Bash Wine Café is holed up like a dark cave in a drab suburban strip mall in Sunrise, a location born of frugality for owners Nikki Pettineo and Veronica Lopez. A Johnson & Wales grad, Pettineo had lucked into a job as private chef for former Miami Dolphins safety Renaldo Hill and star running back Ronnie Brown. When Pettineo and Lopez discovered they didn't have the resources to cook for a party of 200, moving into the current Bash spot seemed like the cheapest way to get the job done. "We needed licenses and equipment we didn't have, and this place provided that," says Pettineo. "We thought, 'Even if another soul doesn't walk through the door, at least we'll have done this party.'"
That was a year ago. Since then, the duo's idea of "low-cost, gourmet comfort food" has flourished. On both of my recent visits, the 30-seat dining room, bathed in chocolate and black, was full of young couples cuddling up with bottles of malbec and swapping bites of cola-braised short ribs. Quartets of 50-somethings dressed down for dinner tossed back glasses of wine too and passed trays of housemade hummus painted with a slick of kimchi sauce. Everyone was having a worry-free time, a luxury easily afforded when no item on the menu is priced over $18 and no bottle of wine over $40.
Affordability is a trait that's becoming exceedingly rare in Florida restaurants. Zagat recently released a survey that put South Florida again near the top of the list as one of the country's most expensive places to eat, with an average price of more than $39 a head. The home of the Great Ponzi Schemers shadows over all other dining scenes save New York, Las Vegas, and well-to-do Long Island. It even eclipses San Francisco, a city so mired with food costs that it practically invented the $40 entrée.
Despite predictions by almost every major food news outlet that the biggest trend in 2009 would be "value," the relative cost of eating out in South Florida is one of the many reasons why big-name chefs like Todd English and Stephen Starr have scrambled to open outposts here — faster, even, than the previous tenant's eviction stickers can be scraped off the door. But for the many Floridians for whom dining out is still a privilege, the problem with price isn't the Figs or Steak 954s. It's in the midlevel restaurants — the III Forks, Brio's, and Truluck's — and their idea of "affordable luxury." Instead of filling menus with inexpensive, diner-friendly options, restaurants have gotten into the game of simply repackaging big-ticket items as big value. Basically, the restaurant industry's answer to our increasing demand for value is the gustatory equivalent of Black Friday ("See how much money you'll save on our artisan cocktails!"). What restaurateurs really want is to convince us that $15 for a trio of American Kobe sliders is a good buy.
Perhaps it's fate, then, that Bash's origins were as economically driven as its menu. Pettineo and Lopez essentially had no financial backing and a limited budget, yet they've done an admirable job with their premier restaurant. Granted, the design scheme needs work: My dining partner said the décor most resembled a scene from Moonlighting — iron flourishes and decorative stars line the walls, and everything from the tables and chairs to the servers is draped in black. The cheap-looking furniture evokes a late-night bingo hall. But it's something the pair acknowledges they need to improve.
Even so, Bash's overall effect is as comforting as a pile of kittens wearing hand-knit, woolen booties. Our waitress — the same enthusiastic woman on both visits — was excellent at getting our dining experience rolling, offering to start us out with plates of hummus or Parmesan spinach dip ($7 each). Both operate in the same way: The hummus — creamy, lemony, and spicy with the addition of kimchi sauce — is perfect for scooping with wedges of warm, grilled pita. The spinach dip is gooey and rich and great with a bowl of freshly fried tortilla chips. A starter of house chicken wings coated in a unique sauce of garlic, vinegar, and black pepper ($8) is another bar-food holdover that works as well, preferably with a crisp bottle of Brooklyn Lager ($3) or a glass of Mark West pinot noir ($9.50). The wine list is modest and inexpensive, and most selections are available by the glass and amply poured.
Bash features a dozen entrées that fall mostly under $15, something I haven't seen since I last ate at Chili's a dozen or so years ago. I asked our waitress which was better: a breast of chicken slickened with apricot and chipotle sauce or a double-cut pork chop roasted in Coca-Cola and finished with apple chutney. "The pork chop is fabulous," she said, drawing out the word like she was tasting it herself. I took her advice and ended up with a juicy, bone-in chop with criss-crossed grill marks. The lean piece of meat was further moistened by the chutney; I only wish there was more than a small spooning of the spicy/sweet fruit. For a dollar extra, you can upgrade either of two standard sides to a "Bash" side like a slab of rich potatoes au gratin, a peppery stack laced with stringy cheddar and cooked al dente. My favorite of the choices, though, was a bowl of mac and cheese with a crispy baked topping that hides creamy waves within.
Not everything works flawlessly. A special of crab cakes was described as "fab," but the pan-seared mounds were plain, despite a dressing of roasted red pepper coulis and a too-dry piece of grilled polenta. And at $22, they also cost more than anything on the regular menu. Bash rotates a seafood or a ravioli special daily, and each time I went, the latter was Parmesan pumpkin ($13). It's another dish I'd skip, as the pockets of pasta are underfilled and sit in a flavorless pool of browned butter.
For the best value at Bash, though, stick to the food that sticks to your ribs: specifically, short ribs braised in Mr. Pibb, of all things ($18). These meaty cuts appear from the kitchen with great regularity, catching jealous glances from neighbors as they land on tables nearby before being promptly devoured. You'd think the meat would be cloying after bathing in syrupy soda for a few hours, but the lightly sweet flavor cuts through the fat nicely. A pounded breast of pecan-encrusted chicken ($13) is just as indulgent: It has an airy, savory crust but better deserves the prefix "chicken-fried" thanks to a ladling of creamy bourbon mustard sauce. Both portions are so large that you'll be trucking leftovers home along with your shelved restraint.
After a meal like that, you're already too loaded with booze and lipids to resist a plate of brownies wrapped in crunchy wonton skin and deep-fried ($9). The brownie melts inside the wrapping and is doused with chocolate sauce and served with a couple of outsized scoops of ice cream. Simple, cheap, impossible to go wrong. Not to mention it pairs great with the check, which even after three courses and a few glasses of wine will likely run you less than $60 for two.
Price is a funny thing: it's both an indicator of value and a factor of it. In defense of all those restaurants out there contributing to Florida's bloated average price, balancing consumer demand with affordability is not easy. Bash has somehow found a place where the two can meet in equal harmony. Now that's worth celebrating.