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The Allure of the Leurre

I suppose it was bound to happen: sushi, sushi everywhere. First it was in Thai restaurants. Then Chinese eateries. Then Vietnamese and Korean places. In the name of appealing to the public, cultures that have traditionally been at odds with the Japanese (such as the Chinese and Korean) as well as those with limited contact with the island nation (like Vietnam and Thailand) pleasantly vend the raw fish products alongside their own native fare. At least the rice, if nothing else, is a common, glutinous bond.

Less natural are old-time Florida seafood joints that have begun to feature the raw goods, next to fried clam bellies and grouper fingers and Italian ristorantes that offer both tiramisu and tekka rolls. And seemingly most ludicrous of all, the combination of sushi and French cuisine -- surely a combination only an Iron Chef could love. On the surface, at least, nothing about escargot and steak au poivre suggests that eel rolls and sashimi would work with them. The countries in question aren't even connected by a continent.

However, in the case of the Leurre, a six-month-old café on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale, things are not as they might seem. For instance the Leurre was not originally a French restaurant that added sushi to take advantage of a trend and broaden its clientele. The small eatery, decorated with typical Asian parity but also updated with brightly painted walls and drop spotlights, was actually Sagami, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, until 1998, and Sushi on 17th until about five months ago. The Japanese menu is gone but the sushi bar remains, as do sushi chef-proprietor, "Eric-San" Mawby, and the restaurant's long-time, on-a-first-name-basis devotees.

The patrons' slavish affection is not misplaced. Mawby, who has a French culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University, has been in the sushi business for two decades or so, owning Nami in Pembroke Pines and another restaurant in northern Florida. The sushi at the Leurre, on the occasions I've tried it, has been studiously fresh. The only exception was a stone crab roll that highlighted some rather watery, shell-ridden, and pungent crab. But because I sampled the roll on the first day of stone crab season, I'm willing to overlook the fact that it might not have been the freshest crab in town; even Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach has used frozen crabs from the previous season to supplement the supplies before the crab fishermen get up to speed.

Otherwise the fish -- tuna, salmon, mackerel, yellowtail -- glistens with just-caught quality. True fans should order sashimi, since the slices are thick but not stringy, mild but not flavorless. That said, though, if you enjoy rolls, lean back into your colorful banquette, assured that the pieces of tuna in the tuna roll are just as succulent as the sashimi, center-cut stuff rather than the dregs. The Leurre also features more than 20 variations, which you can acquire as a roll sliced into eight pieces or as a hand roll. We especially appreciated a pair of riceless rolls: white tuna and salmon around asparagus and smelt roe and baked with mayonnaise; and raw tuna, scallions, and smelt roe in miso sauce, wrapped in cucumber skin. Both were delicious and surprisingly filling.

Naysayers, of course, would presume that if the sushi is above par, the other side of the menu, so diverse already, must be neglected. Good thing I'm not much into cynicism, or I wouldn't have been treated to the finely prepared, French-roots fare with which the Leurre reeled me in.

Indeed the Leurre doesn't bill its food as "EuroAsia cuisine" for nothing. The "Euro" is compliments of chef and co-proprietor Jean-Claude Mille, who was responsible for opening the now-defunct but once well-regarded Plum Room in Yesterday's in Fort Lauderdale. Mille, a native of Lyons, France, and a former student of Paul Prudhomme's, hasn't lost his touch. Starters like crisp calamari with saffron aioli exhibit classical training while others like a traditional gyoza with ponzu sauce indicate Mille's willingness to extend his horizons.

His best appetizers combine both European and Asian influences, and we tried three on a special appetizer platter one evening. The lobster-and-lump crabmeat cake was a thick, flavorful seafood patty, spiked with fragrant Thai basil. A roasted red pepper-jerked beurre blanc moistened the crust just a bit, while fried leeks and hijiki (seaweed) garnished the concoction. Another delicious beginning, tender escargots wrapped in phyllo dough had been "Asianized" with shallots, shiitake mushrooms, and scallions. The plump snails had been flambéed with Pernod, which lent a stabilizing base and successfully countered a dollop of sweet chili sauce. The chili sauce reappeared with "firecracker shrimp," a dish similar in concept to the escargots with a crunchy, shredded kataifa dough supplanting the phyllo.

Main courses, many of them fish, take the same global focus, employing a hint of Asian culinary ancestry here and there: Chilean sea bass takes a side dish of wasabi mashed potatoes; sesame-crusted black-and-blue tuna is enlivened with a ginger-cucumber relish; swordfish is topped with Japanese herbs and accompanied by jasmine rice. In some entrées, the Eastern suggestion is subtle -- a tantalizing special of grilled shrimp and scallops tossed with artichokes, fresh spinach, and sambuca-enhanced cream sauce over linguine revealed its affiliations only through a swirl of "Asian pesto" added to the sauce. For others the influence is more pronounced, as in the duck glazed with ginger and five-spice, then set on a bed of Minnesota wild rice and finished with a tangy lingonberry sauce.

Nowhere, however, will you find strictly pan-Pacific recipes that heedlessly combine all manner of Asian foodstuffs. If anything this side of the menu sticks more closely to its European heritage, and you can easily find yourself with a wine-braised osso buco or a slightly dry roasted pork dish with Granny Smith apple compote and herbed mashed potatoes.

The familiar European tastes perhaps work best in the desserts; here, diners can smack their lips over a trio of crème brûlées perfumed into this century with spices and fruit -- ginger, raspberry, or mango -- and all perfectly done with a burnt-sugar crust. Unfortunately the wine list lags behind the rest of the menu in creaky domestic territory, but as Mawby notes, "The Leurre is a work in progress." I can only hope he gets around to more-interesting wine distributors sooner than he got to painting the parking lot, which still noted until very recently in some spaces: "Parking for Sagami customers only." I'm generally not your average put-your-hook-in-the-water-and-wait-for-a-fish-on-a-hot-summer-day kind of girl, but given the fare at the Leurre, I'm inclined to be patient.

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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

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