Restaurant Reviews

Luxuriant Lunch

Lunch can really hang you up the most.

Especially when the outside air is the texture of angora. When you're hungry and have a 30-minute lunch "hour." When you can't stand the thought of another desk-side scoop of chicken salad.

Cheer up. Chin up. In downtown Fort Lauderdale, we now have our own al fresco food court -- Las Olas Boulevard west of SW Eighth Avenue. On these few blocks, just a few years ago, you had to scratch and sniff to find a decent burger (and were usually left with takeout from the then-hopping Hyde Park Market). Now there are bistros, boites, joints, cafés, dives, and entertainment complexes for all budgets.

All these new choices have fired up the competition, apparently to the point of self-combustion. Not only did Atlanta Bread Co. on Las Olas and Third Avenue recently close but the heavily discounted lunch offers up and down the street are sending signals that the market may not be able to sustain the 40 to 50 options now available.

Which door should you enter? It depends. What do you want to eat? In the mood for a place filled with attitude? Or do you want a quick and painless bite with your buddies? There are two spots that capture all the virtues -- and many of the vices -- of the present state of the Las Olas lunch.

450 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, Friday till midnight. Dinner 5 p.m. till midnight Saturday, till 11 p.m. Sunday. Call 954-462-9119.

Timpano Italian Chophouse is not among those restaurants that shill for business on the lunch-hour sidewalks. Since it opened more than four years ago, its lock on the upper end of the Las Olas noon-meal market has slowly strengthened to the point that it rivals the Tower Club and Jackson's -- or it would if it were members-only and not a chain.

Across the street from Brasserie Las Olas, the dark-wooded and white-linened Timpano has exactly the degree of quiet clubbiness that the Brasserie, with its train-station noise level and size, lacks.

And the differences don't end there. If the Brasserie is for junior suits on the way up the ladder, Timpano is where their bosses go to rank the young Turks.

Give points to managing partner Jerry Merlo's two rooms with bar and patio for executive atmosphere.

Then take them away for the quality of service and food.

Finding top-quality wait staff who are snap-to efficient before 3 p.m. may be like asking Kobe and Shaq to make nice. But during a recent lunch at Timpano, my amiable waitress committed the cardinal sin of farming out my table to her equally amiable colleagues, without explanation, but showing up punctually to collect a tip.

You can't blame the kitchen for serving complicated recipes that might cause delays. Predictably, Chef Vincent Sciarotta's not-cheap lunch menu plays on the restaurant's name, saluting steaks and pastas with a smart selection of appetizers, paninis, soups, and a few seafood dishes thrown in for balance. You should escape the meal with a bill of about $20 to $25 per person, including appetizer.

Despite all the emphasis on safe-and-sound eating typical of a steak-house chain, my experiences with the food at Timpano have not always been smooth. Friends and I have enjoyed a pleasant chicken in cream sauce, a decent giantoni with chicken and mushrooms, a superb saltimbocca. But I've also suffered through a bone-in Delmonico al forno so salty I could have been licking Lot's wife, and a lasagna Bolognese heavy enough to sink a Soprano in Sheepshead Bay.

In other words: The diners here may be powerful, but it seems their taste buds often need a physical trainer.

And a recent lunch indicates that things may have slipped a little since earlier in the year, when the restaurant was given a Best Power Lunch nod by this newspaper.

After being greeted by waitress number one and enjoying a delicious, warm roll (served by waiter number two in a breadbasket that would have made a better sculpture) and a dipping sauce of green olives and olive oil, I started the meal with "one of a kind" Maryland crab cakes ($12.95). With suspicious speed, the dish arrived courtesy of waiter number three: two small, warmed-over but well-seasoned cakes, covered with squiggles of a lemon chive aïoli sauce. Nothing exceptional, but when you go with the flow, you need to expect that the thrill may be nil.

My entrée, however, served by waiter number four, was a thrill of a different kind. My hefty-man-sized bowl of rock shrimp oreganata with angel hair pasta ($12.95) included a bevy of red bell pepper slices and a lemon oregano sauce so tangy, it would have pursed the lips of Mother Theresa. The pasta had even locked strands from sitting too long in the pot. Briefly discouraged, I regained a more sensible perspective from one of those moments that make this job worthwhile.

