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Restaurant Reviews

How Sweet It Is

It's tough to imagine what might have convinced a handsome Parisian chef (and sailor) and his chic American wife to give up what sounds like an idyllic existence on Saint Bart in the French Caribbean — where they presumably spent their days slathering themselves with Bain de Soleil and popping open bouteilles de champagne as they tacked between volcanic isles — to move to Fort Lauderdale... in the '80s, no less! What we do know is that the couple managed to transplant and fiercely guard a patch of the old island languor when they landed here and that they maintained the pretense for a couple of generations of devoted customers. We've managed to hold them here for a quarter century, through two French-Caribbean eateries — first Victoria Park in Lauderdale, then Sugar Reef in Hollywood — countless hurricanes, and many a redevelopment plan. Patrick Farnault and Robin Seger have a knack for thriving with the kinds of gentle neighborhood places where regulars lope in week after week, dragging along friends who then become regulars too, where the staff sticks around for decades instead of months, where the menu and the prices avoid hyperinflation and passing culinary fads. Where, in fact, almost nothing ever changes.

Anybody who dropped in to Sugar Reef five years ago could go back today and suffer no future shock. The 12-year-old restaurant on the Hollywood Broadwalk still follows a rhythm as soothing and predictable as the sea its candy-colored rooms open out on. There are the same roughly painted murals of dancing divas in shades of tangerine and acid lime and hot, hot pink; the same strips of mosaic tile. The bar strung with Christmas lights. The doors thrown wide open on a fat, rising moon laying down its ribbon of gold on a black ocean. The paper-covered tables and jars of crayons. The Caribbean French menu with its beloved Jamaican pork ($18.50), tropical fish stew ($19), and roasted duck ($24). And at least some of the staff — pattering in polyglot tongues of Spanish, French, Russian — will likely remember you from years gone by. This stretch of South Florida has miraculously retained the feel of a midcentury beach town, part Jersey shore, part Key West, part early Miami Beach, even as rents on the 2.5-mile Broadwalk have long since gone platinum. Sugar Reef's lease is up in two years, and Seger says their landlord doesn't plan to renew it. This strip of sand with its humble bars, bad music, and laid-back burger joints is already a relic.

That's why you should go now. Tropical Florida is vanishing inch by inch every day of our lives, and with it the cheap thrill of sitting outside by the beach, wearing a pair of cutoffs and picking at a plate of jerk shrimp with your fingers. You can do that at lunchtime at Sugar Reef, and dinner is only marginally less informal. You might brush the sand off your feet and throw on a pair of khakis and use a fork to twirl your pasta with pesto cream ($12.50), but the buzz of contentment around this place doesn't fade when the sun goes down.

We'd gotten stuck in a traffic jam 30 miles north, and by the time we'd run the full course of orange cones and flashing blue lights, of sudden potholes, of tractor trailers inexplicably stalled in intersections, we were in no mood for further challenges. We were 40 minutes late for our 8:30 reservation on a Friday night, and Sugar Reef was starting to clear out. This was a good thing, I think; if you want to hang loose at Sugar Reef and really suck every drop of sea-air-infused pleasure from the place, go late. An adorable Algerian girl showed us to a booth and got us settled in with a basket of plain toast drenched in garlic butter and minced herbs and a half-bottle of Sancerre parked in an ice bucket at our table ($19; they've got an especially good list of half-bottles, which I appreciate). Her sardonic husband, also a waiter, stopped by now and then to tease her and us. There was a soothing babble of voices speaking French and English; Seger and Farnault were having dinner too with a big table of friends.

The menu at Sugar Reef is loosely associated French-Caribbean, island-inspired cooking — which usually combines elements of Indian, African, Creole, and French — laced with classic French technique that the Paris-born Farnault was trained in. But Farnault has strayed far from his classic roots with dishes that incorporate coconut milk, curry, and ginger, dishes likely to be accompanied by a fresh chopped mango salsa. You can create your own pasta dish, with freshly made noodles, by combining elements of pesto cream, chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, buffalo mozzarella, and goat cheese and a choice of angel hair, penne, or fettuccine at varying prices. And there's an element of French-Vietnamese in a pho made with noodles, chicken, and shrimp ($18.50) in a light broth. A special soup, fish, and a ravioli (lobster, the night we visited, but it had sold out) chalked on the blackboard changes daily.

So we ordered the calamari appetizer ($10.50) and a blackboard special, a portobello mushroom stuffed with crab meat ($13.50). Sugar Reef's calamari makes a fragrant, light, appetite stimulant: The squidlets are steamed in a light wine and cream broth accessorized with chopped red pepper and scallions and what tasted like a dash of vinegar: tart, creamy, and sweet, and the squid rings were very tender. The grilled portobello, brushed with olive oil, was heaped with fresh minced crab that had been liberally tossed with fresh herbs. It was a rich, velvety dish nicely cut by the hot-sweet mango, pepper, and cilantro relish and the green salad tossed in vinaigrette that came with it.

The effect of both service and presentation here is rightly as far from haute as you can get. What the servers may lack in finesse (a little trouble opening our wine bottle, for instance), they more than make up for by showering customers with unaffected good will. On a first visit, they'll make you feel like they've known you for years and expect to see you back next week. The next time, you've been inducted into a coterie of beloved regulars. By your third trip, you'll be table-hopping.

Jamaican pork loin ($18.50) is a Sugar Reef favorite, and it's easy to see why it attracts fans. The tenderly cooked, spice-rubbed roast loin is served sliced, centered around an aromatic mixture of buttery string beans and thinly sliced zucchini topped with a dollop of sour cream. The heavy-cream-laden potatoes served alongside, sliced thin and oven-baked, are a testament to why the French are justly famous for their pommes gratineé.

Tropical fish stew is an enormous bowl of shellfish — shrimp, mussels, squid, and savory chunks of fish submerged in a creamy broth of coconut milk and green curry — a whiff of Thailand or India emanating from a seaside stand. The soup is laced with delicate glass noodles — a little difficult to get wrapped around a fork but worth the trouble of slurping. Stems of cilantro and chopped scallions provide sharp notes of flavor and extra color. It's filling, spicy, tropical comfort food.

We didn't fall in love with desserts, although they weren't bad. A rather uninspired apple crumble "tart tatin" ($6) flavored with cinnamon was served with ice cream that had crystallized. And a mousse au chocolat ($5) was too sweet to have much depth of flavor. But I understand that a recently hired sous chef was formerly trained as a pâtissier; he debuted a new lineup of desserts for Valentine's Day like chocolate hearts filled with raspberry sauce and white chocolate mousse. Seger tells me that other new desserts are on the horizon — which ought to put the Sugar firmly back into the Reef.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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