Here in South Florida, we've accepted the idea that good food can be found in a strip mall. People wait three hours for meatballs at Café Martorano, stand in line at Jaxson's Ice Cream Parlor, and eat some of the best rolls around at Sushi Jo — all in shopping plazas, that scourge of city planning.
But a 1980s-style mall? No, that's where we eat cinnamon buns and wash them down with mysterious orange drinks.
Except at the Galleria — which underwent a $50 million makeover six years ago. The Fort Lauderdale mall, which had been built as a shopping plaza in 1954, became a dreary-yet-high-end mall in 1980. Its recent renovation added a "resort-style entrance" facing Sunrise Boulevard. The changes attracted major chains: P.F. Chang's opened next to Seasons 52, and the Capital Grille filled the spot near the doors. And Blue Martini nearby became the other kind of meat market. Somehow, the mall had become a legit dining and late-night destination. It's not just for bored teenagers anymore.
So on a recent Saturday night, I found myself pondering whether to valet-park at the Galleria. Refusing to giave in, we found a spot in the garage out back and walked past the Sbarro on our way to the new Truluck's. (This decision would haunt us later when the mall closed and we were forced to hoof it through three parking areas to find our car.) Out front, the valets had assembled a lineup of cars with mortgage-sized payments. I saw a million-dollar Bugati here recently. On the patios of the chains, diners compromised for seats in the hundred-degree temperature due to the full inside dining rooms.
Truluck's is tucked behind Blue Martini in what used to be a parking garage. You can't see it from the main mall entrance, but that wouldn't stop the cavernous, 175-seat dining room from filling up that night. The design is decidedly traditional, like a Manhattan hotel bar, with rows of back-lit bottles behind the wide bar to the right and well-spaced red leather banquettes dotting the dining room. A pianist sang away at the bar, and his crooning of Jimmy Buffett and Van Morrison was piped into the dining room. We scored one of those gangster-style booths near the back.
Truluck's is a Houston-based chain that now has ten steak-and-seafood restaurants across the country, including a location in Boca Raton that opened in May 2007. Like most high-end chains, Truluck's deploys its employees with well-rehearsed spiels, evidenced by the maître d' offering to explain the restaurant's theme and our waiter explaining that the filtered water is complimentary. Next came the fresh crab tray, which featured cane-sized Alaskan king crab legs, Maine Jonah stone crab claws, and a whole Dungeness crab the size of a basketball. The display was beautiful for crab eaters, but my wife, who doesn't like looking into the eyes of something she's eating, had the distinct feeling that the crab might be looking for revenge.
Like most chains, which can afford to buy cases on the cheap, the wine list was extensive, reasonable, and easy to decipher. Truluck's offers wine flights that include four two-ounce tastes for about $20. We had two of them — the pinot noir ($19.50) and the around-the-world reds ($20.75). It's nearly twice what I'd normally pay for a glass, but we ended up with eight tastes of some extraordinary wines.
The wine came out at the same time as a basket that included cinnamon bread and rounds of a small, cheesy loaf. We covered them all in butter as we considered the extensive list of hot and cold appetizers.
Truluck's is famous for having its own stone crab fleet based in Naples. But the Gulf stone crab season doesn't start until October, so we opted for a sample of three of the Maine stone crabs ($3 each). We also ordered four gulf shrimp ($3 each), three clams ($1 each), and one each of the night's featured oysters ($2.50 each). They came carefully arranged on a two-tiered tray full of ice and decorated with caper berries and seaweed.
The shrimp were plump and fresh and had a perfect snap, along with a pleasantly tangy cocktail sauce. But the stone crab claws were overcooked, making it tough to pull the meat from the cartilage. Our waiter offered no description of the oysters before taking off, so we were left to guess which one was which. They still tasted straight from the sea, as did the still-salty clams.
For dinner, there was little doubt that I wanted lobster. It's a dish you should order only at a place that can do it well (a rule I also apply to fried chicken and chile rellenos). There were two kinds promised: the standard live Maine variety and what the menu describes as the "Rolls-Royce of lobster," from South Africa. Our waiter, however, delivered the news that they had sold all but one of their Maine lobsters, something that was odd considering the early hour. They had one left, a three and a half pounder, which, at $30 a pound, would come to just over $100.
Instead, I ordered the Scottish salmon ($25), which came with fresh crab meat and gulf shrimp, covered in a jalapeño béarnaise sauce, all on top of Parmesan mashed potatoes. It was a decadent dish of just-off-the-line fresh seafood. But the promise of a jalapeño bite was nonexistent in a dish that lacked much flavor beyond the generous salmon fillet.
My wife's Hawaiian wahoo ($20) was even more timidly seasoned. It came with an avocado cream, corn succotash, and smoked tomato sauce that were all so bland that they couldn't even stand up to the flavor of the mild fish. On top was a pair of shrimp prepared ceviche-style that was served cold and was decidedly the most intense part of either dish. That said, the citrusy kick of the chewy shrimp simply didn't go along with the rest of the entrée — a bite of the shrimp and you'd be challenged to taste anything else on the plate.
What didn't lack flavor was the $5 side dish of leeks baked in smoked Gouda. The oniony bite of the leeks complemented the melted cheese perfectly, and the crispy topping, which was reminiscent of good French bread crust, was perfectly broiled to a buttery crisp.
Continuing Truluck's old-school approach, our waiter came by with the dessert tray, which contained seven items made in-house, he promised. (I found out later that the items on the dessert and crab trays are all plastic replicas, but you'd never guess.) We were tempted by the chocolate bag, split open tableside and poured with a chocolate sauce, but decided on the "award-winning" carrot cake.
It came out, like all of our dishes, via a food runner who dropped it off on a tray stand near our table. It sat there for a good five minutes as we waited for somebody to deliver it to our table. It was a regular problem that night, and even our long-finished dinner plates sat in front of us as waiters scrambled past. It seemed Truluck's had a one-server-per-table policy, which would've been fine if our guy hadn't had three of them, including a nearby whopper of ten people.
When he finally got a break to bring the cake, our waiter doused it with a gravy boat of butterscotch sauce. Then he topped it with spiced pecans. The cake had a cream-cheese icing that was cloyingly sweet, but it was also perfectly spiced, and the nuts on top included a nice kick — a satisfying way to finish a meal that was otherwise fairly simple.
As we debated whether it was Vietnamese chili making those nuts so spicy, we wondered why the rest of our meal couldn't have been that flavorful. Perhaps it was the mostly elderly diners, who looked to be living out a Viagra commercial nearby. Or maybe Truluck's is the kind of place that does well in a mall, where diners want simple, well-cooked dishes that don't challenge the bounds of a chain. We decided we'd still bring my in-laws. But we'll make them pay for the valet.