Fort Lauderdale may never shake its image as the most iconic Spring Break city after being portrayed in Cinemascope in the 1960 movie Where the Boys Are, in which Connie Francis, Yvette Mimieux, Dolores Hart, Jim Hutton, George Hamilton and other young stars spend 90 minutes trying to succeed in, or ward off, sexual conquest.
Although the city never exploited its nefarious image, it made money from it while enduring the annual debaucheries on its beaches and in its motels. But, as the "scene" got more and more decadent with each succeeding decade, the local leaders and police began cracking down on the excesses, while trying to create a Fort Lauderdale that was a far more inclusive vacation destination for grown-ups and families the other fifty weeks of the year.
Indeed, anyone who visits Fort Lauderdale other than during Spring Break will find a city intent on boosting its arts and culture, which range from the burgeoning Museum of Art to the 35-acre Bonnet House Museum & Gardens. The strip known as Las Olas makes for a good stroll for food and boutiques, and there's always the fine white sand beach and the blue water beyond. The IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum is here, too, and a whole lot of gastropubs and breweries, like the cavernous Funky Buddha Brewery Tap Room, which you may tour.
On a recent trip to Fort Lauderdale, I tried to find various aspects of the city's gastronomy, starting with checking into the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort at North Beach (below), which manifests a judicious balance of luxury and relaxed style, all its rooms with balconies overlooking the ocean.
It also has one of the best restaurants in Florida, which should not come as a surprise, since upscale hotel chains in the U.S. have really put their money where their mouths are, at least in their premier restaurants. Here it is called S3, whose name derives from "Sun, Sea and Sand." The restaurant is part in and part outdoors, with a fire pit on the patio. The menu consists of what used to be called Fusion Cuisine, but it also draws on the ideas of Flor-ibbean food cultures, so that you might begin with some stellar sushi and sashimi (below) with guacamole components, an array of fanciful specialty rolls (below)--try the Red Dragon with crispy shrimp, crab, avocado, mango and tobiko--or goat's cheese croquettes crusted with almonds and served with red chili guava.
This is a nosher's menu, so bring friends and share dishes like the paella-style seafood heaped with chorizo, shrimp, clams, mussels and scallops with fregola grain, or the Vietnamese chicken wings, a terrific, zesty item with peanuts and a green papaya salad. Ricotta gnocchi in a fennel leek fondue with peas and shiitakes was a canny rendering, and shortribs with smoked calabaza puree showed a good deal of spark and imagination. The baked macaroni and cheese (above) needs no imagination, just a big fork and spoon.
From the wood-fired oven comes a smoky, coffee-rubbed skirt steak, nicely chewy and very juicy, with yucca and hot chimichurri, A lot of people will spot the brisket sliders with mustard BBQ sauce and chow chow on the menu and just go for it.
As I said, you could just order plenty of these small plate dishes and be very happy with cold beer or a good wine, but there are also large plates, like marinated lamb chops with chickpeas, tomato, feta, olives and lemon or a beef ribeye with a cippollini mushroom ragôut, that show a Mediterranean drift.
Another of Fort Lauderdale's more lavish restaurants is the huge Kaluz, set on the Intracoastal Waterway. The glass-walled restaurant, with Argentine owners, draws a glamorous crowd on the prowl, starting at the patio bar. In fact, you can sidle up to the mooring side of the restaurant, hop off your yacht and join the throng of women for whom a well-earned tan is as requisite stiletto heels.
Kaluz tries hard to be everything for everybody. You want sandwiches? There are several burgers and a chicken club. Salads? Eight of them, including Thai noodle and shrimp with coconut and peanuts. The seared tuna sushi (below) is very good and generously proportioned (market price).
They serve first-rate Bell & Evans roast chicken with herbs and parmesan mashed potatoes ($17), so why do they buy inferior Australian rack of lamb? And, while the NY strip steak ($39)--a 16-ounce Sterling Silver Premium Choice--had plenty of beefy flavor, and a loaded baked potato, there's little to be said for the flavorless and boneless 14-ounce prime rib. The Bar Harbor crabcake ($32) with remoulade was good and generous enough, but the advertised "jumbo lump crab" was in short supply in the cake I had. The best of the desserts, as you might hope in Florida, is the Key lime pie ($8) with a delicious graham cracker and pecan crust.
There's a modest wine list, but the "Captain's List" is where the most interesting, and expensive, bottles reside.
At the opposite end of the city's diningscape is Hot & Soul, a small storefront--and one that's very easy to miss within a strip mall--that since opening in 2013 has really won the hearts and appetites of the locals. But now the word is out among visitors, so owners Christy and Mike Samoy (below) work very hard to meet expectations with a big menu appended by blackboard specials.
Hot & Soul is the kind of place where you get plenty of both, and the soul comes from the fervid commitment of the couple to cook as they like without cooking anything people won't crave after trying it.
My friends and I ate from all over the menu and, had we not filled up so greedily on the "Gnaughty Gnocchi" with oxtail meat, tomatoes, basil and assertive pecorino, and the hearty Gumbo Yumbo of chicken and hot andouille with rice (below), we might have eaten everything on the menu.
The Manchego cheese mushroom toast with sherry cream was a delight, and a simple salad was as refreshing as any I'd had last summer--Bibb lettuce, arugula, tomatoes then at their peak, sweet onion, hearts of palm and a sherry mustard vinaigrette.
I also loved the Holay Mole made with pork shoulder, red rice, pinto beans and a finely shredded jalapeño slaw.
We forced ourselves to try two wonderful desserts--dulce de leche custard with candied cashews, caramel toast, and banana jam and dark chocolate pistachio and sea salt bark drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
Hot & Soul delivers on all that it promises, which seems at first modest--as are the two idiosyncratically decorated rooms--but the food takes a lot of skill, a lot of creativity and a whole lot of soul.
To say O-B House is a Fort Lauderdale mainstay is to do the food and ambiance of this breakfast place a great injustice. For it's easy enough for people to slouch into any number of places for eggs and pancakes, but when you walk through the door of O-B and you meet the owner and staff, who even early in the morning seem pumped up with Florida sunshine, you know this is a place where you'll want to make friends.
The maritime décor in what is a 1925 house, the rich colors, and the conviviality of the room, ringing with the sound of people having a very good time, is the backdrop for dishes you really can't find anywhere else. The coffee is good and the cups big. The ingredients are obviously the finest owner Rodney Eli, Kansas born, can obtain. Its milk is not homogenized, so it retains the cream, on the top; the bread is made for them right down the block; sausage is made in-house; eggs come from free-range chickens; the maple syrup is from Vermont, costing $70 a gallon. So prices are higher than at an IHOP or a Waffle House, but O-B's food is worth every extra penny, especially Chef Aaron Johnson's now famous buttermilk pancakes ($12), which overflow the plate (below). They are puffy and moist, cooked in a cast-iron skillet till golden brown and speckled. A variant is the delightful, well textured corn pancake ($14).
You can build your own omelet ($14-$16), and, this being the South, they make big, beautiful biscuits covered with pork sausage gravy; and this being Florida, they serve oven-baked mahi fillet with eggs, Yukon gold potatoes, and cheese grits on toast ($15). You can bank on the mahi being unstintingly fresh, the potatoes buttery, and the grits glistening hot from the pot on toast made from good bread.
O-B is an original, and I'm glad Eli hasn't cloned it. For, even if the food were as good, nothing else would be quite the same.
Oh, and Eli's playlist of the best songs of the '60s and '70s, played softly, makes a breakfast here like a breakfast at home when you've got your favorite station on the old transistor radio.
I cannot fail to report on one of the most admirable labors of love I've ever run across--Marando Farms, a small acre or two of market, hydroponic agriculture, free-ranging roosters and chickens, and a great deal more, owned and run by two young people, Chelsea and Fred Marando, who grew up on a farm and have dedicated themselves to running theirs in order to promote healthful farming practices among small farms.
To that end, they have helped several local farmers from going out of business, asked them to raise special sustainable crops, buy the most delicious unpasteurized dairy products (the labels read "For animal consumption," but humans will qualify), and infuse the entire enterprise with their own huge enthusiasm. It was not just a pleasure meeting and talking with Chelsea; it was an honor and an education for me.
The more places like this appear within cities everywhere, the better and fresher and more natural our food will be, and I believe it is as requisite to bring children to farms like this as it is to museums and arts venues. Chelsea told me her kids never get sick, so let tours roll around in the dirt at a place like Marando's and they'll grow up healthier and wiser.