In her amusing memoir Serial Monogamy, Nora Ephron remembers how she used to cook for Craig Claiborne in her head, spinning fantasies of having this man she'd never met come to her house for dinner (and later, of course, he'd write an article about her, including her recipes). After her imaginary affair with Claiborne is over, she falls in culinary love with Lee Bailey — a man she worshiped (in person; they became friends) for his relaxed, Southern brand of savoir-faire. Bailey, who was to the '80s what Martha Stewart is to the '00s, made it all look so easy, from his pared-down beige décor ("Be very careful about color," he liked to say) to his elegantly simple dinner parties. A meal chez Bailey always consisted of four dishes — Ephron remembers pork chops, grits, collard greens... and crab apples. It was those crab apples, she writes, the unexpected flourish, that elevated a meal from wonderful to wondrous.
As an artistic principle, that fourth element invariably works — give them a few delicious things and then a surprise, a bit of chaos. I like a menu that follows the same logic. It's one reason I'm fond of the specials board, at least when it's living up to its name and offering something to engage the spirit of inquiry. I love that board most of all when its half-decipherable scrawl includes a food I've never tasted.
The specials board at Café Seville, a Spanish restaurant in Fort Lauderdale now nearly a quarter-century old, isn't a prop — it's a character in its own right. For one thing, it's large enough, complete with its own easel, that it requires a strong man to carry it. Set down for your perusal, it seems to speak, rather bossily, with the clipped phrasings of a busy man: "rib-eye with shrimp, peppers, onions, and mushrooms in sherry; lamb shank with fresh vegetables and brown sauce..." The listings trundle volubly along, from swordfish to trout to veal, until it stumbles into, for us, unexplored territory. "Merluza topped with crab and artichokes in garlic wine."
What's that you say? Merluza?
And an appetizer of baby eels in garlic butter?
Casserole of rabbit cooked in tomato sauce?
That sounds like a lot of yummy with a sprinkling of weird thrown in. Name me another restaurant in Lauderdale serving hake (that's the merluza), rabbit, and baby eels on one menu and I'll run right over and eat them.
I was charmed. The specials are extensive at Café Seville, but fear not; there's a regular printed menu too — full of chorizo and escargots, of pollo Granada and paella. You could eat weekly at Café Seville for a year and never repeat a dish — pork tenderloin with rosemary, seafood casserole, cold plates of serrano and Manchego... all of it inexpensive enough (entrées are mostly in the low 20s) that you could in fact afford to set yourself merrily to this project.
I recommend you do. The food is marvelous at Café Seville, the staff almost inexplicably nice. And the atmosphere — golden lighting, low ceilings, and comfortable chairs — is conducive to leisurely menu tours. It's no mystery why this restaurant has survived so long — and if it's not the place you regularly turn to for sustenance and succor, it ought to be.
Apart from the surprises — the tiny eels as thin and white as bits of string that come sizzling in a dish of scalding, garlicky oil with their own wooden fork so you won't burn the bejesus out of your tongue — apart from the $5 glasses of Spanish Legaris ribera del duero wine, the classical guitarist playing sonatines and estudios, and the refreshingly normal-looking clientele filling every table (families, couples, first dates, a few business diners) — the truly massive surprise at Seville is how much you feel you belong there right from the get-go, as if you'd been raised in this kitchen, cutting your first teeth on Serrano ham hocks. I'd eaten at Seville only once before, years ago and alone, when I'd had a few hours to kill between appointments — so when we showed up on a Friday half an hour early for our 8 o'clock reservation, we weren't exactly regular customers. Which didn't stop the staff from treating us like we were. They bundled us off to the cozy bar in the back to wait for a few minutes, recommended a fruity Spanish Tempranillo and served us a couple of glasses of that terrific Legaris, turned down the AC when we shivered. The lone guy sitting at the bar, a restaurateur from Jersey forking up his dish of snails in butter, told us why Seville was his favorite place to eat: "They always use good-quality ingredients." Whenever co-owner Joey Esposito passed us on his way to the kitchen, he'd wink and smile or call "Just a few more minutes, ladies!" so we knew we weren't forgotten.
Remarkable how you can fall in love with a restaurant before you've eaten the first bite of food. I have a feeling I would have been smitten with Seville even if it'd served me Swanson frozen chicken strips straight out of a tin tray. The staff is truly warm — relaxed but never overbearing, informed but without a trace of snobbery — and every waiter we dealt with knew the menu and the wine list inside out (there are nearly 100 Spanish wines alone on the gorgeous, drinker-friendly list). But there was no danger of TV dinners coming from chef Jose Fuentes' kitchen. Not from our first forkful of those slippery little eels ($14.95) topped with crunchy slivers of fried garlic or the substantial hunk of cold, potato-stuffed tortilla española ($9.95), a beautiful, thick omelet as creamy and satisfying as a piece of savory cake.
After we'd polished off this substantial intro, we wanted something lighter, so we both ordered fish. Merluza ($24.95) is practically the national fish of Spain, known to us as the Atlantic hake, an ugly devil with a mouth full of teeth and an evil gleam in his eye. Cooked, the hake has firm, flaky white flesh a bit like cod. It takes well to aggressive flavoring, and that it had — sautéed in butter with a topping of silky sour artichokes, the dry rasp of white wine, pungent garlic, and a smattering of tender crab meat to intensify the flavor of the sea.
My dolphin Santa Fe ($22.95) was a spicy dish, as I like it, the meaty baked fillets smothered in a basic light Spanish wine/garlic/tomato sauce with fiery jalapeños added for kick and shredded basil leaves providing a cooler undercurrent. Both were served with steamed broccoli and rice. Merluza and dolphin (mahi/dorado) are sustainable seafood, by the way, the merluza having recovered from being overfished.
We hesitated long enough over the list of homemade desserts — tiramisu, coconut bread pudding, flourless chocolate cake — for our waiter to ask if we'd tried their famous tres leches ($8.95) yet ("It's the best you'll ever taste"). No exaggeration — Seville's is a sponge cake basted gently in coconut milk, cream, and condensed milk and topped with whipped cream; it's light, cold, slightly grainy, with the most pleasurable mouth-feel imaginable. The coconut milk is an inspired touch — there's that unexpected fourth element again — that transforms this ubiquitous dessert into a memory I hope I'll have in my head forever.
So good was this cake that I went right home and Googled a recipe to cook in my own kitchen, to which I planned to make the same substitution. I imagined inviting Nora Ephron to dinner, how she'd marvel over the subtle, nutty flavor of my tres leches. "What is that extra ingredient?" she'd muse, pestering me for my secret. And then she'd write an article about it afterward.