For writers, there are times when, no matter how clear an idea seems in your head, you just can't commit it to paper. Everything comes out as unidentifiable gibberish. It's daunting, especially after having invested hours of time and energy into a piece. But the best thing to do in such a case — and the hardest — is to just stop, delete the entire mess, and start over.
I imagine the same conundrum applies to chefs. Here's some restaurant owner, full of vision and passion, and he knows — just knows — that his idea for Mediterranean-Cambodian fusion/hot dog lasagna/bunless loose meat sandwiches is a good one. But when that plan isn't panning out — when nobody's clamoring to get in the door, the staff is getting antsy, and those tens of thousands of dollars invested are starting to look like one awfully big monkey setting up a banana farm on your back — any sort of redirection must seem painfully difficult, if not impossible.
So I have to give Iowa Kaita credit. When customers weren't showing up at Café Sharaku in Fort Lauderdale to try his dishes — strange concoctions like fluke and scallop soufflé or sea eel risotto — the chef/owner took a step back. He didn't give up on his idea of fusing French technique with Japanese cooking, a path he embarked on after years of training at both Nobu and Café Boulud. Instead, Kaita regrouped. He ditched his ultraexpensive $70 menu de degustation, with its foie gras and foams, and focused instead on devising healthier dishes that showcased the ingredients of his homeland — pan-seared scallops with sea urchin sauce; grilled black pork belly with apple ponzu. And wouldn't you know it: The redirection worked. For the most part, that is.
The boutique, six-table restaurant located off of Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale is celebrating its third year in business this month. Although it's still not the type of place where you have to trade your firstborn for a table, Café Sharaku has earned some positive word of mouth and a modest following. In fact, I decided to revisit the restaurant — which New Times panned shortly after its opening — based solely on letters received from readers. Each declared Kaita's vision a complete hit. And while I can't say I loved every aspect of Sharaku, my experience there was charming — far different from the confusing, convoluted meal my predecessor ate three years ago.
It all started with the specials board. After we filtered into the tiny restaurant, our waitress set a broad journal of a dozen or so dishes directly in front of us. And boy, did it dig its hooks in from the get-go. Where Sharaku's menu is compact and succinct, this board of options, based on the fresh seafood Kaita sources daily, upped the complexity to another level. The words sounded wildly enticing: vibrant Florida stone crab baked with wasabi/garlic aioli and slender enoki mushrooms; New England clams sautéed gently with spinach, butter, and yuzu, a tart variety of Japanese lemon. Each sentence read like poetry. We were tempted to order the lot and treat them each like small plates to share.
Luckily, Kaita's four-course prix fixe, another new addition to the restaurant clocking in at only $29, gave us a way to sample widely from the menu without losing a sense of rhythm. Our waitress, a genial woman who introduced herself as Mai, explained that we could choose any soup or salad as our starter course, followed by anything from the appetizer section of the menu or the specials board as our second. Entrées, she explained, may command an additional surcharge depending on the dish (the largest of which was $8 extra, the sautéed Maine lobster with shrimp).
By making the entire menu available for the prix fixe, a table of just a few people can sample a large portion of Café Sharaku's offerings. We went down that path and were rewarded with baked stone crab ($12.95), two tender claws served hot and succulent. The slightly spicy aioli had formed a browned crust that was reminiscent of a gratin in that the flavors had deepened in the oven. Another starter, a bowl of lobster-infused miso soup ($3.50), was equally enticing, with the heady aroma of fresh shellfish cutting the pungent miso nicely.
Kaita seems to have an affinity for serving cold dishes, a practice with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, as with a cold lemongrass soup ($3.50), the process was inoffensive: The citrusy soup's cool temperature was offset by a creamy texture and a hearty drizzle of truffle oil. Likewise, another dish of baked Asian yams chilled and served with bold blue cheese was odd but interesting ($5.95). The yam was cut into beautiful aqua rounds, its earthy sweetness a fitting foil to the strong blue cheese.
Elsewhere, Kaita's tendency seemed almost obstinate. A starter of deep-fried salmon belly with sweet and sour sauce ($8.95) wasn't even described as being cold, though it arrived as icy as a chill chest. "Why would anyone serve something deep-fried cold?" one of my guests questioned as she took a bite of the small square of fish. I couldn't guess the reason myself. The salmon was plated above a clear, tart sauce and a slice of lemon, and allowing it to cool had ruined the crisp texture as well as any succulence the fatty belly once possessed.
Even though some of the dishes had slip-ups, with Mai at the helm, the pacing of our meal couldn't have been more perfect. At the clip she set, our dinner was as pastoral as the paintings of French farmland hanging on the nearby walls. With a sort of gracious calm, she ensured our courses never arrived too quickly or with too much delay. We focused on our bottle of Loire Valley Vouvray, a sweet, crisp white that at $32 was a bargain among Sharaku's small list.
If Sharaku has a major fault, it's that both the décor and the food seem to try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Although Kaita might have rightly veered from the complex dishes he started with, what's left is almost too delicate. That was the case, anyway, with my pan-seared scallops ($23), three large divers that were a pearly white but looked as if they'd never seen the caramelizing heat of a hot sauté pan. From first glance, I could tell the dish would be dull: The scallops themselves had no "sear" to speak of, and the orange sea urchin sauce looked watered down from the vegetables plated alongside it, a mix of woody shiitake mushrooms, spinach, and white asparagus. I noticed the same problem with a sauté of Maine lobster and shrimp ($24) — the shellfish was impeccably cooked, but the wasabi soy sauce promised on the menu was almost nonexistent.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, one of my guests complained endlessly about the strength of the miso sauce on top of her Chilean sea bass. "The sauce overpowers everything," she said, unable to finish even half of the meaty fish. I ended up giving her my scallops in exchange for the sea bass, and I think we both ended up happier.
Unless of course, it's with dessert, which Kaita nails. We had the superb chocolate soufflé served in a teacup ($8), the crusty crown hiding a payload of rich, molten filling. On the side was a scoop of homemade ice cream dotted with black flecks of vanilla. Just as rewarding was a round of rich chocolate mousse ($7) topped with flecks of shaved gold.
Sure, there was nothing complex about either dish, but both evoked Kaita's passion better than any complex offering could. Here's to hoping he keeps refining. A restaurant as well articulated as those two desserts will always have a place in this town.