Each step across the hotel lobby led us closer and closer to the sound of a singer's boisterous voice. "Please tell me that noise is not coming from the restaurant," my dinner guest grumbled with a worried look across his face. We were walking toward the narrow entryway of East End Brasserie, an upscale French restaurant that opened last October inside the Atlantic Resort & Spa in Fort Lauderdale. Standing right across from the hostess stand was the source of the rowdy tune. A jazz cabaret singer was entertaining a scattered audience of boozed-up tourists on a Saturday night, and her lyrics loudly exuded a preposterous love for the city of Paris. My guest shot me a quick look while the hostess led us to our table. Though no words were spoken, his look said, "Let's get as far away as we can."
We were escorted through the bar and to the vast dining room, where white marble tables were adorned with single red roses and sapphire cylinders of Sel de Guérande, hand-harvested sea salt from France. Smooth scarlet booths lined the walls, and a duo of large, rustic, wooden tables in the center of the room anchored the space. Iron chandeliers and framed prints added a touch of grace to the cream and blue walls and ceilings. An outdoor patio was plain but offered the pièce de résistance: a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean (and a peaceful escape from the voice of a cheesy cabaret singer).
Lovely as the setting was, it lacked the most integral component of a dining room: ravenous diners. On a weeknight evening, we witnessed empty chairs and unoccupied waiters. A few hotel guests were aimlessly dotted across the exterior patio, admiring the beach and buzzing from scattered bottles of wine.
When the Atlantic Hotel opened in 2004, it was the first luxury hotel on the main stretch of Fort Lauderdale beach; the Ritz-Carlton, the W, and the Westin all followed. These developments were instrumental in changing the city's reputation from a spring break party pad into an upscale vacation destination.
The restaurant inside the Atlantic Hotel also debuted in 2004, under the name Trina. It garnered many accolades with a menu designed by Don Pintabona, executive chef at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill in New York City. In the mid-'00s, Trina endured a shaky period marked by lackluster reviews, but in 2010, James Beard award-winning chef Mark Militello took over the kitchen. Less than a year later, though, Militello abruptly left, offering little to no explanation as to why. Rumors swirled about this odd departure, and about one year later, hotel execs brought in Steven Zobel, an accomplished chef who garnered critical acclaim at the 40-seat French restaurant Triomphe in New York City. He came in as executive chef, and the revamped hotel restaurant reopened as East End Brasserie.
The word brasserie typically implies an informal, relaxed French restaurant. When the restaurant debuted almost a year ago, French fare was its signature, and if anything, it veered toward the upscale. Now, however, while the dining room retains its formal feel, foie gras and escargots have been banished from the menu, replaced with a mishmash of dishes: spicy Korean bon chon chicken wings, pizzette, and fettuccine pomodoro. Happy-hour discounts are emphasized.
One of the servers quickly offered an unsolicited explanation: "We had to change the menu a while ago," he explained. "People just weren't into the whole French thing." (A high point of dinner were the servers, who were refreshingly honest, even if water glasses sometimes went unfilled.)
Later, in a phone call, a manager told me that the restaurant is "in a transitional period" and that Zobel is completing his last weeks at the brasserie and will be opening his own restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. Though I was assured that Zobel is still currently employed at the restaurant, he was not visible through the open kitchen on any of the evenings that we dined there — not even on a Saturday night.
Weird as it was to order spicy Korean-style fried chicken wings ($12) at a brasserie, we went for them. Alongside pickled zucchini, the wings were tough and dry, lacking their characteristic crackling skin and moist meat. They also lacked the promised spice. Much more delectable was the duo of seared sea scallops ($14), served atop a rich, succulent pool of porcini mushroom cream and topped with the chopped fungi. The tender mollusk boasted a perfectly browned crust, a contrast with its fleshy, tender interior. This dish – the apotheosis of our meals – radiated with a seeming French sensibility.
Truffled lobster mac and cheese, truffled white cheese pizzette, and truffled mashed potatoes are all on the menu, indicating that truffle oil is drizzled without any constraint here. Though the word truffle at one time suggested an extravagant dish, educated diners know by now that most truffle oil used today is one-dimensional, affordable, and usually synthetic. They didn't fool me with the gimmick. Whereas mac and cheese should have been a comfort food, here, combined with the oil and with lobster, it was fussy and uninspired.
Our waiter raved about the hearts of palm salad ($11), stressing that it's not a traditional "lettuce" salad, and we indulged but found its tomatoes underripe and the whole thing blandly dressed in a mediocre lemon oil and fresh black pepper. Slightly more memorable was the heirloom tomato and spinach salad ($11), a twist on a traditional insalata caprese. Topped with perlini mozzarella and dressed with basil balsamic vinaigrette, we caught ourselves diving for tomato under the disproportionate mountain of baby spinach leaves. More tomatoes and a deeper platter would most definitely improve this otherwise refreshing dish.
The entrées, unfortunately, also showed signs of incoherence. Although the mustard crusted snapper ($28) sounded promising, its thick breaded crust proved greasy and brash for the flaky fish. Still, it was a satisfying meal, particularly with the hearty sides of braised white beans with tomato and parsley and the delicately sautéed spinach. The eight-ounce East End burger au poivre ($16), however, disappointed. A dish featuring a restaurant's name should indicate a signature dish. But this burger arrived between two slices of English muffin, with melted Gruyére, pickled zucchini, and a barely noticeable peppercorn sauce, plus an odd, bitter flavor. French fries were limp and tepid. Most promising was the chicken française ($25), a battered breast smothered with a slightly astringent lemon caper sauce. A surprisingly tasty herbed risotto, with chopped tomatoes, was delightful. A pork chop ($24) was tough and overcooked.
When dessert came, though, much was forgiven. Pastry chef Ashley Roehrig deserves the credit for a creamsicle crème brûlée ($10) – a whimsical celebration of sweet citrus flavor, garnished with orange wedges and a lightly sweetened whipped cream. A bite of chewy, slightly tough, beignets fortified our love for the previous dessert, particularly after the fried pâte à choux took a quick swim in the thin, lackluster dulce de leche sauce. A warm, rich, chocolate flourless cake ($10), which came with a trio of crisp and silky tempura bananas, was much more enjoyable, especially with a scoop of homemade brown butter ice cream.
Ultimately, East End Brasserie is a pleasant beachside setting, though the cuisine is too uninspired for the price. I'd love to see the restaurant refocus on French fare, but I won't be surprised if it adds a karaoke night instead.