For 22 years, diners who ventured to downtown Hollywood could get a potent combo of fresh sushi and ear-bending tunes served by wife-and-husband team Junko Maslak and famed jazz-noise musician Kenny Millions. Maslak helped execute exotic dishes while Millions presided over the stage and patrons parked themselves in overstuffed couches to hear the eclectic jams.
In one month, things have changed. A different generation is in charge.
Two weeks ago, our party of four hunkered down in a comfy faux-leather booth, ten miles up the road from Hollywood, in Fort Lauderdale. On the other side of the small but modern dining room, Millions simply relaxed in a chair. Our heads (Millions' included) bopped to some instrumental lounge music with a particularly catchy beat. My friend looked up and chuckled: "Are we listening to 'Big Poppa'?" Yup, the entire dining room was jamming to the Notorious B.I.G. — the Muzak version.
Sensing that the downtown nightlife scene was fading and diners no longer cared about restaurants offering live music, Millions and Maslak closed Sushi Blues in March. That left their two lovely, long-dark-haired daughters, Melissa Maslak and Mari Crabtree, wondering, "What are we supposed to do now?" according to Mari. She and her sister had served at and managed Sushi Blues for more than 20 years.
More like friends than siblings, they decided to open Café Jamm, focusing on American comfort food prepared with fresh ingredients that are locally sourced whenever possible. Café Jamm is still a newborn, having opened in the last days of April. Their mom assists in the kitchen, and Millions "runs to the store for us once in a while," but these ladies now run the show.
Café Jamm is awfully chic for being sandwiched between a nail salon and a dentist's office in the Whole Foods strip mall on North Federal Highway. It boasts clean lines and minimalist décor, with small round mirrors as accents. A focal point is a wall with a large image of a tree that appears to be hand-painted by a local artist. (Shhh! It's wallpaper).
Melissa, uniformed like her sister in an adorable, colorful apron, stood behind the marble bar. Wooden shelves displayed hand-selected boutique wines, which are all described with user-friendly details on the menu.
Our party selected a bottle of Gouguenheim Argentinian Malbec (2009; $32) that featured pleasantly mild notes of plum and pepper. It took us all of three seconds to unanimously decide on mac 'n' cheese ($5) as our first appetizer. The chef (Yoshikatsu Ozaki, who came from Sushi Blues with the family) prepares his version with a generous portion of nutty Gruyère and bits of salty bacon. The smoldering gratin of pasta is topped with panko, then set under a broiler until golden and toasty.
In addition to featuring carbohydrate-heavy comfort fare such as creamy mashed potatoes, crispy chicken, and pastas, Café Jamm offers not-so-comfort-inspired dishes like our second appetizer, Prince Edward Island mussels ($11). Plump, sweet, and tender, they were cooked and bathed in a crisp yet succulent white-wine butter sauce. The shellfish was flavored with minced garlic, sliced onions, tomato, and basil and came with grilled ciabatta bread. We couldn't resist gobbling them up in soulful portions and even requested extra slices of the buttery toast to soak up the broth.
House-made meat loaf ($15) stuck out from the menu, making me reminisce about my mom's rectangular beef concoction, studded with cheddar cheese and topped with ketchup. Café Jamm's Momma Maslak helps her daughters out in the kitchen and makes this dish daily with ground beef and a tomato gravy. Creamy, garlic mashed potatoes mixed perfectly with the gravy, but the sweet ketchup sauce slathered on the loaf was redundant paired with such a similarly tomato-flavored broth. My taste buds longed for a contrast like a beef-flavored gravy or horseradish.
My date ordered the other dish I'd had my eye on — a flash-fried crispy chicken breast with creamy jack cheese sauce ($17). Fried food coupled with cheese screamed "comfort" like a heavy-metal lullaby. The portion arrived with a crispy golden crust. The thick, velvety cheese sauce added creaminess and a salty bite that almost made up for the breast, which was dry.
Our dining companions argued that comfort food need not be fried and Southern. Surprisingly, their choices — salmon with miso hollandaise ($23) and garlic-marinated skirt steak with chimichurri sauce ($18) — were the winning entrées. The salmon was grilled to a moist medium and topped with a hollandaise that wasn't as rich as a traditional one but, rather, faint and airy with a salty miso flavor. It added to rather than overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the salmon.
Cutting into the skirt steak revealed a juicy, ruby-pink center. A double dose of garlic — it's in the marinade and in the vibrant green chimichurri — make it a dish to avoid on a first date. But if your sweetie can handle your belches all night, it's worth the stinky side effect.
Only two dessert options were available, but one of them made me wish I'd eaten it before dinner: the chocolate brownie with ice cream ($5), also homemade by Momma Maslak. It wasn't just any ol' pedestrian brownie. This was a soft, warm, gooey, chocolate square of cocoa celebration studded with bits of walnut and a layer of salted caramel sauce. A scoop of vanilla ice cream slowly melted atop the chocolate-caramel sensation. The four of us ate it with such gusto that the ice cream barely had time to drop a degree.
On a second visit, early during a slow weeknight, the theme of comfort fusion continued. While enjoying a half-priced glass of pinot noir during the quietest happy hour I've been to (offered from 5 to 7 p.m.), we started with oysters prepared similar to Japanese kaki fry — dredged in flaky panko bread crumbs, then deep-fried ($8) with a crunchy, tasty exterior. I followed that with the quintessential comfort food — a cheddar cheeseburger ($11) on a grilled, buttery brioche bun. Caramelized onions added sweetness to the burger, offsetting a slathering of zesty and creamy garlic aioli.
My dining counterpart chose the pecan- and almond-crusted tilapia ($16). Americans consumed 475 million pounds of tilapia last year, making it our most popular farmed fish. But at Café Jamm, the tilapia is wild — served with a generous dollop of zesty homemeade tartar sauce atop sautéed spinach. Despite its being wild, the already bland fish was swallowed by a thick sheath of chopped pecans and almonds, resulting in an overpowering flavor of sweet nuts.
Crowds haven't found this place yet; ours was one of only a few occupied tables. But I'm not worried for the Maslak/Crabtree sisters. Live music or not, the locals should be soon singing to the tune of Café Jamm.