After spending almost two decades running kitchens, mostly in New York City, where he was born and bred, chef Steve Zobel in April 2011 packed up the family and relocated to South Florida for better weather and a change of pace. After less than a year on Fort Lauderdale Beach at the Atlantic Resort & Spa's East End Brasserie, he was, in his own words, "miserable."
He said he had "done the corporate-hotel thing for a really long time," mainly at Triomphe, a longstanding French restaurant in New York's Theater District. Zobel also worked in New York at Sign of the Dove and Contrapunto, in addition to stints in New Orleans and Martha's Vineyard. East End Brasserie seemed to be his boiling point. As an August New Times review revealed, cold, hard economics were forcing the brasserie to compromise its upscale menu by adding mass-appeal items like chicken wings and happy-hour specials.
In his year on the beach, though, Zobel apparently managed to develop a following. On two separate nights at d.b.a./café, which opened mid-November 2012 in the same Federal Highway shopping plaza as Whole Foods, diners at neighboring tables could be overheard reverently dropping his name.
A Craigslist ad brought him to d.b.a. co-owners Mike Lynch, cofounder of Il Mercato Cafe and Wine Bar in Hallandale Beach, and Tom Moynihan, a former New York City Spanish teacher who had worked at Il Mercato, who were looking for someone to take the reins at their new concept.
Inside the 65-seat eatery, the kitchen turned out a few dishes straight from Zobel's days at Triomphe, a longstanding French restaurant in New York's theater district. A New York Times review of that restaurant back in 2000 mentioned the same chicken liver crostini ($9) we found on the menu. Caramelized onions braised in sherry wine and a touch of sugar were a sweet, rich foil to a generous helping of almost-creamy seared chicken livers.
An unassuming-sounding chocolate mousse ($7) came in a coffee-cup-sized dish topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. A combination of bittersweet chocolate and just a modest amount of gelatin created a deep, intense flavor with a bit of tang. Though it was as refined as a French pastry shop's chocolate ganache, eating it felt sinful, like gluttonously licking frosting straight out of a can.
Despite featuring some dishes you typically find atop white linen tablecloths, d.b.a. has an ambiance more like a gastropub's — approachable and laid-back. Zobel says he wants people paying for what's on the plate, not fancy-shmancy décor.
Through a nondescript glass front, two exposed-brick walls line either side of the room. Ornate copper ceiling tiles, some oxidizing into a Statue of Liberty green, cover the ceiling. Toward the back of the room is an eight-seat L-shaped bar, coveted real estate for those looking to sample the unusual variety of wines selected by Lynch, a certified sommelier. The bar's kick space is covered in a mosaic of disassembled wine boxes. More of them were carefully cut into the shapes of New York City's iconic structures — the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge — and tagged to the wall adjacent to the bar. Beige banquettes lined either side of the room, and behind each sat a small shelf holding knickknacks — a weathered cookbook here, a rusting tin Coca-Cola lunch box there.
The menu was split into four sections with a list of à la carte sides. Almost all of the menu can be ordered in half sizes to allow for a tapas-style meal.
The garlicky, buttery porcini mushroom sauce atop three sea scallops ($13) tasted as though it could have done double-duty on a plate of escargots in a busy French brasserie. It had been one of Zobel's signature dishes back at East End, though here he took off the seared foie gras.
"I don't want to be a foie gras type of place," he says.
Not all of the menu spoke of Zobel's résumé. There were sensory-overloading plates like the soul-food-style Carnival Chicken ($14/$24), a buttermilk-marinated, half-fried bird atop maple-glazed funnel cake with a dusting of powdered sugar. Though at the moment he's leaning toward European and American comforts, Zobel says his intent is to offer global fare.
Wide ribbons of house-made pappardelle pasta ($13/$19), so thin they were just barely translucent, came in fragrant red wine sauce with chicken and braised mushrooms. The too-chewy chicken cubes would've been better braised or even left out completely, as the pasta, with just the right amount of bite, was the highlight of the dish.
Co-owner Lynch's modestly priced — dare we say cheap? — wine list featured plenty of uncommon varietals, and servers were eager to explain them. There was a white, florally Chilean Viognier, and a Gewürztraminer — a red-skinned grape from France's German border region that produces a sweet, fruity white. Some familiar red varieties, such as Pinot Noir and Malbec, are also on the menu. All of the wines were available by the glass, and the most expensive bottle rang in at $40.
Each Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. is a Mystery Brown Bag Wine Tasting, when diners bring in their own bottles. The guests' and house's wines are then slipped into brown bags, and Lynch makes his way around the room trying to guess each one and giving guests the chance to name his. We unknowingly arrived on one of those Wednesdays to find a restaurant so packed that staff had to scrounge for an extra table and set us up outside. Around us, the after-work crowd buzzed and clinked glasses.
Entrées offered a variety of dishes that lent themselves well to winetasting. The skin on a sweet, apricot-glazed confited duck leg ($15/$27) wasn't quite as crispy as we were expecting, though the juicy, rich duck meat beneath more than made up for it. Served with a puréed acorn squash crepe, this was a rich dish end to end, though the crepe was so thin that it was more like dumpling skin than French pancakes. Shaved Brussels sprouts were tender and balanced the duck.
Braised short ribs ($16/$29) were the wine-braised, fall-apart cubes of beef we expected, yet the accompanying truffled mashed potatoes, with Sabatino truffle oil that its makers claim is "100 percent organic," were starchy-tasting and mealy, more like an overcooked baked potato as opposed to the rich, earthy flavors we were expecting.
Onion-crusted Florida grouper ($15/$27) showed off the local goods that trendy restaurants today must have on their menus. Zobel says the combination of a smaller space and the recent decision to not serve lunch (though d.b.a. serves Sunday brunch) makes it easy for him to pick up the day's produce at local sources like Fort Lauderdale's Marando Farms. A fat fillet of white fish came atop a rich mushroom risotto with just enough earthiness to cut through the grain's buttery sauce. A vanilla beurre blanc paired perfectly with the delicate fish but made the bread-and-onion crumb topping a bit soggy.
Zobel no doubt has the résumé and the credibility to helm kitchens in far fancier restaurants with prices well beyond $30 per plate. South Florida should consider itself lucky that he stepped away from high-volume corporate restaurants and "thought it would be nice to work for a mom-and-pop type of place and get back to cooking." We're happy that he did and that he brought some of the decadent French dishes from his past along for the ride.