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Restaurant Reviews

Feels Like the First Time

About five years ago, I was charged with what, at the time, seemed like a perfectly reasonable request: Find the ideal restaurant to review for the inaugural issue of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. The parameters were broad, somewhat general in scope. The eatery had to be relatively new. Untouched by the competition. Stylish, with artful décor. Trendy. On the higher end of the scale, with an experienced staff and a menu that represented the region. In short, the place had to absolutely scream Broward County, where the New Times office was going to be based. Something like a Darrel & Oliver's Café Maxx or a Mark's Las Olas.

No problem, I thought. My husband had grown up in the west Broward area. His extended family sprawls throughout Broward and Palm Beach counties. I'd been visiting and/or living in the area since college. And I'd been reviewing restaurants for Miami New Times for five years at that point, so I had a pretty good inkling what the editors expected to read.

Call me picky, or just plain pessimistic. But after assessing nearly a hundred restaurants over the summer before the October launch, I couldn't find one that fit all the points on the bill. If the restaurant had a trendy bent, City Link (then known as XS) had already written it up; if the chef showed signs of being serious, the Sun-Sentinel had gotten to it. Others weren't situated in a promising area or didn't have regional atmospherics or didn't exhibit enough meaty attitude.

The restaurant I eventually settled on, Lord Nelson's Pub, hit on enough of the variables to make it acceptable. Broward County, oddly enough, is known for its bubbling Irish and British pub life. The establishment wasn't a dive, was only a few months old, and was located in Himmarshee Village, an area projected to become popular with the paper's demographics (a prediction that turned out to be accurate, as we now know). But the restaurant proved only mediocre, and vaguely dissatisfied, I finally had to file the whole episode in my mind as a task of Herculean proportions. After all, I had to move on.

Still, five years and more than 200 reviews later, I'm aware more than ever of that then-unfulfilled checklist. Especially when I come across a restaurant like JB's on the Beach, an establishment that, by all appearances, was built to suit the contours of my Perfect First Review. Not to mention that it gave me the opportunity to complete my agenda -- in two years' less time than it took Hercules, I might add.

In short, is the restaurant relatively new? Check: About two months old, JB's is a gleaming construction in Deerfield Beach that takes the place of a crumbling gas station. Stylish? You betcha: multi-tiered, with a patterned carpet, lots of large glass windows, fresh white walls, and contemporary architecture that takes inspiration from Key West conch houses. Trendy? Well, there's a valet, a reservation desk, a sign noting that proper dress -- i.e., no tank tops, shoes required -- is a darn good idea, and an assortment of women sporting handbags with designer logos on them, so draw your own conclusions.

Most important, perhaps, is that JB's offers the type of dining experience one expects to find in South Florida. The name is no lie -- JB's is as "on the beach" as an umbrella and lounge chair, a rarity indeed in these parts. That explains why the extensive patio often has a waiting list when seats are still available inside. But seeing, hearing, smelling, and even touching the waves, should you so desire, as you sup is a pleasure of which we are cruelly and unusually deprived, despite our proximity to the Atlantic.

The menu is a great match for the setting, with entrées highlighting seafood, fish, and meats grilled over a wood fire that brings beach barbecues to mind. Sirloin and flat-iron steaks, marinated in Asian flavors, can be a pleasant way to enjoy the smoky flavors when the meats aren't overtenderized from the acids; ditto with barbecued ribs or a chicken or fish sandwich. But I find the best way is the simplest: Order whatever the "wood-grilled fresh fish of the day" is. I encountered swordfish one night, a once-endangered species that has been making a comeback on restaurant menus, and I was delighted to find the steak perfectly cooked to a juicy, grill-marked finish. Though it hardly needs it, for an extra dollar or two, you can have a side ramekin of lemony beurre blanc, chunky Mediterranean salsa, or finely tuned béarnaise to add some weight. But as basics go, I found the vegetable and starch side dishes -- a pile of grilled squash, peppers, and onions and a scoop of vermicelli-laced rice pilaf -- more than enough complement.

You can get more complex with some of the main courses, which might tempt you if you're ordering a bottle off the extensive Cal-French wine list. Pinot Noir-friendly salmon is glazed with mustard and tarragon and cooked on a plank; Fumé Blanc-ready mahi-mahi is wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed in a bamboo basket with shrimp, cilantro, and peppers. A cocktail might pair better with the pecan-crusted chicken breast, given that the succulent poultry is topped with a maple-bourbon butter. For an extra cost, we substituted excellent sweet-potato fries for smashed or French fried potatoes, and they did indeed make a good foil for the rich pecans.

Bourbon must be a favored enhancer, as it appears in other sauces throughout the menu. Fortunately, the kitchen knows how to burn off the alcohol flavor, and what's left are the residual sugars that help candy items like the bourbon-barbecued chicken wing appetizer. It didn't hurt, of course, that the wings themselves were unusually plump and meaty.

Portions are large, so if starters are on the tide, stick to one or two. Or order the two-in-one "surf-and-turf satay," a pleasing combo of skewered flank steak and marinated shrimp. The shrimp were on the small side, but they were marvelously fresh, and the chunks of meat were springy and hearty. The kitchen might want to rethink serving this with a ladleful of the rice pilaf, though, as it made the dish seem like a full meal, and replace the grains with something more culturally apropos like a cucumber salad.

Soups and pastas both feature one welcome aspect: homemade taste. Bahamian seafood chowder is always available, and daily soups like the chicken noodle I scored one night are scented with plenty of herbs and stocked with vegetables. Of the four pasta dishes, the delicate mushroom ravioli in prosciutto-butter sauce captured our attention. Roasted garlic added depth to the pale gold gravy, and a handful of peppers and chopped pencil asparagus gave the al dente ravioli some garden intensity.

JB's could stand some improvement in a couple of areas. The waits between courses seem unnecessarily long, as the monotony of the waves is more likely to put you to sleep than hold your attention once darkness falls. And the dessert list -- chocolate cake, cheesecake, or key lime pie -- is singularly unimpressive. But given the current standards of quality fare and polished service, not to mention the sophisticated beach-bar atmosphere that is somehow minus the annoying buzz of barflies, then I guess I can apply the better-late-than-never rule of forgiveness and excuse the place for not being around when I needed it five years ago. I'm just grateful it's here now.

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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

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