Dances With Woods

Many of the cafe's front-rank dishes aren't listed on the menu but are available as regular specials. For example, a heaven-sent pasta dish: dill fettuccine with house-smoked salmon, seedless cucumber, slivers of carrots, plus leek, shallots, and tossed with heavy cream ($15.95). Rich and luxuriant beyond expectation, this sauce clings to each strand of pasta with the naturalness of a veteran dancing partner. The aromatic vegetables and wood-smoked salmon (cured with brown sugar, kosher salt, and peppercorns, ~much like gravlax) make for sensual motion upon sampling. Simple ingredients directed with sovereign command and imagination are hallmarks of the McCarthy/Montella pas de deux.

A seventeen-page, comprehensive wine list is strong on American chardonnays and cabernets, but as far as prices go, it's a mixed bag. Imported champagnes are incontestably high (a nonvintage Krug "Grand Cuvee" goes for $130, while a bottle of Dom Perignon costs $125). On the other hand, some first-rate chardonnays, such as the 1989 Zaca Mesa reserve ($31) and 1989 Ferrari-Carrano ($30.75), are relatively inexpensive. The same holds true for the 1988 Sterling ($24) and 1989 De Loach Russian River Valley ($27) cabernets. The cafe doesn't cater to the liver-inflamed martini crowd, by the way; wines and beers are the only libations on offer.

What of the entrees? One of the rarest - in both senses of the word - and simplest in preparation is buffalo steak ($23.95). The Armadillo has it flown in from Texas. The preparation, eager to let a thing speak for itself, stresses simplicity: the steak is grilled and served with portobello mushrooms and garlic butter. Two bites of this deliquescent buffalo is infinitely more eloquent than three hours of Kevin Costner.

Another "where's the beef" crowd-pleaser is a Kansas City strip steak, served with a ranchero sauce ($22.95). Marinated lamb is also memorable, prepared with a roast-garlic-and-sun-dried-tomato sauce with wild rice pancakes ($18). If you prefer to keep your main dish finger-friendly, tacos are available with chicken ($15) and beef ($18), with a cornucopian array of toppings - avocado, salsa, cheese, guacamole, onions, smoked bacon, and black beans.

Among fowl entrees, even in Europe you aren't likely to sample an expertly smoked barbecued duck ($16.50) like this one, served with an orange and Asian pear relish, and a seductively subtle sauce (from reduced fresh-squeezed orange juice, honey, and thyme). Among the fish, the blue-ribbon main course is undoubtedly the yellowtail snapper, pan-seared with a butter sauce including roast peppers, garlic, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, and ginger ($18), tasting every bit as complicatedly delicious as it sounds. The only major disappointment is a seafood pasta diablo ($17) - shrimp, scallops, calamari, white water clams, tomatoes, garlic, ancho chilies, and black-pepper fettuccine - whose texture was much too brothy to linger in my memory.

Desserts all cost $4.95 (and soon are due to increase, I'm told). Presently a steal, should the prices rise, they'll still be worth every penny. Neither in France nor, for that matter, in the country of their true origin, England, have I ever spooned more beautiful creme brulees. Montella's recipe (eight egg yolks per quart of heavy cream, plus one cup of sugar) belies the great art required to attain the firm yet lusciously creamy consistency of this classic custard. And there are three flavors: chocolate amaretto with almonds, mocha with a brown sugar coating (which occasionally is taken off the menu), and the standard vanilla, available either with caramelized sugar or hot fudge sauce. Because the Armadillo employs a torch, the caramelized topping can be achieved without undue heat on the custard - a creme quagmire that's centuries old. It's dispatched with aplomb: the cream, served in cafeteria-style individual tubs, is magically cool. Other pulse-raising endings include a flourless chocolate torte in three layers, chocolate-bourbon pecan pie, peanut butter pie, and chocolate fritters. Treasure for chocaholics.

This little burrowed animal is getting set to celebrate its fourth birthday the first week in August, so many happy returns are in order. "Parting is such sweet sorrow," wrote Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Luckily, in this unique and wonderful restaurant, which is worthy to be ranked alongside, if not above, the very finest in the nation, there's always tomorrow.

ARMADILLO CAFE
4630 SW 64th Ave, Davie; 791-4866. Open Tuesday - Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m.; and Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday.

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