Forget that the city has been renovating this area for years. Ignore that a recent explosion of upscale shops, galleries, jazz bars, and restaurants has drawn a curious Las Olas crowd south and a bored South Beach contingent north. Pay no attention to the popular monthly artwalk on Harrison Street, complete with live bands playing on the sidewalks. Any other evening, the doubters claim, those streets are empty. It's easy to be unimpressed.
Most of all, I guess, we should disregard the real diviners -- the business folk who detected enough potential to invest in Hollywood. And invest. And invest. Take partners Patrick Reilly and Dennis Doheny, the first owners of South Beach's ultrasuccessful Paragon nightclub. They don't just own the five-month-old Cafe Erte on Young Circle -- they own the entire block of Harrison Street on which the restaurant lies. They're currently renovating the old movie cinema adjacent to their restaurant, planning to turn it into what Doheny calls a "high-energy dance club." On the other side of the eatery, the two men are considering opening either a cigar and cognac bar or an upscale billiards room.
"There're always comparisons between us and South Beach or us and Las Olas," Doheny explained recently. "Who knows what's going to happen? But we've been watching the development and potential of this area for five years."
But sometimes, especially in the restaurant business, plans don't go as... planned. Not long after creating Cafe Erte's modern American menu that garnered rave reviews from other local newspapers, executive chef Anthony Sindaco left for a new job at the Floribbean Bistro in Boca Raton. (Sindaco certainly has had a peripatetic career here in South Florida -- I've reviewed three of his Miami restaurants in less than as many years.)
Reilly and Doheny replaced Sindaco with Jim Garrison, who worked as the executive chef at the Morrison House in Washington, D.C. The owners retained Sindaco's menu, however, and here's where I think they might have made a mistake. Many restaurateurs believe their repeat customers come back for the same dishes again and again, and in some cases that's true -- if the chef has stayed put. But bringing in another, highly trained chef to replicate someone else's recipes is like directing a stage actor to play a role the exact same way his predecessor did. The result is often a competent but lifeless performance, mimicry rather than interpretation. I say let Garrison have at it.
In truth, Cafe Erte hasn't been open long enough to develop much of a loyal following, so you'd think the owners would want to attract new customers, not just satisfy old ones. One way to accomplish that would be to enhance the list of appetizers. As they stand now, I thought the starters somewhat dressed up but dull: tuna tartare with mango vinaigrette and chili oil, house-cured ginger-and-wasabi gravad lax, beef carpaccio with artichokes and arugula, shrimp cocktail ($3.25 per "giant" shrimp), and beluga caviar with toast points and accouterments ($45.00).
Even though it seemed like another safe, seen-before choice, we decided to order one of the few hot openers, a roasted portobello mushroom cap overflowing with diced eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, and herb stuffing. The mushroom was juicy, the ratatouille-flavored stuffing slightly spicy, and an underlying bed of frisee fresh and green. Quality notwithstanding, my dining companion gave it a shrug.
He agreed with me that a cream of carrot soup, the only appetizer special that evening, was much more interesting. Dotted with sour cream and sprinkled with black caviar, the carrot puree was underscored by notes of celery and other vegetables, which added dimension and texture. The caviar was a nice touch, though I wished there had been more of it -- the brininess would have cut the soup's sugary aftertaste, its only flaw.
I've always admired Sindaco's facility with seafood as a main course, and hoped the new kitchen would come through on an entree of seared fillet of red snapper. Unfortunately the fish was overcooked and a little dry, though the preparation was lovely: Garnished with a tangy hearts-of-palm ceviche (marinated in lime juice), the snapper was layered over grilled potato "planks" and fresh spinach swirled with garlic. A butter sauce dotted with orange slices was drizzled on the plate but added little moisture to the fillet.
Penne pasta with Gulf shrimp was an enormous portion, and the five jumbo shrimp were perfectly cooked, tasting like sweet lobster. Yet a peppery coating on the shrimp detracted from the flavor, while the tubular noodles were a touch mushy. Spinach, roasted peppers, and artichokes added some liveliness to the whole affair, but an "artichoke sauce" seemed rather bland, consisting mostly of butter and garlic.
Desserts were also a bit uneven. None of the listed sweets was available on the night we visited, so we tested two specials. The first, a key lime cheesecake, was beautifully served, a round cheesecake napped with a raspberry coulis, sprinkled with fresh raspberries, and lidded with a shortbread cookie. The problem lay in the cheesecake itself, which was as lumpy as cottage cheese. Nutty chocolate bars, the second dessert, was outstanding: Three rich, slightly crunchy chocolate "fingers" -- also garnished with berries -- were set amidst a vanilla bean sauce. They tasted like gourmet Kit-Kat bars.
Named for the Art Deco-inspired artist who died in 1990, the 130-seat Cafe Erte features a handful of authentic works by the artist on its walls, all drawn from Reilly and Doheny's personal collection. Art Deco fans will appreciate how the jeweled costumes depicted in Erte's works reflect the ruby tones of the room -- red carpet, striped red-and-gold chairs, and lacquered tables with art prints embossed onto them. The eatery also has dozens of mounted TV monitors playing music videos, a 60-foot bar at which to sip martinis, and a varnished dance floor for after-dinner hours. Cafe Erte boasts the slogan "the art of being unique." Judging by atmosphere alone, that phrase has the ring of truth. Now if only the menu would follow suit.
Hotel-school grad Ted Johnson wasn't looking for investments. After a decade of working for hotels and banquet halls in the catering business, he and his wife Patricia were searching for a way to open their first restaurant. He says he found the "opportunities in downtown [Hollywood] to be very economical. It's not as pretty as Las Olas or Boca or as trendy as South Beach." But like Reilly and Doheny, he saw potential in the area and opened Impromptu one year ago on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard. Unlike Erte, however, Impromptu, a 50-seat restaurant whose contemporary international menu features Asian, Southwestern, Italian, and Latin American accents, pretends to nothing except satisfying its customers, although it, too, has something of an art theme, only more homemade -- a large, painted, Mediterranean-theme mural covers the restaurant's back wall, and its dishes have names such as chicken Dali. While service can be slightly oversolicitous and some dishes can fail, I felt the overall effort was honest enough to woo me back eventually.
Seafood concoctions -- including coconut-crusted shrimp, swordfish bites with ginger-teriyaki glaze, and conch chowder -- dominate the appetizers list. We thought a pair of crabcakes superb, golden crusts that broke open to reveal moist, Maryland blue crab spiked with bell pepper and onion. A relish comprising pickled green tomatoes and red onions accented the cakes, and red bell pepper and mustard sauces -- streaked on the plate -- were ideal condiments. On the other hand, a starter of fried calamari was skimpy, a fact we didn't mind once we tasted the deep-fried rings and legs. The squid was as chewy as pencil erasers, and even a dunk in the flavorful marinara sauce didn't help matters.
Although swordfish, snapper, and salmon are available as main courses, we opted for meat dishes. The first, a marinated churrasco, was presented coiled up and skewered on a long wooden toothpick. Once unwound, the Argentine-style skirt steak was large, flat, and juicy, a real charcoaled treat. Side dishes, however, seemed uninspired -- cubed potatoes tasted like home fries, and a smear of cilantro sauce, billed as spicy on the menu, was little more than the crushed herb.
A special that evening, rack of veal, sounded promising; I don't recall ever being offered a rack of veal in a restaurant. (Usually it's a rack of lamb.) The actual dish was three grilled double chops, bigger and paler than lamb, smaller and a little fattier than the typical veal chop. Although we were somewhat disappointed with the singed flavor of the veal, in general we were satisfied if not completely smitten. A centerpiece of angel-hair pasta, dressed with shiitake mushrooms and a demi-glace, completed the dish.
Though not technically meat, of course, a good duck breast should taste like it. The pan-seared version at Impromptu certainly did, sliced and saturated with a vibrant sesame citrus sauce. The crisp skin, layered with fat, was easily removed to reveal medium-rare coins of the game bird. Sauteed baby corn and sugar snap peas, plus a piquant rice pilaf garnished with chickpeas and garden peas, accompanied the duck breast, which was on the small side.
As for the homemade desserts, we passed over flan with caramel sauce (a mistake, probably, given that Patricia Johnson's Peruvian mom makes it) and raspberry-chocolate mousse and instead chose a slice of three-tiered cheesecake -- chocolate, pistachio, and plain. It was runny, as if it had been left near the oven, but rich and filling.
The jury's still out concerning the so-called Hollywood renaissance: The pessimists point out what the area doesn't have, and the glass-half-full folks highlight what it does have. I agree with Ted Johnson, who insists, "A metamorphosis takes time." So does a smoothly running restaurant.
Cafe Erte. 1716 Harrison St., Hollywood, 954-925-1775. Open nightly from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday until 4 a.m.
Impromptu. 2039 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 954-923-7099. Lunch Tuesday-Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5 to 10 p.m.