Good Enough for Mama

In my mother's kitchen, I am pupil. I am disciple, apprentice. In my mother's kitchen, I am prep cook and sous chef. And in my mother's kitchen, now that I'm grown, I am also sometimes rival.

My mother's kitchen is not only in her house. My mother's kitchen is every restaurant and every cuisine to which she has introduced me, from the lobster shack in Maine to the Indonesian restaurant in the New Jersey bowling alley to the tiny French bistro in California, where she moaned so effusively over the rack of lamb that the waiter asked her if she was sick.

In my own kitchen, I'm in charge. Thanks to my mother, I have knowledge. I have technical experience. And if I do say so myself, I know how to criticize. Still, when my mother visits me every year around the time of my birthday, I can't seem to impress her. Maybe because she was responsible for my culinary upbringing, maybe because she continues to be my mentor (not to mention my mother). But in my kitchen -- and, by extension, in Dade County restaurant kitchens -- we've had nothing but disasters.

At the Hungarian place, the chef walked out in the middle of our meal. The Russian restaurant was so laughably awful that we were convinced it was a Mafia front. The Thai food was pre-prepared, the Cuban food too heavy, the sushi not to her taste. In short, I've taken my mother out for some of the worst meals of her life.

This year I was determined. To celebrate the day that mothers birth daughters into a world of kitchens, I would find the perfect restaurant. Not in either of our spheres of influence. Somewhere foreign to us both.

Fort Lauderdale's Darrel & Oliver's East City Grill, located at the Riviera Ocean Resort on North Atlantic Boulevard, seemed to fit the birthday bill. A few blocks north of increasingly touristy Las Olas Boulevard, East City Grill dominates the newly revamped Fort Lauderdale Strip. Only two months old, the restaurant is already packed with the well built and well dressed; valet parkers look you up and down and ask if you have a reservation before they welcome you. The message is clear: If you haven't booked a table already, you don't have a prayer. No matter what you're wearing.

The bilevel dining room, centerpieced by an onyx "Tropical Steamer Bar" where patrons can consume native and imported shellfish infused with a variety of Asian flavors, opens via French doors onto an enclosed porch. Lighting is muted, walls are accented by dark wood. White linens and a slate floor deliver cool, casual sophistication. Though the prices tend to reflect that sophistication, bargains can also be found, especially given the enormous quantities of food served. The same goes for the mostly American wine list.

Owned by restaurateur Darrel Broek and New World chef Oliver Saucy, the same men who made a nationally acclaimed success out of Darrel & Oliver's Cafe Maxx in Pompano Beach, this new venture is run by a woman. Executive chef Susan Ferry, who worked at Louie's Backyard in Key West (the breeding ground that spawned Norman Van Aken) and has been featured in Food & Wine and Southern Living, among other magazines, commands a Floridian/pan-Asian kitchen that rivals our own Pacific Time for excellence. She has helpers, of course, all of whom are named on the menu: chefs Greg Strickland, Troy Terorotua, and Brent Lahaye; pastry chef Christian Rivera; and baker Joe Russo. Add Saucy's hand in creating the offerings, and that's a lot of of egos for one kitchen. But what comes out of there is pure harmony.

The bread basket symbolizes the establishment's exquisite attention to detail, not to mention its willingness to feed customers till they burst. An arranged assortment of flatbreads, rolls, and specialty loafs such as black-olive-walnut are served with an earthy truffle butter as well as a tapenade, a spread of black olives and anchovies juiced with a splash of brandy. (Regular butter is also supplied.) Servers are happy to describe anything and everything they place on the oil-lamped table and might even quiz more knowledgeable customers to see if they've kept up with recipe trivia: Teasingly challenged, my husband identified all the ingredients in the tapenade except the brandy.

Choosing what to order can be pleasantly difficult. We eventually decided on Chinese steamed crab and goat cheese dumplings, which drifted in a rich shiitake mushroom broth like kites in a stiff beach wind. Although the texture of the melted goat cheese overwhelmed the bits of crab in the filling, the flavor of the crab came through intact. Ginger, scallions, coriander leaf, and parsley intensified the liquid that cradled the four dumplings, while the addition of chopped zucchini, cauliflower, and red pepper compelled us to keep spooning up the broth once the dumplings were gone.

