The bartender at Rare Las Olas came by quickly, wearing a genuine-looking smile and a corset top similar to what Victorian women stuffed themselves into before getting dressed. She had some important questions regarding my dry martini.
"Gin or vodka?" she asked in an accent that sounded Eastern European. Then "How much vermouth?" And "Regular olives or blue cheese-stuffed?" These are the kinds of questions that should be asked about martinis.
My friend George showed up at Rare straight from work, so he still looked like a banker as he approached the bar in his suit jacket with no tie. "I've got to hit the head," he said. "Order me something with bourbon?"
I asked corset top for a Manhattan. "What is that?" she asked. When I explained — sweet vermouth, bourbon, cherry, twist of orange, dash of bitters — she had more questions. "Bitters? What are these?"
General calamity ensued between her and the dude manning the bar at the other end. They finally produced a bitters bottle the size of a ketchup container. He whipped up a Manhattan that made George snap his head back in disgust.
"Taste this," he said, pushing it away.
The drink seemed like maybe a shot, instead of a dash, of bitters ended up in the glass. A complaint and a new drink on the house started things over. But that lip-puckering sip was somewhat indicative of our Tuesday night at Rare. The fairly new restaurant apparently still makes some Manhattan-sized missteps, but like the dry blue cheese stuffed in the martini olives, the place also knows how to turn out some excellent cocktails and steaks.
Rare took over the spot that once housed Bova Prime, which died with the Scott Rothstein scandal — the disgraced attorney had sunk stolen Ponzi money into the place, and it closed suddenly in June. CentraArchy Restaurant Management Co., which owns New York Prime in Boca Raton and 22 other restaurants nationwide, walked into the space back in November needing to do little more than swap out the sign and replace the chairs. Trip-hop music still thumped seemingly from everywhere at once. The starkly modern room still had dark-wood floors, metal beams, and white tables. And the suited and good-looking people who filled Bova appear to have returned to the long rectangle of a bar that fills half the room.
Considering that Rare is catering to the well-heeled bankers and business executives in downtown Fort Lauderdale, I figured I'd bring along three Future Leaders of America. George and Randall are both bank VPs, and Josh is a car-company exec with a stellar side business cooking. They sat us at a table halfway into the restaurant, which runs in a thin strip beside the partially walled-in bar area.
Talk turned to why Rare isn't open for lunch. Here's a restaurant surrounded by downtown offices, and yet it's open only for dinner. It makes no sense. Randall mentioned a well-spread rumor that Morton's, the Steakhouse around the corner got free rent for ten years just so the spot would be occupied. Rare, we surmised, probably got a hell of a deal too in this economy.
Our appetizers, like all the food at Rare, came on a two-tiered cart rolled through the restaurant. The waiter used ice tongs to deposit pieces from the shrimp cocktail ($20 for four) on our bread plates. They were nearly lobster-sized, served with a sauce well spiced with horseradish. As good as they were, they carried a fishy smell that a couple of us nosed even before the cart reached our table.
The carpaccio ($16), I'll admit, I misjudged. It came with two sauces, a balsamic reduction and what tasted exactly like caesar dressing. The waiter grated cheese on top. All those flavors, I surmised, would drown the flavor of the raw slices of beef under an explosion of garlic and balsamic and cheese. But the flavors melded together well, turning a usually simple dish into one with depths of flavors.
"That's pretty amazing," George said, now finished with his bourbon on the rocks, the replacement drink for the bad Manhattan.
Cocktails from the bar gone, we moved on to the day-planner-sized wine list. The '07 Justin Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($48) got high marks from Josh, the wine expert in the group. His review included phrases like "big wine," "very ripe black fruits," "a long and smooth finish," and "well-balanced tannins." I'll add that it tasted nothing like a shot of bitters.
Deposited along with our wine was a giant basket of bread, and we grabbed slices of raisin and sourdough cut as thick as sandwiches. They do things big here at Rare.
That's probably how the guys at the neighboring tables liked it. They were large men, many in suits, studying wine labels, reviewing emails on BlackBerrys, and often, checking out the cocktail waitresses. One of the girls kept walking through the dining room, never carrying anything, apparently just sashaying. All the waitresses working the bar area wore identical black dresses just long enough to cover their lady parts.