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.
"If she drops a pen," one of the guys said, "she'll just have to get a new one."
You have to worry that a place with so much attention to short skirts will forget about the food. But then our entrées came. A flurry of tie-clad waiters scrambled to deliver plates as hot as a campfire.
George got the eight-ounce filet ($35), a fist-sized number with a crusty char and purple center. The crust tasted of charcoal and maybe nothing more than salt and pepper; anything more would hide the godly flavor of aged beef. That piece of meat could help a Buddhist find enlightenment.
Randall's 24-ounce porterhouse ($55) is what you'd imagine they serve in a bank executive's boardroom. It takes George's filet and adds a strip steak, with a flavor-inducing bone running in the middle. Serve that steak to your daughter's boyfriend and he'll propose right there.
Josh's 12-ounce New York strip ($38) came with a char black like a Louisiana beach. "This is a bitter burn," Josh said. He took to scraping the outside with his knife, but that sear went into the flesh. He ordered it medium rare, and the center was as pink as a Valentine's Day card. But there was something wrong with that char. "If you weren't paying," he said to me, "I would've sent it back."
I'm no executive, so perhaps that explains my odd-looking entrée in the company of manly steaks. I ordered the lobster Wellington ($42) simply because it sounded so strange — there's no better test of a restaurant than the oddest item on the menu. It came sitting alone on a white plate, a simple rectangle of puff pastry.
"What did you order? A Pop-Tart?" Josh asked.
The waiter added the béarnaise sauce from a ladle, creating a shallow pool around the pastry. Cutting into my breakfast-looking dinner revealed sautéed spinach and large chunks of lobster tail and claw. Decadent. Delicious. And the best thing on the table.
"Wow," Randall said after sampling a slice. He looked a bit stunned, especially since it seemed to outshine that amazing hunk of meat in front of him.
There's not much to say about the sides that we ordered à la carte. The mushrooms ($9) and the spinach ($9) both were sautéed lightly, with maybe some garlic and lemon; they were fairly unremarkable. The giant bowl of onion rings and strings ($9) sat mostly uneaten by the end of the meal. Why eat any mediocre side with steaks and lobster as good as this?
Talk turned, as it should in a place like this, to expense accounts. The bank doesn't allow them, Randall and George explained. Neither does Josh's business. But it's OK to expense lunch for a big client, they all agreed — another reason it's so odd that Rare doesn't serve it.
"Do you know how many times I've seen Wayne Huizenga at YOLO?" George asked. "There's just nowhere else to go around here for lunch."
As the desserts arrived, George told his story about calling Huizenga's name from across the room at YOLO one day. " 'Wayne!' " he said, as if he knew him. The former Dolphins owner came up thinking George was an old friend. When he got there, Huizenga looked pissed, reluctantly shook George's hand, and nearly sprinted to get away.
We laughed like captains of industry as we dug into the cheesecake ($11), flown in from the Carnegie Deli in New York City. If you plan to ever eat cheesecake, it should be this one. Don't ask me how, but at the same time, it's light and dense, sweet and yet savory, filling and also something you want to pull in front of you and refuse to share. We also got the dessert sliders ($12) — vanilla ice cream stuffed between halves of profiteroles and covered in melted chocolate. We made it through only two of those creative little sandwiches, and I was tempted to stuff the third one in my pocket for later.
We were leaning back with after-dinner cocktails — ports and bourbons and espressos — when a woman in a pantsuit approached the table. She clutched a Gucci bag, smelled of daisies, and gave cheek kisses to a couple of the guys she knew. Yeah, that's how dinner at Rare is supposed to end.
Outside, we talked more about the failed Manhattan cocktail, those well-aged steaks, the radiator-hot plates. "I picked up a marine company today," Josh announced. I didn't know what that meant, but it sounded like the kind of thing you should say if you've just finished an excellent steak at Rare.
Follow Eric Barton on Twitter: @ericbarton.