The boat I had my eye on was the month-old Jib Room on Oakland Park Boulevard. Lauderdale attorney Deborah Carpenter-Toye, a bouncy strawberry blond who looks to be in her 40s, opened the Jib Room with her husband, Brian Toye, in the space that used to house Jumpin´ Jack´s Bar and Grill. The Carpenter-Toyes must have read the same Zagat report I did last year and, figuring they needed a hobby, chose the most grueling and frustrating business known to man. Zagat had gleefully fingered South Florida as the place in the country where people eat out the most. We chow down an average of 3.8 non-home-cooked meals a week here, edging past the two next-highest cities, Los Angeles (3.7) and Las Vegas (3.6). Almost makes you want to open your own restaurant, doesn´t it, you masochist?
The second bit of lousier news from Zagat was that South Florida also takes first prize for the most expensive restaurant meals in the United States, edging out New York and San Francisco. Apparently, average cost of a dinner out here is $38.56, up 6 percent from last year. We South Floridians are both hungry and loaded. Until I stumbled into the Jib Room last week, bleary of eye and light of pocket, I´d begun to think 38 bucks in South Florida was the average price of an entrée.
It was as if Deborah and Brian Carpenter-Toye had heard my plaint and provided a happy solution -- how rare is that in the legal world? They´d plunked down a mid-priced neighborhood café, serving jolly things like chicken pot pie or snapper and shrimp bake, with a full liquor bar, in a convenient location. Not only that; they´d hired Luis deGennaro and his wife, Jennifer, to run the kitchen.
DeGennaro and Jennifer are beloved of local Italian food fans -- they had their popular café, Pá deGennaro in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, for years; they worked at Ruggero´s down the road on Oakland Park Boulevard for a while; and then they packed up their recipe for John Albanese´s famous chicken livers with hot peppers and headed to the Jib Room. The DeGennaros´ presence makes for a bit of schizophrenia in the menu, which is about 70 percent Caribbean island and 30 percent Italian. That´s OK by me; what´s the point of a neighborhood café that doesn´t have all the many and various things the neighborhood wants to eat? I´m pretty sure that if you can´t find something on this menu that makes your mouth water -- junkanoo chicken, seafood stew, center-cut pork chop, chicken pot pie, homemade ricotta gnocchi -- you are a dried-up old curmudgeon who doesn´t deserve the taste buds God gave you.
Many things recommend the Jib Room beyond the average price of the entrées ($10.95 for penne a la vodka! $15.95 for a pork chop!). One is Deborah herself, who comes right over, grabs your hand for a firm shake, and focuses like she´s slipping your pertinent info into some brilliantly organized file drawer (name -- check. Wants tuna cooked medium -- check. Drinks Stoli -- check). From the minute you walk through the door into those two comfortable rooms with their turquoise and lime-green and pink panels, the scratched hardwood floors, and the glow from the double tropical fish tanks, she behaves like a woman who´s readily invested in getting you to come back.
And the food at the Jib Room is good. Not uniformly great, maybe, but interesting and comforting enough that you´ll easily pick out a favorite half-dozen dishes to keep in rotation during your 3.8 visits per week. We were pleased with the appetizers we tried -- grilled (not fried) mahi fingers ($6.95), marinated, spicy, salted, and served with a really delicious creamy cilantro and roasted garlic dip. We liked our chicken livers too ($7.95), melt-in-your-mouth offal soaking in a creamy reduced wine sauce with rings of hot pepper: silk against crunch, velvety richness cut with heat, and a Madeira-soaked crostini at the bottom of the bowl. I´d eaten this dish at Ruggero´s; the sheer heft of this gigantic plate of internal organs seems a little daunting. I think they could get away with downsizing it -- even a liver lover like me recognizes that you can have too much of a good thing.