Dances With Woods

Before getting to the business at hand, an announcement: New Times is looking for a permanent dining critic and food chronicler, someone with matching insights and appetite, an original, stylish writer for whom each restaurant experience is an adventure to be seized upon and savored. Let me say, by way of introduction, that much as I enjoy the eating quest, I am not this publication's new/old "Cafe" critic. My return to this column is a temporary assignment - until that indefatigably hungry candidate makes an appearance.

In the intervening two and a half years since I last tackled the dining experience, many restaurants have come and gone, but the extraordinary, multifarious cuisine of our subtropical community endures unabated. Seasoned travelers with a taste for the inventive, the unusual, and in some instances, the heretical, need look no further than South Florida's restaurant menus to be jarred, amused, or amazed. Indeed, for the adventurous and passionate of mouth, willing to take a plunge and sample the quixotic components of Caribbean, Central and South American, European, and Asian cuisines - to say nothing of American regional cookery, which is surpassingly varied, and similarly available, in these parts - the cultural ritual of dining remains a daunting challenge and profoundly rewarding as ever.

Akin to service plates onto which any number of comestible creations are posited, the restaurant pursuit is a sphere of inspiration and a metaphor for all that is great, horrible, or indifferent about the world. The culinary art and the craft of writing are compatible venues to address that elusive, all-embracing Geist.

But few could have foretold that one of our cultural goldmines would rest nestled away in Broward County's most reticently residential neighborhood. And fewer still could have imagined we'd find some of the most original, thought-provoking, and palate-igniting cuisine in Florida inside a minikin shopping center way out west, past State Road 7, in Davie. But one happy surprise follows another at the Armadillo Cafe. This unique restaurant excels at replacing all preconceived notions and galvanizing its ever more extensive group of regular guests to hedonistic food frenzies. (I use the word "guest" deliberately: service here is as friendly and chummy as a high summer pool party.) With its well-nigh miraculous feat of mingling Southwestern cuisine with a personal, classically schooled grace and refinement, the Armadillo, brainchild of kitchen partners Kevin McCarthy and Eve Montella, brushes distinction with each appetizer, main course, and dessert. And a boon comes in the shape of a tab, proving that this scintillating peak can be scaled without Pinnitubo-size craters in your finances. The cafe is more than an eatery - it's a patron's paradise.

The Armadillo's interior and atmosphere are attractively modest and discreetly vital. Wisely, the Southwestern leitmotif hasn't been overdone. The waiters and waitresses, most of them long-time Armadilloans, wear sleek bolo ties; the men are often ponytailed. Commemorative posters depicting festivals and events from various regions of Arizona and New Mexico rest unobtrusively throughout the walls in the restaurant's two (one smoking, another nonsmoking) adobe-color and brightly lit dining rooms. Discriminatingly placed objets d'art (there's a painted skull artwork), vased flowers, and erect cacti perform the finishing touches on a restaurant that, to misuse Theodore Roosevelt's imperialist dictum for a moment, speaks softly but carries a big kick. True to its origins and far-seeing in the manner of presenting them, the Armadillo's cuisine is thoroughly, though never heavy-handedly, piquant.

What an extraordinarily heterogeneous menu is offered. Mex junkies of every denomination - SoCal, Tex, or whatever - will instantly recognize ingredients such as jalapenos, flour tortillas, and ancho chiles, as well as time-worn finger foods such as quesadillas, tacos, and nachos. Barbecue hounds are sure to delight in the range of smoky grill flavors: McCarthy and Montella habitually use hickory chips in their cooking - mesquite is too pungent, they feel - as well as alderwood and applewood. Butter sauces traditional in French haute cuisine are fancifully applied, along with three delightful versions of that gallic end-of-meal divinity, creme brulee. Pasta dishes tip their Stetsons respectfully toward Italy - but their spurs are firmly imbedded in American terra firma. Southwestern delicacies such as buffalo steak, as well as Floridian seafaring favorites like snapper and dolphin, are mentioned, ordered, and delivered in the same breath. The glories are inexhaustable.

Take, for example, the first item on the menu, roasted corn and jalapeno fritters served with a homemade applesauce ($4.25), a potentially pedestrian curtain-raiser if ever there was one. The round fritters are spicy and unproblematic and commendably drained of fat. But its accompanying dipping sauce raises this starter to the mountaintop at warp speed. The sauce is a combination of simple ingredients, as veteran waiter and recently annointed dessert maker Gary, who prepares it, informs: the contents are Granny Smith apples, processed but not pureed to conserve chunkiness, blended with caramelized sugar, butter, and cinnamon. I assure you that store-variety applesauce is to this Armadillo rendition what Dan Quayle is to Winston Churchill - an impostor.

Other appetizers include poblano chile rellenos stuffed with roast corn, mushrooms, and Jack cheese, lightly fried in a beer batter, then served over a tomato-chipotle sauce with a dollop of sour cream ($6.50); fried goat cheese with a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette and yellow tomato salsa (($7.50); tequila-infused grilled shrimp and roasted corn cakes served with chipotle butter and tomato salsa. Two deservedly popular items are the "Cafe Combination Nachos" ($5.25), not-to-be-believed nachos filled with tender smoked chicken, blue crab (or often, beef tenderloin), and black beans with avocado, condimented with salsa and flourished with sour cream; and perhaps the Armadillo's finest overture, the duck quesadilla ($7.75), a masterful innovation of fragrant smoked duck, Jack cheese, and sour cream, wrapped in a delicate flour tortilla and finished, with the elan of a balletic pirouette, with a pineapple-mango salsa.

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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