Laurent Tasic has been listening to his customers complain for many years. Not about the food he serves at his longtime French-Americas restaurant, Sage Café. Not about his service or even his prices, which have always been fair.
Instead, the jovial chef says with a twinkle in his eyes and a soft French accent that he's been listening to patrons complain about the lack of nightlife in the area.
"For years, my customers have been telling me they want some place to go after they dined with us," says Tasic, whose restaurant is located in the Whole Foods shopping plaza off Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. "So I decided to create a place like the old O'Hara's Jazz Café [on Las Olas Boulevard]. A place where they could go before or after dinner to hear some live music or order a burger and have a beer or cocktail."
When the adjoining space next door to Sage Café -- formerly the East Side Pub -- became available last year, Tasic saw the perfect opportunity to develop such a project. After nearly a quarter century of serving straightforward French fare and American staples, Tasic unveiled Qbar Burger & Blues, a companion concept that would provide an alternative ambiance to Sage's elegant dining atmosphere with live music and gastropub-style fare.
The Croatian-born chef spent much of his life in France, where he owned and operated several restaurants, from a Tex-Mex concept in Monte Carlo to a high-end concept in the French Alps.
When Tasic relocated to the States in the late 1980s, he began consulting for a number of establishments, including Fort Lauderdale's Studio One. In 1991, Tasic consulted for Sage Café. Five years later, he'd fallen in love -- with the restaurant and his patrons. He purchased the establishment from its founding owners in 1996, and now, two decades later, continues to deliver dishes like coq au vin, escargots in garlic butter, roast duck, and beef bourguignon.
Qbar opened in December, and today no vestige of the once-cavernous Steelers' sports bar remains. Instead, the long, narrow space was gutted and redesigned, transforming it into a sleek, New Orleans-style jazz bar with a gaping, open entrance. To the left is a brick wall lined with high-top tables and accented with gold-framed mirrors. Across sits an expansive, 78-foot copper bar offering a front-row seat to the small stage beyond where, each night, the restaurant hosts a different live performance.
Inspired by (and an abbreviated reference for) New Orleans' French Quarter, Qbar serves lunch and dinner daily with customizable burgers and a short list of Creole- and Cajun-inspired classics.
While at Sage, you might pop a bottle of wine to pair with your crepe Suzanne, Tasic has gone the gastropub route at Qbar, offering more than 20 draft beers and a short list of specialty cocktails. Although both establishments share a kitchen, Qbar focuses more on small plates that combine American fare with French finesse, from chili made with filet mignon that's ground in-house, served with sliced baguette, to roasted beets paired with goat-cheese salad.
As the name suggests, Qbar's burgers are at the heart of the menu, served with shoestring fries and add-ons like caramelized balsamic onions, guacamole, Brie, or a dollop of that filet mignon chili, and each is prepared with the same attention to detail that Tasic gives his award-winning roast duck.
Names of dishes pay tribute to sultry singers like Norah Jones, personified on the plate as grilled salmon with a lemon-dill aioli and arugula between a toasted bun. Lena Horne is the vegetarian's choice, a grilled portobello mushroom layered with provolone and ratatouille. The King, a hefty patty of house-ground brisket and shoulder delivered with cheddar cheese, is dressed with a few strips of duck bacon.
A majority of the menu has a decidedly Creole touch, a tribute to Tasic's love of New Orleans' culture and cuisine. Order the gumbo and you'll taste hours of cooking; it takes the better part of an afternoon to form the dark roux of flour and fat laden with flavors from dark-meat chicken and andouille sausage to okra and shrimp. It settles in your belly like spicy Cajun napalm.
In New Orleans, chefs jazz up their food with all manner of spice and seasonings. Likewise, Tasic's spicy shrimp and grits revises the low-country dish. Plump shrimp are smothered in a rich, tomato-based sauce and spread over a dense layer of creamy grits, the buttery-cheesy finish striking the perfect balance to the dish's poignant heat.
The daytime crowd will be too early for live music, but an expanded outdoor patio and lunchtime treats make it worth the trip. Order a burger with fries and draft beer for $13 during lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and you'll cash in on the savings Tasic is known for. Or make it a lunch date with your best friend; the "doggy chow" portion of the menu presents a few meal options for your canine companions, including organic chicken and rice and Bowser, a nonalcoholic beer made just for dogs.
While Sage is the charming, traditional French bistro, Qbar has filled the role as the hip younger sister. Give both a try. Tasic adds that more restaurants are headed to the plaza in the coming months, for more variety. For now, he juggles his concepts simultaneously, working to keep service and quality at each establishment steadfast.
"My customers tell me this is exactly what they wanted, and I'm very pleased with the way it's turned out so far," says Tasic. "Now they can come to one place and enjoy two venues."
Filet mignon chili $8
Nawlin's spicy shrimp and grits $12
Lena, Nora, or King burger $12
Qbar Burgers & Blues is located at 2376 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 11 a.m. to midnight daily. Call 954-565-2299, or visit QBarFL.com.
Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.
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