Alleluia, Armadillo | Dish | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Restaurant Reviews

Alleluia, Armadillo

Forgive me, Armadillo Cafe, for I have sinned. It has been one year since my last supper. Since that time, I have displayed gluttony. I've had impure thoughts twice (OK, three times, tops). I have cheated on you. And I have committed the worst culinary crime of all: I lost my faith.

You see, when you were about to close up shop last fall in anticipation of your move across town, I hustled over to Davie to fill myself shamelessly with one final Southwestern feast. Since then, I have desired your house-smoked duck quesadillas and lusted after your marinated leg of lamb dressed with a sun-dried tomato sauce. When you didn't reopen as anticipated -- indeed, when renovating the former Sadie's Buffet that was to be your second home took, well, way too long -- I took to other restaurants. I recommended Canyon to diners looking for high-end tequilas and innovative regional fare. As the months passed and construction delays seemed insurmountable, I eventually, I am ashamed to say, figured you for a goner.

That is when I received the sign: an open sign. Last month, a year after your initial target date, you finally swung wide the pearly portals, on the street end of a shopping plaza on South University Drive. I knew then that I had to return, make my confession, and receive absolution, for only then would I be able to live in peace and portobello mushroom tostadas.

And you are a kind and benevolent café. You have restored my faith and given me the opportunity once again to sing your praises.

Your new church is a handsome one, with high ceilings and sophisticated oil paintings and stained glass and burnished leather chairs (even highchairs). Your shibboleth -- "a smoke-free restaurant and bar" -- is a healthy and honorable one. And your flock is a loyal one, comprising customers of all ages, as befits a restaurant in Davie.

To tell the truth (and I cannot tell a lie), I am not surprised to find that your children are consistent creatures who have been patiently awaiting your second coming. I am not surprised to find that the menu has remained almost the same, once again providing clientele with signature dishes of roasted corn-jalapeño fritters and pasilla-crusted cowboy steak. I am not surprised to see that the wine list, always exceptional, has not just remained excellent but has actually been improved upon, adding unusual and hard-to-get "cult" vintages from boutique wineries.

But I have to admit that I was extremely startled to have the same waiter I had last year. The return of patrons who cared for your fare is one thing. But the resurrection of original wait staff after a yearlong hiatus? Now, that's brand loyalty.

Not only did our waiter remember my party from the last time around; he even recalled that the eatery had run out of the Caymus Conundrum we had wanted, so he brought me a glass this time even though it is not listed on the by-the-glass program. It is precisely that kind of thoughtful service that has impressed this community for the past 13 years. And while chef-proprietors Kevin McCarthy and Eve Montella-Smith may be worried that their absence has not made local hearts grow fonder, I now believe they shall overcome.

Here's how I plan on keeping the faith: I will begin my worship with a green-apple martini, gleaned from your list of trendy drinks. I will pair it with a perfectly matched starter of Roquefort salad, a toss of baby greens accented with green apples, almonds, fried onion rings, and a subtly pungent blue cheese vinaigrette. I will follow it up with my long-time favorite main course, the grilled tenderloin of ostrich smothered with a rich port wine-sun-dried cherry sauce. I have always admired the filet-mignon texture of this big bird, which is matched well here by the intense, enigmatic reduction of wine and fruit.

Less precious cocktails and homier, more basic fare are available for stalwart citizens. To my mind, the Armadillo clams, steamed with roasted peppers, white wine, tasso ham, garlic, and Texmati rice, have never failed to please as an opening hymn. A skirt steak rubbed with pasilla chili sauce and served over smashed potatoes is a pretty serious sermon on meat-eating. Flavorful, flaky, cedar-planked salmon with a tangy chipotle-mango barbecue sauce, laid over Asian noodles, is as reliable as church on Sunday.

But if I find myself slipping into heresy again, I might have to give myself over to something like the shrimp and sun-dried tomato pesto pasta. This dish is no doubt a toothy restorative, the al dente pasta contrasting wonderfully with the ultrafresh shrimp and toasted pumpkin seeds that garnish it. But I confess it's the sauce that has me in a born-again mood. The combination of reduced cream, sun-dried tomatoes, sharp Asiago cheese, roast garlic, asparagus, and basil is given an earthy yet sweet undertone with a fillip of pumpkin-seed oil.

As a curious parishioner should, though, I do retain some concerns and harbor some questions. Why is the veal chop, a special that runs with creamy, blue cheese-spiked polenta, so fatty? Why do the courses take so long to come out of the kitchen? Why do the trays on the highchair bear the logo of Piccadilly Cafeteria? Why are the apples in the cobbler as hard as church pews?

But these inconsistencies are minor, and any critic of faith will realize that, having been open only a month, you can only improve, Armadillo Cafe. In fact, the enforced sabbatical seems to have refreshed you. And while I may stop short of complete conversion, I don't think I'd mind a little baptism ceremony with your zesty yin-yang combo of black bean and jalapeño-Jack cheese soups. Failing that, I can only pledge to you, O revitalized Armadillo Cafe, O holy purveyor of all comestibles Southwestern, that I will never doubt again.

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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

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