We stuck with Asian flavors, ordering a Japanese-influenced grilled beef kushiyaki, four skewers of tender, pink-middle meat accented by a savory soy-and-sesame-oil flavor. The grilled beef lay on a cooling cucumber salad, tangy from a vinegar dressing and dotted with black sesame seeds. Coated with a thick peanut sauce, a tangle of curly egg noodles zinged the taste buds with a slight piquancy. The complementary components of this delicious dish won us over immediately.

Though ginger-steamed chicken salad didn't impress instantaneously, it was pleasantly refreshing. Presented on pale green leaves of butter lettuce, the chicken breast was sliced thinly and arranged generously. The meat was moist and pleasingly scented but seemed bland at first, especially after the highly flavored appetizers that preceded it. Still, the salad was fresh and well executed. Spears of pencil asparagus and sections of mandarin oranges garnished the lettuce, while a sprinkle of black and white sesame seeds added nutty crunch, and decorative swirls of a creamy orange-honey-tahini dressing provided sweet relief.

We departed tropical Asia for temperate Louisiana with Creole cornmeal-dusted oysters. Served in the shell, the half-dozen fried nuggets were exceptional, buttery and slippery inside their crisp outer skins, and moistened by a smattering of sharp and juicy pineapple-red bell pepper salsa. A ramekin in the center of the dish held a Cajun red pepper remoulade, the mayonnaiselike dressing a wonderful spicy condiment.

N'Awlins was also available in a main course of Creole shellfish jambalaya, another felicitous departure from the Pacific Rim-biased menu. Listed under the not-quite-accurate title "Steamy Steamers and the Caribbean Wok," the seafood stew was the best I've ever had, in New Orleans or elsewhere. A mound of white rice, fragrant like basmati, was topped with a startling assortment of seafood: butterflied shrimp, sea scallops, exceedingly fresh whitewater clams and black Mediterranean mussels, and calamari. Drawing on chunks of peppery andouille sausage and the undeniable essence of shellfish, the unifying sauce comprised plum tomatoes, fresh corn sliced off the cob, and okra. Fantastic -- and a huge portion.

As if the decisions at East City Grill aren't sufficiently difficult, clams and mussels come either solo or as a duet, in a choice of three quantities, and with a choice of three accompaniments. In other words, order clams, mussels, or a combination as an appetizer, as an entree, or as an extra-large entree to be shared around the table. Then choose your preparation: lemongrass-coconut milk with sticky rice and sweet pepper confetti; white wine, garlic, tasso ham, roasted corn with tomato, hominy, and cayenne-buttered bruschetta; or sake-and-miso broth with cilantro, ginger, scallions, and soba noodles.

We went with the last combination in a regular entree size, which turned out to be enough to share, with plenty of leftovers. The broth was mild and tasty, the ginger and scallions giving it depth, the cilantro lending it an immediate freshness. Of the same obvious quality as the shellfish in the jambalaya, the mussels were objectionable in only one way A many were still "bearded," dangling the long, grasslike fibers with which they clung to their beds. An assortment of stir-fried zucchini, red cabbage, red pepper, and onions rounded out the meal with some vitamin zest, but the starchy soba noodles that lay on the bottom of the bowl were soggy and unappealing.

By contrast, the steamed rice cakes that supported two boneless chicken breasts were ideal: glutinous rice, shaped into patties and pan-fried until as golden as the skin on the bird, was just beginning to melt into the buttery bath of lemongrass sauce. A plethora of the above-mentioned stir-fried vegetables was companionable, but the real star was the chicken. Too often chicken breasts are dry and overdone; these plump specimens, however, were seared to near-perfection, the meat supple, the skin crackling.

Still more of the stir-fried vegetables, along with rice noodles encased in a crisp spring roll and served with a sweet-and-sour duck sauce, elevated a Korean barbecue pork tenderloin, found under the menu heading "Grill, Saute, and Others." Like breast of chicken, boneless pork is easily ruined by indiscriminate kitchens, but East City Grill deftly lived up to its name, with two filets of pork grilled to an ideal pink-whiteness. Rolled in crushed spiced peanuts, the meat exhibited just a touch of spiciness and had a richness that rivaled dessert.

A beautiful flourless chocolate mousse cake, presented by the server with a candle in it just as my mother had arranged, was an appropriate birthday sweet. Yet it was my mother who moaned delightedly over the lush display, my mother who leaned over and thanked me at the end of the meal.

"Finally," she said.
"Finally," I agreed. In Darrel and Oliver's kitchen, in Susan's kitchen, in Greg's and Troy's and Brent's and Christian's and Joe's kitchen, in admiration of their accomplishments, my mother and I are equals.


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