Having dinner at By Word of Mouth is a bit like being invited to dine at the home of a fussy middle-aged matron, a person considered a very good cook in her day, someone who once published a newsletter widely admired by friends and neighbors ("Kathryn's Kitchen") and who occasionally contributed recipes to the local daily newspaper between editing the annual Junior League cookbook and organizing the school bake sale. Nothing about the place — not the sponged walls and faux-grained paneling, not the menu of seafood lasagna and beef tenderloin, not the iced layer cakes beckoning from the refrigerated case — suggests how the world, and the kinds of things we tend to eat, has changed since the day Ellen Cirillo opened her catering business and restaurant off Oakland Park Boulevard in 1981.
Those glowing display cases separating the dining room from the open kitchen further contribute to the unsettling feeling that you've found yourself in some kind of Museum of Food. As soon as you show up and before you're allowed to settle down at a table, your host/docent escorts you over for a look at the delicacies on those backlit shelves: the night's plates of spinach gnocchi with marinara, bowls of winter squash soup, an artfully arranged Kissimmee orange chicken salad, pork tenderloin with bacon chipotle glaze, or pan-seared flounder. The only menu is the one written on a board by the door, so you're here to make a choice. You stand with your party bunched around the glass case, nervously eyeing the congealed brown sauce on the osso buco, and try to plan your meal. This before you've had a chance to lose your coat or unfold a napkin.
Do I need to say that I prefer to deposit my tired ass in a seat and wrap my fingers around a cold glass of Chablis before I have to face any irrevocable decisions, particularly decisions about what I'm going to eat? But By Word of Mouth has been doing it this way since the dawn of recorded history, so it's not really fair to criticize its shtick. (The restaurant's name comes from the concept and the location: The waiter presents the menu by word of mouth; they're located on an awkward stretch of road near the tracks, so their customers all come by word of mouth, etc.) You just have to willingly suspend your belief that an entrée that's been sitting in a cold case, with its carrots shriveling and its pan sauces solidifying, doesn't look particularly appealing. The implicit promise is that when your meal arrives from the kitchen, it will certainly be steaming hot and wafting essences of marrow bone and red wine, of melted butter and carmelized meat. You have to stand at the display case, coat-heavy and stone sober, while your server patiently waits for your order, and imagine it.
This kind of audience participation, the idea that you have to bring your own creativity to bear on the unusual presentation of your prospective dinner, is as '80s-era in sensibility as the sponged walls. So OK, as long as we're doing retro, I can live with the minimalist, Costco-friendly wine list too — it's not like an Estancia pinot noir ($36 bottle, $9 glass) is undrinkable, not like a Masa Canali pinot grigio ($8) is going to poison me. Then there's somebody's moonlighting piano teacher who's playing generic restaurant-background-music standards on her electric upright in the small front dining room, the regular customers you recognize from previous visits, and the strawberry cream sponge cake girded by its picket fence of ladyfingers.
If you've been missing sun-dried tomatoes for the past couple of decades (chefs long ago turned en masse to oven-roasted), you'll be glad to hear that By Word of Mouth still sells its signature appetizer: a layered sun-dried tomato and mascarpone torte ($10) built into a kind of pretty red- and white-striped layer cake, cut into a wedge, and served with water crackers. It's very pleasant. And so are the little yellow dinner rolls with cranberry butter, even if the butter is a mite too cold to make for easy spreading. On a chilly night, there's nothing like warm puréed winter squash soup laced with cream and made comforting with pumpkin pie spices ($8) — it tastes homemade because it is. And if an appetizer of spinach gnocchi with marinara ($10) is a bit heavy on the garlic and that garlic is bitter from being burnt, it's the kind of mistake any busy chef might make and only contributes further to your sense that although the world is an imperfect place, thank goodness one still has charming, cozy, and familiar restaurants like this one to fall back on.
The forgettable dinner salad that came with our entrées consisted of torn romaine leaves drenched in a sweet balsamic dressing. It prompted one of our diners to remark that he didn't like vinaigrette. No, boy, you just don't like balsamic — yet another item that, along with sun-dried tomatoes, hoisin sauce, shiitake mushrooms, and canned escargots, are as dated as leggings worn with oversized sweaters.
Such ingredients, as well as our entrées, could have come straight from the pages of the New Basics Silver Palate cookbook, the culinary bible of the '80s, where the meat section begins with "A Perfectly Broiled Fillet." Beef tenderloin ($34) with scalloped potatoes and a pan reduction was lovely. It has been so long since I've tasted anything but organic, grass-fed, dry-aged rib eye — filet mignon went out of fashion around the time we all sent our Z. Cavariccis to Goodwill. But hell, a rare three-inch-high fillet is a thing of beauty: It really does melt in your mouth, and to say it pairs perfectly with a creamy, oven-baked potato gratin hardly does it justice. Spinach and scallop lasagna ($26) didn't hold its shape particularly well, but its delicate nature made it all that much more delicious: tender sheets of pasta layered over and under a rich, bisque-like béchamel that had taken on the flavor of the succulent shellfish. Osso buco ($32), its brown sauce now nicely thickened, was an interesting turn on the classic Italian dish. Instead of heavy tomato sauce, it had been simmered in a wine and beef sauce with mushrooms — something like a good beef bourguignon or pot roast, with the bonus of rich, jellylike marrow scooped from the shank.
Of course, leggings worn with oversized sweaters are chic again, and as long as we're recycling trends, let's restore the layer cake to its rightful place on restaurant menus. By Word of Mouth has been and continues to be the last and final word on cake (all $8): angel food sponges layered with whipped cream and strawberries, dense buttery yellow cake oozing with baked apples, chocolate orgasm cake, lemon cake, ganache cake. And there's one that delighted and surprised me: Lady Baltimore cake. I'd heard of Lady Baltimore, a virginal confection of ethereal white cake layered with figs, raisins, and pecans and slathered with a fluffy egg-white frosting, but I'd never actually seen or tasted one. And now I'm very glad I have.
As you'll have noticed, prices here are one aspect that has briskly kept pace with the times. Expect to spend about $50 per person including wine. Make a reservation, and bring extra reserves of nostalgia. Some things should never be allowed to go out of fashion: Capezio jazz shoes, INXS, layer cakes lovingly made from dog-eared copies of the Fannie Farmer Baking Book, and little restaurants that don't need to change a thing.