Restaurant Reviews

Spicing Up the Neighborhood

To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr. -- and perhaps trivialize it just a bit -- I have a dream. But my subconscious interlude isn't about racial equality, or sexual equality, or any other kind of political correctness. My dream is about dining.

I have a dream that one day I'll be sitting in a restaurant, a handsome one with dark wood furniture, overstuffed banquettes, a square bar, and a showcase brick wall hung with hammered copper vessels. I have a dream that this eatery will be located in an up-and-coming neighborhood -- say, Wilton Manors -- where houses are being renovated but decent restaurants are few and far between. I have a dream that prices will be more reasonable than the fresh and inventive California-style fare warrants and portions bigger than the average appetite can handle. I have a dream that service will be solicitous and unobtrusive, with water and iced-tea glasses constantly refilled and the outstanding gratis focaccia soaking in pesto delivered not just at the beginning of the meal but throughout, as often as I wish.

I have a dream, and thanks to Mustard's Bar & Grill, it's coming true. Located on Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors, Mustard's is a snazzy redo of an erstwhile Italian pizza joint. Owner Dominic Lagassi -- who's operated the renowned Broward restaurants Canyon, La Perla, and Il Mulino -- took on this project in an area that boasts only one other contemporary dining spot: Costello's, just across the street. And if the locals, most of them gay men who are redesigning the area to suit their needs -- check out the Gay Mart, "America's largest gay superstore" -- are anything like me, they're pretty grateful.

In fact Mustard's, which has been open only since February and has yet to install lunch hours, does a fairly steady business. Even on weeknights a good portion of the 240 seats are filled with local couples enjoying a quiet, romantic supper. But other diners are beginning to discover the place, and while you or your companion may initially be the only female in the place, there's no reason to feel uncomfortable. The atmosphere is early South Beach, when residents wanted to live well, not in party hell. Lagassi even had the foresight to order highchairs, in anticipation of the families who will, no doubt, find out about Mustard's.

What regulars already know is that Mustard's extensive menu yields dozens of delicious dishes, none of which costs more than $16.95. Appetizers hover around $6.95, and entrées -- such as pan-seared breasts of chicken with shiitake mushrooms and fresh peaches; or herb-crusted London broil, grilled and topped with a tangy combo of roasted garlic, basil, and cabernet -- average about $13 each. Bowls of creative pastas, such as fusilli with bell peppers, kalamata olives, and Bermuda onions, cost less than $10. Add a small house salad with homemade barbecue-ranch or herb-chardonnay dressing to your main course for an additional $1.95, and you can score a well-rounded meal -- and a well-rounded belly -- for about $15.

That's if you can resist the appetizers, which we, of course, couldn't. Mustard's takes familiar starters and updates them. For instance, the French onion "nest" was not simply a pile of onion rings, but an enormous tangle of julienne onions that had been coated with a spiced batter, deep-fried, and served with a zesty rémoulade. Spinach and artichoke dip, a usual suspect in a casual dining spot like Mustard's, was unusually tasty, thanks to its chunks of fresh artichoke heart, which we scooped out with homemade, tricolored tortilla chips.

At least half the appetizers at the restaurant may be ordered as main courses. But some diners could make do with the starter sizes. A pair of crabcakes was so plump we wanted to pinch them, just to make sure they were real. Not only were the cakes made of authentic crab -- taken from the back of the crustacean, where it's meatiest -- but they were molded without filler, then lightly pan-fried and flipped onto a bed of watercress. A refreshing mustard-dill sauce was served on the side.

When it comes to main courses, Mustard's offers plenty of stuff on the side, including vegetables and a choice of linguine with herb butter or marinara, rice, or potatoes of the day. But if you want French fries with your hamburger deluxe platter, you're going to have to pay for them. Do it; they're worth the extra couple of bucks. Our shoestring fries were crisp and golden brown, the kind of pommes frites you'd find in a French bistro. The burger was hefty in its own right, layered with avocado, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, and melted mozzarella. Our only complaint was the saltiness of the otherwise perfectly cooked meat.

The kitchen handles fish just as expertly as it does beef. Black pearl salmon -- a pan-seared fillet jeweled with black peppercorns, verdant capers, gleaming white Bermuda onions, and ruby-hued tomatoes -- was napped with a delicate chardonnay sauce. If seafood beckons, check out the San Francisco-style cioppino -- a lightly simmered stew of fish, clams, mussels, shrimp, and scallops -- or ask for the specials of the day. We tried a frutti di mare combo that yielded a ton of fresh seafood sautéed in a scampi sauce over a huge pile of linguine.

The kitchen stumbled only once; a pair of center-cut pork chops was served dry and mushy on a mattress of caramelized apples and onion marmalade. But the expert server -- who not only apologized, but offered to replace the pork with anything from the menu (an offer we declined) and deleted the dish from the check -- more than compensated. As a matter of fact, the ultrapolite service, rendered with care and patience, amplified our appreciation of the meal -- almost as much as the rich chocolate ganache flourless cake we had for dessert.

In an essay entitled "America's Emerging Gay Culture," published in the American Voices anthology, author Randall E. Majors notes that any community made up of residents with similar lifestyles -- gay, ethnic, or otherwise -- must operate its own businesses to be successful. In a gay neighborhood, he adds, these business are usually cryptically named so that members of the community recognize them as such. I don't care to speculate on the Mustard's appellation, but I will say that, if the quality of this restaurant is any indication, Wilton Manors is headed in the right direction.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick