I also have a passion for French restaurants, the ones that serve the classics -- even the places that have been around for so long I could have been conceived after a romantic meal at one. I think the French have taught the rest of the world how to cook.
Lately, however, it seems that my two preferences, new and French eateries, have become mutually exclusive. French restaurants, once the epitome of fine dining (the destinations of our parents on their anniversaries), appear downright old-fashioned when compared to Florida's New World up-and-comers. They have to compete with the undying popularity of pasta, the clean-lined sincerity of sushi, the Latin spiciness of black beans and rice, and the homestyle brassiness of British bangers and mash. In short: Complicated, rich French fare is no longer in vogue, and a lot of other ethnic stuff is. So while cafes and bistros open as often as cloudbursts in Broward and Palm Beach counties, not many establishments, despite the implications of their names, specialize in duck à l'orange.
Even Frenchmen seem to doubt the draw of their cooking traditions. Take Giuseppe Morfu. He's from Paris, and he's run two other restaurants in France, but the main focus of La Calabria, his two-month-old eatery on East Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, is Italian. French dishes, such as veal sweetbreads sauteed in cognac and duck breast in a green peppercorn sauce, are also available, and the decor -- Art Deco cafe prints on the walls, a multihued slate floor, mirrored walls, and an array of greenery -- speaks more to the bistro than the trattoria. But given the dozen or so Italian and only three French wines on the wine list and the prevalance of pasta on the menu, French fare feels like an afterthought.
That's a mistake, because chef-proprietor Morfu's culinary strengths are rooted in his native cuisine. We favored those dishes of French origin over the Italian ones. The entrecte Dijonnaise main course was especially tasty. Entrecte, in English, means "between the ribs," and this rib eye steak was a tender cut, smothered in a mild, lightly creamy mustard sauce. Side dishes of garlicky ratatouille and pureed carrots were also nicely prepared. We weren't as fond of the Italian osso buco entree. The braised veal shanks were pleasant in a brown gravy that tasted like onions, but the serving was small, and the veal was a little fatty and chewy. The risotto accompanying it was a complete disaster, a sticky glob of bland, tomato-colored rice.
The other two pasta dishes we sampled were also failures. Fettuccine al porcini was an enormous serving -- an eagle could have nested in it. But it tasted completely of garlic, without the mitigating muskiness of the mushrooms, which had been ground, or the sweetness of tomato, of which there was very little. The gnocchi were downright miserable. The potato dumplings, made on the premises, were so dense they could have been used to sandbag a hot-air balloon. The tangy tomato sauce that topped them was aromatic with basil, but the soggy centers of the gnocchi precluded any real appreciation of the dish.
I was especially eager to sip the straciatella, a chicken-based, egg-drop soup that few Italian restaurants serve these days. But again I was disappointed. The large, flat bowl of soup was rife with egg whites, but they were too solid -- they're supposed to be more wispy. And the broth was practically devoid of poultry, as if the chicken had been waved over the pot rather than stewed in it. Escargots de Bourgogne were a much better appetizer choice. The snails from Burgundy are known for their succulence, and these meaty specimens, though a trifle small, were no exception. They'd been baked inside tiny red potatoes and moistened with a garlic-herb butter that tasted like pesto. Delicious. And calamari fritti, though Italian, was also quite appealing. The supple rings of squid had been battered a la francaise, and the crumbly, crunchy coating complemented the mollusk rather than obscuring it. The marinara served with it, however, was cold when it should have been, at the very least, warm.
But even some of the French food had its problems. The salade berichonne, comprising fresh, crisp romaine and homemade croutons smeared with potent goat cheese broiled lightly over the toast should have been wonderful. The vinaigrette was beautifully balanced, and the greens were refreshing. But the lardons, or thick pieces of country-style bacon, were burnt. Snapper Livornese, a main course, was also slightly off. The fillet was hearty in a tomato sauce spiked with olives and capers, but it was just a little too dry and mealy.
Italy dominated when it came to dessert. A square of tiramisu was exceptional, creamy with mascarpone cheese and not too heavy on the espresso flavor. On the French side of things, chocolate mousse cake was also a rich treat. But the creme moulee au caramel was as rubbery as the faux food you sometimes see in sushi restaurants.
The La Calabria experience could well be improved by prompt service. On the night we visited, only one waiter was working, and while he had only about six tables to serve in the 78-seat dining room, we didn't get to place our order for 40 minutes. Wonderful rolls and complimentary eggplant stuffed with ricotta appeased us for a while, but our three-course meal took as many hours to finish. Chef-proprietor Morfu should seriously consider eliminating the Italian portion of his menu. With plenty of pasta places from which to choose in this area, lousy spaghetti just won't cut it. And even inconsistent French fare can thrive in a slow market.
La Calabria. 2447 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-565-2052. Dinner nightly from 5:30 till 10 p.m.
Escargots de Bourgogne