turning 200 covers on weekend nights in a 60-seat restaurant. Cue: Rousing orchestral number. Applause. House lights up.

With all the Sturm und Drang, you'd think a restaurateur losing his shirt in South Florida was some kind of freak accident, as if some poor schlub with big dreams and maxed-out Visa cards weren't doing the exact same thing every day. But there's something about LaBiner. He looks and acts the part of a tragicomic hero, with that red hair and his famous temper and big Falstaffian gut. The guy is certainly a decent cook — he was trained at the Culinary Institute of America — and you can't argue with the quality of his fish.

As for LaBiner's dining concept, it's like one of these new audience-controlled reality shows in which you can make the characters do your bidding. Foodies, evidently, like to feel that in this small corner of the planet at least, they're in hypercontrol of their own destinies. At Hobo's, you pick your salmon or your halibut or your snapper. Then you get to have the chef grill or blacken it; sauté it or scampi-style it; do it à la française or à la japonaise. Picatta me. Marinara me. Give me your fra diavolo.

But don't settle back into your chair just yet. There are several dozen sauces, at varying prices, awaiting your powerful decision. By the time your entrée arrives, your brain has puzzled through enough new information — between the addition problems, the statistical probabilities, the culinary trick questions (does salmon go with peppercorn brandy cream sauce?) — to qualify you for Mensa.

Anyway, yours truly and other New Times luminaries learned recently that if we wanted to eat at the new Hobo's on a Saturday, we'd best do a line of NoDoz, because the only reservation available was for 9 p.m. So we sat at the full liquor bar a while, nursing our gimlets and soaking up important details. Like, the staff here is supercompetent and extra nice. At Hobo's, even strangers are treated with the utmost cordiality — service is swift and smart. The place is smallish but elegant-funky, with clouds painted on the ceiling and an open kitchen where we could study LaBiner not losing his temper as he turned out plate after plate of mahi mahi "oscar" or "jumpin. '" A flat-screen television over the bar scrolled through the night's specials, and the noise level was what happens when 60 people are all screaming at the top of their lungs between bites of shrimp Perlin and the pans in the kitchen are clattering and the phone is jangling and an endless stream of customers is barging through the doors.

No doubt, it was happening. Hobo's clientele is 54 percent under-40 hipster dressed snappily in expensive jeans and good jewelry and 37 percent gray-at-the-temple Bobos pulling up in their Infinity G35s. The other 9 percent are folks like us, propelled dazedly into this maelstrom by the publicity and word of mouth, nervously fingering the dimes in our pockets and wondering how the hell we're going to pay for dinner.

In its new incarnation, Hobo's is one of the priciest restaurants in Broward/Palm Beach. The average cost of an appetizer is $13. An entrée without special sauce is $29 or more. Desserts: $8. So your three-course meal without a single freaking frill — no five-dollar mustard glazes or $9 crab stuffing, no predinner martini or medium-priced bottle of pinot, no demitasse of espresso or tiny glass of port, is already setting you back fifty dollars. Tally up the extras and you're going to emerge from Hobo's feeling like you've just spent a long night at an Atlantic City blackjack table.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd