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In the movie version, our waiter would be played by Kevin James or some other likable funnyman. He made quick small talk that always ended with a punch line. He stopped by just when you needed him, not before. And his advice was spot-on, like when he suggested to sub the risotto for the fennel that was usually served with the halibut.
"I don't know why they changed it, but when they switched the menu a couple of weeks ago, they made it fennel instead," he explained. "The risotto is amazing. Get it with the risotto."
He was right, but his suggestion also brought up a bigger issue with Via Luna, the restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton on Fort Lauderdale beach: What exactly is the Ritz trying to accomplish with this place?
It's not that the food is bad — in fact, it's quite excellent. But the menu and the concept seem straight out of a corporate conference call; it's as though some group of suits used spreadsheets to decide what South Florida diners are into these days.
Chef Christian Clair alluded to that kind of oversight when asked how he came up with his restaurant's menu. "They," he said, referring to unnamed Ritz higher-ups, "wanted comfort food because it's the trend in restaurants right now." Clair didn't say this as some rebuke of his corporate masters; really, he seemed to respect the decision. But by his answer and by the food Clair is capable of making, it's clear the Ritz ought to just let this guy cook.
The Ritz took over the location in 2008 from St. Regis hotels, which had called the restaurant Cero, a high-end seafood concept that was a favorite of restaurant reviewers. New Times printed a review in July 2007 that gushed: "If you really care about cuisine, pinch your pennies and go for a splurge at Cero... You'll learn how real food, carefully sourced and painstakingly prepared and presented, should taste."
The good reviews weren't enough to fill the cavernous, 130-seat dining room, so the Ritz bet on change. The hotel brought in Clair to oversee Via Luna in March. The Ritz didn't change the look of the place. For good reason: Diners voted the space best décor in Broward County in the 2010 Zagat Survey. Inside, tables feature large armchairs with comfy pillows. Huge, upturned lights cast a yellow glow on the marble floors. A wall of windows looks out onto a balcony, where a row of tables gets a full view of A1A and the ocean beyond. When it's full, the place looks like a 1920s-era hotel, with a massive painting of rolling waves over the handsome bar across the hall. When it's empty, though, the place feels soulless, akin to a cold museum.
A month after Clair arrived, he rolled out an Italian grill concept featuring old-school classics like orzo soup and rigatoni with Italian sausage. Clair admits he wasn't sure he was the right chef for red sauce. "When they changed the menu from Mediterranean to Italian, I was a little nervous about it," he concedes. "This was not the food I know." Clair is a native of France, and he learned to cook watching his grandmothers build flavors in the stews and sauces of the Champagne region. He's classically trained and earned his stripes as an executive sous chef at the Sofitel Water Tower in Chicago and at the Ritz in Laguna Niguel, California. Asked to name his favorite dish, Clair explains that he likes the halibut because "it's the most French dish on the menu."
The recent tweaks to the menu were simply to add in-season ingredients, Clair says, like the leeks in the halibut. But there seem to be some corporate-suit-style decisions here too. Gone are the pizzas, even though the Ritz had installed a special brick oven before the conversion to Italian. Decision-makers replaced the pizzas with more pasta and risotto dishes, including a Maine lobster ravioli, and removed one of the two burgers, which seemed out of place unless you consider the tourists who frequent the place.
All of Clair's training and all that time spent in his grandmothers' kitchens paid off. That was clear from our affable waiter's other suggestion, the arugula and beet salad ($10). It came out in something of a deconstruction, with piles of cherry tomatoes, sliced beets, and candied pecans. A pile of arugula with an excellent vinaigrette sat in the center, next to two breaded and fried chunks of goat cheese that looked like tater tots. Mix them together and you've got a tossed salad, or savor each one separately and you can just about taste the soil where the beets were grown.
Our waiter didn't suggest the meatball appetizer ($12), but with an Italian concept restaurant, there's no better test. It came out as an apricot-sized hunk swimming in red sauce with Parmesan and fresh basil over the top. For this dish, Clair, knowing he's no meatball expert, leaned on his chef de cuisine, Jason Coperine, who got the recipe from his Italian grandmother. It's a damned fine meatball too, tender and juicy with a long-simmered sauce in which the vegetables retain definition. But it's also not the best appetizer; shared among a table of diners, maybe, but otherwise even this excellent meatball and red sauce gets old without some ricotta or other counterpoint to break up the flavors.
Both dishes went great with a bottle of wine listed under the "sommelier features." We were glad for that suggestion, since a sommelier didn't seem to be present on that Wednesday night. And without those featured selections, the wine list is for experts only: It's the size of a coffee-table picture book and rings in at a hefty 46 pages. We went with the '04 Travaglini Gattinara blend ($70) that had enough spice of its own to hold up even to the meatball's red sauce.
The entrées arrived perfectly cooked and excellently seasoned. For the Atlantic halibut ($28), it seemed Clair doesn't add anything to the fish itself besides flour, salt, and pepper, but it's seared to a crisp on the outside and then fluffy as ricotta on the inside. The milky sweet pea risotto underneath also had a delicate hand, with just a bit of lemon zest standing out among the delicate flavors.
Clair's beef tenderloin ($35) was also simply perfect. The fillet is a dish often disrespected by chefs — a too-lean cut they see as flavorless, and therefore believe it should be served that way. Clair tops his with a maître d'hôtel butter, which he made with shallots reduced slowly in red wine. He pops the tenderloin under the broiler until it fuses with the meat, creating a savory crust. Underneath the charred fillet was a red wine reduction almost unnecessary with that topping and, to the side, al-dente barley with mushrooms and — the only miss of the night — a too-broiled zucchini.
Desserts also seem like they came from a corporate comfort-food checklist, like tiramisu and a Key lime lollipop. But at least there are hints of Clair's home, like the nutella that fills the beignets ($12). It's odd calling them beignets in a comfort-food-themed joint, considering that they look like doughnut holes. They're sided with a dark chocolate sauce, caramel, banana ice cream on top of a chocolate cookie, and a fried slice of banana for garnish. As far as comfort food, you don't get more out of a dessert than filled doughnuts with ice cream and sauce.
Following the dessert came a tray of four sweets that included a gumdrop and a tiny black and white cookie. It's a nice touch, really, giving out a tray of treats after everything else, although none of them stood out as something worth ordering on its own.
At the end of all this, our waiter offered one more suggestion: a plummy glass of the 2000 Warre's vintage port ($15). It was another great suggestion, a good glass to sip and contemplate what Via Luna could be. It has all the elements: a beautiful dining room and bar, a seaside view, and a chef who can seemingly execute any menu. Imagine what they could do if the Ritz let him cook the dishes he learned in his grandmothers' kitchens.