Kevin McCarthy is sautéing chocolate-coated scallops. It sounds as if one of our favorite chefs has wandered into some gustatory la-la land, a Ferran Adrià/Wylie Dufresne-inspired nightmare territory where oyster sorbets topped with mudwort foams are already passé. Or maybe he's working on something more sinister: a killer aphrodisiac?
Not that McCarthy's drooling fans don't already love him beyond all reckoning. The way his groupies follow him around, it's embarrassing.
McCarthy's got a 19-year-old business to run, the current incarnation of his Armadillo Café (now Armadillo Beach Café ), which opened this spring in Dania Beach. He's tended this strange little beast through many a close call. For two decades in Broward, in one of the most volatile restaurant markets in the country, McCarthy has managed to keep the Armadillo from ending up as roadkill.
Since he opened the original 55-seat Armadillo Café in 1988, McCarthy has moved his restaurant, expanded it, taken on partners, poured money into it, sloughed off partners, added a catering business, added a liquor license, organized lavish corporate parties, closed up, moved again, shrunk down to the size of a walk-in closet, changed its name, shared space with a gourmet grocery, sold sandwiches, whatever it took. Now that even nationally recognized chefs like Jonathan Eismann and Norman Van Aken are caving to financial pressures and the dumbing of the South Florida palate (both Eismann's Pacific Time and Norman's closed this year), it looks as if the Armadillo's protective armor — composed of one part stubbornness and two parts adaptability — has kept fortune's outrageous arrows bouncing off it like so many hurled toothpicks. McCarthy's persistence would be irksome if it didn't ultimately spread so much joy around.
Still, the man has four kids to feed; he's got a local reputation to maintain for his ultracondensed but creative menu. He's got a staff that depends on him and a bunch of old customers who want their "black & white soup" (a night 'n' day bowl, half black bean, half jalapeño jack) to taste exactly the way it did back in 1990. So what's he doing fooling around with such surreal ingredients? Chocolate scallops?
Not surreal, it turns out, sensible. Having done a season serving lunch (kobe burgers with ginger slaw and shiitake mushrooms, $13; house-made mozzarella salad with arugula, $8), the new Armadillo, still a work in progress, rolled out its Thursday-through-Saturday dinner service this month. McCarthy wanted to find a way to sear those shellfish so they'd carmelize nicely without losing moisture, maybe for a nightly special. He'd figured that if he coated the scallops in a slew of seasonings and cocoa butter powder (which has a neutral flavor), he could fry them at a higher temp without burning. And it worked! And it was fun! He'd taken a chocolate class with Jean Pierre Wybauw, of the Belgian firm Callebaut, and he'd been playing around with other ideas too: an armadillo-shaped candy made with spicy toasted pecans, fine chocolate, and carmelized ginger. This obsession made sense: McCarthy's chocolate fritters — a specialty he's purveyed practically from day one — are confections that cause ugly fork wars to break out among even the politest diners, and I have the scars to prove it.
So McCarthy's experimenting, but he's not turning his back on his traditional customers, some of whose kids he's watched grow up and start to make their own dinner reservations. They'll still find the classic Armadillo legacy dishes on the Dania Beach menu, invented in the years when new Southwestern cuisine was as hot as a mesquite-filled smoker. Fried goat cheese with mango salsa, jalapeño and corn fritters, tequila-soaked shrimp served over a corn cake, and locally caught snapper seared with tomatoes, wild mushrooms, and ginger will all still satisfy nostalgias (although we missed McCarthy's marvelous, long-running clams with tasso).
Nowadays, McCarthy likes to call what he does "American-Regional" instead of "Southwestern." ("We never really did serious Southwestern anyway," he says. "It was always twisted.") Regional makes sense if your region is the entire planet. He's pulling in healthy farm-raised fish from all over the place — like the omega-3-loaded Hawaiian Kampachi (a special) or Caicos Island conch (an appetizer), marrying them with glamorous international flavorings like yuzu (a Japanese lemon), togarashi spice mix, and Spanish smoked paprika. Seasonal, but not obsessively so. Local, when he can get it. Simple and hearty but never dull. Add in years of experience messing around with global ingredients and you've got a neighborhood café that sets the standard for the genre: an intimate room where two decades of regular customers along with dozens of new converts can share a meal that comforts and stimulates, at fair prices.
When I talked to him by phone last week, McCarthy stressed he's still working on staffing and décor, but you can't argue with the food he's serving. It's true, our well-intentioned waiter was nervous, our plates sat too long after dinner, and the look of the small room is still evolving (there's a bar at one end and a cozy arrangement of candle-lit tables at the other; it will eventually seat 50), but the effect is unfinished, not unpleasant. Whatever — we just wanted to know if the tequila shrimp ($12) had survived the move. We ordered them, plus two new appetizers: queen conch ($12) and the nightly special, barbecued lamb ribs ($12; McCarthy has since put these on the permanent menu, with a slightly tweaked sauce).
McCarthy's shrimp/corn cake is such a luxurious mouthful, so simply composed, a perfectly balanced, nuanced collection of flavors and textures. The corn cake is loaded with chipotle butter, for one thing. The crustaceans are fleshy, smoky, laced with pungent alcoholic fumes of tequila. A spicy tomato salsa tempers this desert warmth with its sharp, cold acids and adds a paint blot of reds and greens. It's just wonderful. Baby, you're not getting older; you're getting better.
We couldn't get enough of the fatty, tender barbecued lamb ribs either. McCarthy had given them a dry spice rub, grilled them, and sent them out with an earthy sauce of reduced vegetables, smoked paprika, cumin, chili powder, and a bright undercurrent of fresh mint.
As for the princess conch, the chef had grilled it in bite-sized pieces with togarashi spice mix and tricked it out in a pretty party dress of citrusy yuzu beurre blanc and a drizzle of three-vinegar syrup. And that's about the best you can do for a sea snail I've never been entirely convinced is real food (unless it's chopped up in a fritter or a chowder). The conch was chewy/tender, and the sauces made sense with it, but this isn't an appetizer I'm going to go to pieces over. Maybe it's just me.
I'd been dying to try the trendy Hawaiian fish kampachi. Kampachi sounds like an ideal seafood; if you've lost faith in farmed fish, this relative of the Japanese yellowtail offers hope for a healthy, sustainable alternative. It's farmed in deep oceans at up to 200 feet (the wild version, called Hawaiian hamachi, is toxic and unsafe to eat); it's mercury- and PCB-free; it's full of good fats; it's raised on fish meal and organic wheat without antibiotics; and it tastes terrific raw, as sashimi, or lightly pan-fried, as I had it at Armadillo ($26, a special). McCarthy says he'll eventually bring in his sushi cooler and offer sashimi or ceviche, but I'm already plenty happy with these buttery seared fillets. And the homemade tartar sauce he serves it with totally rocks.
Our entrée of sliced duck breast had been cured with chilies and sugar, seared, sliced; and served with a hearty white bean and bacon salad. The duck breast was so beautiful, so pink and firm and fresh, I thought it lacked for nothing (one of us summed it up as "a little bland"— maybe it could have used an extra spoonful of that dried cherry glaze.) I loved those supersized, starchy white beans as a foil. If you've grown disillusioned over the dry, stringy bird served everywhere, this one will win your heart back.
Locally caught yellowtail snapper ($25) smothered in tomatoes, wild mushrooms, roasted peppers, garlic, and ginger is as superb as ever. It's a meal that has plenty of complexity in its smoky, meaty, fruity accents, but it never compromises the delicate marine flavor of our homegrown piscine celebrity.
And then, of course, there was the single plate of chocolate fritters, bright little luscious bubbles of bliss, fried chocolate and cinnamon paté choux, in a sludgy bath of dark chocolate fudge alongside a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream. Will we ever learn to order one for each of us?
That's how we found our old 'Dillo: delightful, calming, familiar, twisty, fun. This hardscrabble little animal has trotted gamely along the highway for almost 20 years while hulking corporate rigs and star chefs in snazzy convertibles whooshed past. Most of them are long gone: They ended up out of gas or upside-down in a ditch, wheels spinning. I hope McCarthy's creature will settle down now. I'd like to have those fritters to fight over for another couple of decades.