Trying to decide what to do with my uneaten food, I suddenly overheard at the table next to me a Kilgour and Stanbury tell his Ann Taylored partner: "I haven't cooked three meals since I was married, but I was thinking of starting again. Like what they do here. This is the kind of cooking I really appreciate." Three beats after her hearty agreement, he began chowing down on his order of rock shrimp oreganata.

With that divine signal, I declined a dessert (from a short selection noted for a terrific tartufo) and waved through the gloaming for my check. Suddenly, my original waitress appeared, still smiling, still unapologetic.

"Would you like to take that with you?" she asked, gesturing toward my now-cold entrée without asking why it was almost untouched.

I'd rather wait for Kilgour and Stanbury's first dinner party.

Las Olas Riverfront, 300 SW First Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Lunch 11:30 a.m. till 4 p.m. daily. Dinner till 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, till midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 954-779-1800.

When is a bargain not a bargain?

When it's too true to be good.

Nothing false about the ingenious promotion started by Max's Grille owner Tony Bisone this spring: $3.99 for any item on the lunch menu. Regular-sized portions and quality guaranteed. So $12.95 chicken "chops" and grilled salmon steaks are now within the price range of Las Olas office grunts who can't afford an hour for lunch -- let alone $15 to $20 per person. You can even throw in an appetizer and, seemingly, get out the door without tanking your credit rating.

When neighbor and high-end competitor Mezzanotte saw that Bisone's business had doubled and then tripled as a result, they copied the idea a couple of months later. So did Johnny Rocket's.

Great for you; great for everyone. Or so it would seem. Six months into his promotion, Bisone's 410-seater in the upper tier of Riverfront is still packed, still noisy, still very dark, and just a little dank.

Of course, Max's was so busy during a recent lunch that only the least gracious patron would have commented. Everyone seemed so ecstatic about the idea of rummaging for $4 items on a menu that featured $8 appetizers (six), $8 to $12 lunch specials (five), and $8 to $10 sandwiches (three) that they weren't bothered that the small table lamps so atmospheric at night were necessary by day. A disco beat was pulsing in the background, the three-for-one drink offer was in full gear, and life was good.

The lunch began with no offer of water from a friendly waiter who may have been trained or who and may have just been given a pad and pen and pushed onto the floor. He brought some watery Cokes before I ordered a warm goat cheese salad with grilled red onions and a partner requested a quesadilla. Both were delivered at a decent interval later by a young woman.

"This the way you want it?" she asked, taking a guess as to who ordered what. After tasting the appetizers (quesadilla burned around the edges, guacamole runny, salad dressing too salty, and grilled red onions pungent with age), we started to see how the $3.99 bargain might carry with it a high price of a different sort.

The original waiter then reappeared, unfazed and unimproved. "You might want to hold on to your forks," he suggested, pushing the appetizer plates he had already removed from the table back at us. "Or I'll bring another one if I have to."

We didn't want him to be overworked. He had those $3.99 entrées to deliver, after all. They were left on the edge of the table within minutes. Chef Ben Wilson's chicken "chop" was advertised as "herb crusted," but the crust was more KFC than herbal, and the "fresh" spinach underneath it hung limp with age (or the effects of a steam table) over a mound of mashed potatoes. The breast of chicken underneath the crust was so large that I began to wonder what chemicals had been used to produce it.

My partner's pasta du jour (choice of chicken or shrimp, regularly $11.95) was penne with a tomato sauce served over cuts of dark-meat chicken. It filled a small platter and could have satisfied Bluto had he not cared that the tomato sauce had no flavor and the chicken cuts were greasy.

Desserts (usually $6) proved a mixed bag. The crème brûlée, with Gahana vanilla beans from Indonesia, got positive comments, while the Granny Smith apple tart had a doughy, cookie-like crust whose sweetness overpowered the tartness of the apples.

A notice toward the bottom of the plastic menu reads: "Please no sharing, absolutely no substitutions/Cannot be combined with any other offer, discount or promotion."

Reality does indeed bite. And in so many ways.

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D.B. Tipmore