Restaurant Reviews

Fear of Frying

I saw my first fire-safety video when I was in first grade. The graphic scenes in the movie made such an impression on me that I packed my toys in paper bags every night so I could grab them easily in case of an emergency. For a year I couldn't sleep unless it rained -- I was convinced a house would never catch fire if it were wet enough.

I'd thought I'd outgrown that particular phobia, but I couldn't help recalling my fear of fire at Vienna Cafe & Wine Bar. Located in the parking lot of a massive shopping center on State Road 84 in Davie, Vienna Cafe occupies its own freestanding building, so it would probably survive if the other strip-mall businesses in the Pine Island Plaza went up in flames. However, the restaurant itself, a charming bistro with soft lighting, polished dark woods, and multipaned windows striped with white woodwork, felt like something of a firetrap during a recent visit. I couldn't figure out why the hostess took us on such a labyrinthine route to our table; the path she chose bypassed the aisle that led directly to the table, where I could see other members of my party already enjoying a glass of wine, and wound past the bar and kitchen. After shimmying between the half-walls that subdivide the dining room and the chairs of several other customers, I realized that the first aisle was not just narrow but completely blocked by diners. Once seated we couldn't get out. The eatery was simply too crowded.

Phobias aside, getting stuck in Vienna Cafe shouldn't be a hardship. Danish chef-proprietor Per Jacobsen trained at a hotel and restaurant school in Copenhagen before immigrating to the U.S. in 1987. He worked for some years at the Eden Roc and Biltmore hotels in Miami-Dade, where he was food-and-beverage director and executive chef respectively, before launching Vienna Cafe (the former site of Four and Twenty Blackbirds) in February 1999.

Jacobsen, not surprisingly, prepares a number of northern European and Scandinavian specialties, including such wine-bar appetizers (also served at the table, if you prefer) as savory Danish meatballs with sweet cucumber salad. Roasted duck with red cabbage and snapper baked with candied red onions exemplify his tempting-sounding entrées. But the number of customers in this 80-seat dining room -- it was a full house that night, apparently -- caused numerous delays in service. The homemade sourdough bread appeared 20 minutes after we sat down, and the starters took another 40. We'd consumed an entire bottle of pinot gris, chosen from a select and well-priced international wine list, before we buttered our first crust.

Still, the meal got off to a satisfying start foodwise, and I'd probably ignore any smoke alarm or even a fire if I had a plate of the linguine-and-smoked-salmon appetizer in front of me. Sautéed with julienne leeks, the hunks of salmon were neither fishy nor salty but pleasantly aromatic and succulent. A delicate white wine cream sauce united the pasta and fish. Another starter using smoked salmon took a different approach. Here sliced salmon, cured like lox, was layered over a fluffy potato pancake. A dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of black caviar provided traditional counterpoints.

For a more interesting amuse-bouche, look for the "bow-tied escargots" -- dark, plump snails sautéed with roasted garlic, plum tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, and olive oil. I had some trepidation about the chile peppers, which seemed a misdirected culinary influence, but my worries came to naught. No pepper was visible in the dish, and the snails were ideally complemented by the rich Mediterranean ingredients. Be sure to request more bread well ahead of time -- this sauce was made for dipping.

Aside from the sourdough, the eatery also has homemade focaccia on hand. This crisp-edged bread served well as an edible tray for an appetizer of pan-roasted ratatouille. The supple chunks of eggplant and zucchini, tossed with tomatoes and peppers, provided a good textural contrast to the crunchy backdrop, and a smattering of melted Brie topped off the whole thing as if it were a pizza.

The focaccia didn't fare so well as sandwich material, however. Left under the heat lamp or simply stale, the bread was so hard you could tap a rhythm on it and be heard across the dining room, an experiment I actually attempted. Pulled roasted duck and mozzarella made strange bedfellows as sandwich filling; the bland cheese did nothing to enhance the fowl. Next time I'll opt for a sandwich served on a sourdough kaiser roll, like the hamburger au poivre.

The nightly specials are Vienna Cafe's biggest draws, simply because they're the best deals at a place where the prices are fair to begin with. No main course on the written menu costs more than $16, and the specials don't run much higher. Entrées like the evening's rib eye steak with mashed potatoes came with a choice of soup or salad. We enjoyed an enormous, well-balanced caesar salad, the crisp leaves of romaine sprinkled with Parmesan and dotted with homemade croutons. The serving was so generous, in fact, it made the slightly fatty rib eye, which was grilled to a rare juiciness, almost superfluous.

What was definitely superfluous was the service that accompanied the grilled veal chop main course, which came garnished with a roasted onion-mushroom compote. Two members of my party ordered the chop; one wanted it medium-rare, the other medium-well. But the waiter forgot which plate was which, so he asked one of my guests, the one who wanted the chop more rare, to cut into it. When the waiter saw that the meat inside was more white than pink, he grabbed the plate and gave it to the other diner. Good thing we were all family that evening; bad thing that the second chop was so well-done it tasted burnt.

Like the duck focaccia sandwich, the veal chops had obviously suffered from an internal flaw: a kitchen so disorganized that it took more than an hour to compile our main courses. It was as if the cooks had all gone on break or decided they were too tired to keep up the pace. The only entrée that didn't languish from the wait was the chicken cordon bleu, a lovely version of the classic dish. Stuffed with ham and Gruyère, the boneless chicken breast had been rolled in bread crumbs and baked to a just-about-to-ooze finish.

Sweets, such as sacher torte, chocolate mousse pie, and Oreo cheesecake, change daily. The kitchen makes some and purchases others, presenting them all on a dessert tray. Our waiter never made it to that point, perhaps realizing that the marathon meal -- three hours for two courses -- had disinclined us to sit around for any more. Many of Jacobsen's tasty dishes could entice me back for another visit, though. I might go during less-prime hours, when all 80 seats would not be taken, making it easier to get to the restrooms, as well as out the door in case of a fire. And I'd certainly prefer a rainy night.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick