Sick of hearing complaints about the poor treatment visitors to South Florida receive everywhere from cabs to cafés, the government of Broward County has teamed up with the hospitality industry to raise the bar. The program, called "SUNsational Service," employs experts in the field to set standards of excellence, then teach these standards to others in the field of hospitality. The motive, of course, is to promote and maintain tourism, but frankly I'll support any means, Machiavellian or otherwise, that will result in the smallest improvements whatsoever -- especially in our notoriously protocol-deficient hotels and restaurants.
That's why I suggest that SUNsational trainers not only provide guidelines and employee-training formats but also demonstrate the keys to great service. In other words show, don't tell. Send taxi drivers to limousine school. Put local concierges up at hotels like The Breakers. And send each and every waiter, manager, and restaurateur to Anita's Grill Mexicano in Coral Springs, where the service is exemplary -- as is the magnificently seasoned haute Mexican fare.
Not that I expected anything less during my recent visit. Anita's Grill Mexicano is the second restaurant run by the Pria family, the brothers who are responsible for the Fort Lauderdale godsend Eduardo de San Angel. Though the name of Anita's suggests a lower-end restaurant than Eduardo's and the owners will tell you that dress is "nice casual," the hacienda-type eatery is every bit as sophisticated as its sibling. Dark wood paneling meets Southwestern desert hues on the walls, tables are set with linens and beautifully crafted Mexican ceramic chargers, and background music is muted. Service is unobtrusive and wonderfully deferential, with nary a misstep. When my husband discovered a lipstick mark on his just-filled wine glass, the server whisked it away with apologies. In return he brought not only a fresh glass for him, which he filled at the table, but an extra glass of the Mexican Chenin Blanc we had been sampling from the bar to replace what had been lost.
As for the eats, the seven-month-old Anita's, like Eduardo de San Angel, offers sophisticated cuisine that is as related to what has become standard Mexican fare as Evian is to tap water. While you might find familiar-sounding items like chilies rellenos on the menu, at Anita's the chili is a fire-roasted poblano pepper, and the relleno is North Atlantic salmon mousse spiced with pasilla chili peppers. Then the whole wonderfully piquant thing is baked and doused with creamy ancho chili- pepper sauce.
The use of a variety of chili peppers in a single dish is an Eduardo trademark that persists at Anita's. For instance a starter of empanadas featured pickled jalapeño peppers in the filling along with succulent rock shrimp, green olives, and stewed tomatoes and onions. The pickled jalapeños lent the interior of the flaky pastry sufficient tang, but the Pria brothers wisely emphasized the turnover with a squiggle of green tomatillo and smoked chipotle chili sauces. The addition of the sauces not only kept the pastry from becoming dry but created a palette of chili peppers for the palate, a combination that was just as successful coloring a buttery filet mignon main course that oozed melted Jack cheese. Likewise, crepas, cilantro-flecked crepes, were stuffed with cuitlacoche (corn fungus that looks and tastes like mushrooms), onions, and chopped serrano chilies; the lightly creamy sauce that embraced the tender crepas was emphasized with ancho chilies. For pepper lovers who can tell the difference between the bright flavors of fresh chilies and the smoky flavor of dried ones, these kinds of dishes contain the best of both worlds.
Two worlds -- the Old and the New -- are indeed evident in main courses like the red snapper special we tried one evening. Plated on a banana leaf and topped with lump crabmeat, the simply grilled fillet was infused with white truffle oil, a European nuance that didn't quite mesh with the sweet flavor of the warm-water fish. Culture clash was handled better with the pato, a painstakingly deboned and slow-roasted Long Island duckling that had been moistened with a morita chili-shiitake mushroom sauce. The duck, which retained its juicy texture throughout its handling, was mild rather than gamy, a domesticated taste underscored by the slightly earthy shiitake mushrooms.
Still, for all the many successes on the menu, my favorite dishes remain the ones rooted deep in Mexican tradition. A cream of black bean soup, enlivened by a sprinkling of pungent cotija cheese and miniature garlic-scented croutons, was silky and perfectly seasoned. Grilled pork loin medallions, marinated in achiote, a popular Mexican spice, were beautifully done: orange-hued, cross-hatched exactingly enough for an obsessive-compulsive, and thoroughly supple. A light layering of pickled red onions and a side soupçon of marinated habanero chilies allowed for two alternative flavorings, which, to be quite honest, the pork didn't even really need.
Though all entrées were accompanied by a pyramid of white rice and a ladleful of black beans, none of the portions was prodigious enough to prevent us from indulging in Anita's spectacular dessert tray. On any given night, you can bet on being tempted by a homemade selection that puts the Cheesecake Factory to shame. We settled on a signature classic we remembered from Eduardo de San Angel, the mango crème brûlée that the waiter warns is served warm. What he should caution you about is the inability to put down your spoon until all the sugar-laced, fruit-stocked custard is gone (and this from a woman who has spent the entire summer collecting so many ripe or rotten mangoes from her trees that she finds the very smell of the fruit to be gastrointestinally distressing). We also dismantled a plate of dessert crepes topped with an Amaretto-infused caramel sauce in near-record time, along with some beautifully layered cappuccinos (with or without Kahlúa).
Perhaps Anita's only drawback is its location in a strip mall in Coral Springs. Hard to spot from West Sample Road, the main drag, this sliver of a storefront eatery is overshadowed by a large Melting Pot restaurant at one end of the shopping plaza and a religious organization or three occupying the other spaces. On the other hand, if you're looking to duplicate an Eduardo de San Angel experience right down to the diagonal parking spaces in the two-lane parking lot, you have it at Anita's Grill Mexicano -- along with artful fare and customer-driven service that is, I dare say, SUNsational.