Serafina means "angel" in Italian, and I guess with the right sky-blue backdrop, a little otherworldly lighting, and the wistful notes of a discrete off-stage choir, you could mistake Shari Woods for one of those heavenly creatures. That is, if angels fluttered around wearing low-rise jeans and tiny tank-tops. Which is to say, Shari Woods is hot. I'll bet the babelicious factor at this chef/owner's Serafina Waterfront Bistro, which opened last December, won't hurt her business one bit.
But we don't go to restaurants to ogle the staff, do we? We go to eat good things, to drink interesting wine, to be well-taken-care-of, and to let our minds wander while we take in the waterside view of, say, boats rocking quaintly beneath a handful of poignant stars. That exact combination of factors is tough to come by in Lauderdale. If Woods can deliver the goods, she's some kind of wonderful.
So, can she? Let's have a look.
Serafina Waterfront Bistro
926 NE 20th Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Dinner 5:30 till 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, till 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch Sunday 10:30 a.m. till 2:30 p.m. Call 954-463-2566.
1. Good things to eat: Check. One of Serafina's signature dishes, a $16 starter, is composed of six sweet, grilled shrimp basking on an island of buttery, cheddar-laced grits flecked with licorice-scented tarragon. A moat of deep, terra-cotta-hued sauce -- tomatoes, roasted peppers, and a dash of goat cheese for creaminess and punch, blended smooth -- surrounds the island and its sassy inhabitants. If you can get all these ingredients on your fork at once, you'll be happy. And if you throw caution to the wind and sop up the last remnants of that tart, smoky sauce with Shari's dense, homemade rosemary foccacia, you will be happy and perhaps no longer hungry. This little dish, so rich and fine, would make a terrific entrée with a green salad.
But you'll be surprised how much you can eat when you put your mind to it, and on a recent Friday evening, my mind was fine-tuned. A caesar salad ($9) made a nice demi-course between appetizer and entrée: leaves crisp and buttery; chunky, crisp croutons; one silvery, fresh anchovy perched on top as if surfing the green waves. And the whole thing was tossed in a creamy parmesan dressing. The anchovy infused the salad with its pungent, sea-faring flavor, muscular and salty as cheese. I would have liked two anchovies or even three, but then, I'm a fool for fresh anchovies.
Woods, it turns out, came to Fort Lauderdale four years ago, drawn by the grandfather, aunt, and parents who live nearby; wanting to get warm; and probably hoping to put some distance between herself and her ex. Shari and Seth Woods met at the Culinary Institute of America as students in the late '80s and went on to open two of the most popular neighborhood restaurants in Boston's South End: Metropolis, a Mediterranean/American bistro, and a bit later, the French-accented Aquitaine across the street. You'll find occasional echoes of both menus at Shari Woods' Serafina -- a fois gras paté ($12), her warm chocolate pudding cake with vanilla ice cream ($8), a wild mushroom and truffle risotto ($16), or a smoked corn soup ($8). But Woods has done more than just recycle her old successes. She's serving Florida yellowtail snapper ($28), free-range roast chicken ($20), margharita pizza ($11), and a gaggle of pastas and risottos ($19 to $26). There's a light and fresh paella ($26) made with saffron- and lemon-infused rice topped with sautéed clams, scallops, and shrimp, along with chicken and chorizo. And a Moroccan tagine ($18) of spicy couscous, roasted peppers, chickpeas, and almonds for hard-line vegetarians.
Her chef de cuisine, David Hagan, has put his stamp on the kitchen with a couple of knockouts: that fabulous grilled shrimp with grits and a sinful dish of glazed beef short ribs ($28).
Outrageously rich, those short ribs; we took half of our serving home. They're boneless, slow-cooked in broth until they're so tender that they fall apart at the flick of the fork -- and then they're doused in a soft, almost caramelized red-wine reduction. This melting meat lolls on a buttery divan of orzo tossed with béchamel sauce and chopped escarole, and the whole thing is topped with a whimsical handful of feather-light shoestring fried onions -- a plump socialite wearing an outrageous hat. It has a gazillion calories, and you can taste every delicious one of them.
A savory dish of rigatoni ($18) has a reinterpreted Bolognese sauce of tomato, wine, chopped prosciutto, ground lamb and beef, the licorice trace of star anise, plus a sprig of fresh basil. It's got great mouth feel and a delicate sensibility. Another beauty.
What we're looking at here is a fashionable, tasty bistro menu with an occasional flash of humor. Call it Mediterranean or neo-European. It changes seasonally, with minor tweaks and nightly specials, to keep our curiosity piqued.
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2. Interesting wine: Check. Woods has hand-picked a small selection of intriguing bottles, mostly from Italy and California, like the Col d'Orcia Olmaia cabernet from Tuscany ($125 a bottle), a white Vermentino from Sardinia ($27 a bottle), and the Due Uve pinot grigio/sauvignon blanc blend from Veneto ($34 a bottle), to complement her menu. You can have a glass of Ironstone Obsession ($6) with dessert, one of my favorite light summer wines: a fruity, almost fizzy beverage made from the hybrid Symphony grape. It's a good match with Woods' handmade strawberry shortcake ($7) -- sliced ripe strawberries swirled in whipped cream between two dense disks of buttery shortcake, with a flicker of chopped mint providing a green tang. A raisiny vin Santo ($10) works well with Serafina's vanilla-scented crème brûlée ($7). A lovely, sparkling Moscato d'Asti ($7) pairs nicely with Shari's warm chocolate pudding cake ($8) and a scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream.
3. Well-taken-care-of: Oops! Shari and server Nicole ran themselves ragged trying to juggle a dozen-plus tables one night we were there, and the customers kept coming... and leaving. One guy and his date flounced out in a royal rage because they'd waited so long for their entrées. Serafina needs more help; a food runner or table busser would have calmed things considerably. Except for forgetting to bring our basket of foccacia with olive tapenade (and we really wanted it!), our waitress was unfailingly polite and exacting, and, somehow, always on top of things -- relighting our spent candle, ferrying carafes of wine. But watching her hustle -- mouth set in a thin, desperate line -- wasn't exactly conducive to relaxed dining. Let's face it: People get infantile over their food, and a long wait when you're hungry can reduce even the bravest of us to tears. When I asked about this, Woods said that she's frantic to hire another waitron and some kitchen aid but that summer help shortages have stumped her. Any readers out there need a cool job?
4. Boats and stars. Check! What a gorgeous place this is -- in a subtle, homey, European mode. Woods and her boyfriend, Jayson Burke, spent more than a year, lots of elbow grease, and several hundred trips to the Home Depot to turn what she describes as a "filthy pit" (formerly La Tavernetta, through several changes of owners) into a warm and personable space. The building is long and thin, with a fantastic fore and aft. The front is an unexpected twist on the idea of an "open kitchen": a glass storefront visible from the sidewalk, in front of which you can stand and gape at Hagan and his assistant as they plate up those stick-to-your-ribs ribs. Then down the narrow walkway you go, past a trickling fountain and pots of fresh flowers and garden herbs, through the glass doors, into a cozy room of six or seven tables arranged beneath scenic color photos. Starched linens, heavy wooden chairs, "pressed tin" ceiling panels, bas relief sculptures. Through another set of doors and you're on a wooden deck at the edge of a small harbor on the Middle River, where yachts and sailboats have dropped anchor an arm's length away. Candlelight, umbrellas, and, even in mid-August, a whiff of breeze. It's just beautiful.
This is great neighborhood dining if I've ever seen it, and it makes me wish I lived within walking distance. That Serafina has alighted in Victoria Park, where there are already so many dandy restaurants, seems brutally unfair to those of us who live elsewhere -- how'd this little triangle of turf turn out to be so blessed? Depending on your whim these days, you can go around the culinary world in three or four-odd blocks. The neighborhood is getting to be like a trip to Epcot without the long lines and the squalling infants. No, scratch that. It's getting to be like a city, a real city -- dense, patched together over time, filling up with diverse restaurants and the interesting people who run them. The Victoria Parkers have been touched by an angel. Envy them. Then get in your car and make the drive.