Let the naysayers natter: They declared the redevelopment of Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale a lost cause, Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach a waste of time, and South Beach an unsalvageable ghost town. (They're the same ones who now lament the dearth of parking spaces, the jacked-up rents, and the rampant commercialism in those very areas.) Now I'm hearing similar talk about downtown Hollywood -- Harrison Street, Hollywood Boulevard, and Young Circle. No way, they contend, will its revival succeed.
Forget that the city has been renovating this area for years. Ignore that a recent explosion of upscale shops, galleries, jazz bars, and restaurants has drawn a curious Las Olas crowd south and a bored South Beach contingent north. Pay no attention to the popular monthly artwalk on Harrison Street, complete with live music on the sidewalks. Any other evening, the doubters claim, those streets are empty. It's easy to be unimpressed.
Most of all, I guess, we should disregard the real diviners -- the business folk who detected enough potential in Hollywood to invest. And invest. And invest. Take partners Patrick Reilly and Dennis Doheny, the first owners of South Beach's ultrasuccessful Paragon nightclub. They don't own merely the five-month-old Cafe Erte on Young Circle -- they own that entire block of Harrison Street. They're currently renovating the old cinema adjacent to their restaurant and plan to turn it into what Doheny calls a "high-energy dance club." On the other side of the eatery, the two men are considering opening either a cigar and cognac bar or a fancy billiards room.
"There are always comparisons between us and South Beach or us and Las Olas," Doheny recently remarked. "Who knows what's going to happen? But we've been watching the development and potential of this area for five years."
But sometimes, especially in the restaurant business, plans don't go as ... planned. Not long after creating Cafe Erte's modern American menu that other local newspapers greatly appreciated, executive chef Anthony Sindaco left for a new job at the Floribbean Bistro in Boca Raton. (Sindaco has certainly had a peripatetic career here in South Florida -- I've reviewed three of his Miami restaurants in less than as many years.) Reilly and Doheny replaced Sindaco with Jim Garrison, who worked as an executive chef at the Morrison House in Washington, D.C. The owners kept Sindaco's menu, however, and here's where I think they might have made a mistake. Many restaurateurs believe their repeat customers come back for the same dishes again and again, and in some cases that's true -- if the chef has stayed put. But bringing in another highly trained chef to replicate someone else's recipes is like directing a stage actor to play a role the exact same way his predecessor did. The result is often a competent but lifeless performance, mimicry rather than interpretation. I say let Garrison have at it.
In truth, Cafe Erte hasn't been open long enough to develop much of a following, so you'd think the owners would want to attract new customers, not just satisfy old ones. One way to accomplish that would be to enhance the list of appetizers. As they stand now, the starters are somewhat dressed-up but dull: tuna tartare with mango vinaigrette and chile oil, house-cured ginger and wasabi gravad lax, beef carpaccio with artichokes and arugula, shrimp cocktail, and Beluga caviar with toast points and accouterments ($45.00).
Even though it seemed like another safe, seen-before choice, we decided to order one of the few hot openers, a roasted portobello mushroom cap overflowing with diced eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, and herb stuffing ($7.00). The mushroom was juicy, the ratatouille-flavor stuffing slightly spicy, and an underlying bed of frisee fresh and green. Quality notwithstanding, my dining companion gave it a shrug.
He agreed with me that a cream of carrot soup, the only appetizer special that evening, was much more interesting. Dotted with sour cream and sprinkled with black caviar, the carrot puree was underscored by notes of celery and other vegetables, which added dimension and texture. The caviar was a nice touch, though I wished there had been more of it -- the brininess would have cut the soup's sugary aftertaste, its only flaw.
I've always admired Sindaco's facility with seafood as a main course, and I hoped the new kitchen would come through on an entree of seared fillet of red snapper ($18.00). Unfortunately the fish was overcooked and a little dry, though the preparation was lovely. Garnished with a tangy hearts of palm ceviche (marinated in lime juice), the snapper was layered over grilled potato "planks" and fresh spinach swirled with garlic. A butter sauce dotted with orange slices was drizzled on the plate but added little moisture to the fillet.
Penne pasta with gulf shrimp was an enormous portion, and the five jumbo shrimp were perfectly cooked, tasting like sweet lobster ($16.50). Yet their peppery coating detracted from the flavor, while the tubular noodles were a touch mushy. Spinach, roasted peppers, and artichokes added some liveliness to the whole affair, but an "artichoke sauce" seemed rather bland, consisting mostly of butter and garlic.
Desserts were also a bit uneven. None of the listed sweets was available on the night we visited, so we tested two specials. The first, a key lime cheesecake, was beautifully served, a round cheesecake napped with a raspberry coulis, sprinkled with fresh raspberries, and lidded with a shortbread cookie. The problem lay in the cheesecake itself, which was as lumpy as cottage cheese. Nutty chocolate bars, the second dessert, were outstanding: Three rich, slightly crunchy chocolate "fingers" -- also garnished with berries -- were set in a vanilla bean sauce. They tasted like gourmet Kit Kat bars.
Named for the Art Deco-inspired artist who died in 1990, the 130-seat Cafe Erte features a handful of original works by the artist on its walls, all part of Reilly's and Doheny's personal collections. Art Deco fans will appreciate how the jeweled costumes depicted in Erte's works are reflected in the ruby tones of the room -- red carpet, striped red-and-gold chairs, and lacquered tables toppped with embossed art prints. The eatery also has dozens of mounted television monitors playing music videos, a 60-foot bar at which to sip martinis, and a varnished dance floor for after-dinner hours. Cafe Erte boasts the slogan "the art of being unique." Judging by atmosphere alone, that phrase has the ring of truth. Now if only the menu would follow suit.
Hotel-school grad Ted Johnson wasn't looking for investments. After a decade of working in the catering business for hotels and banquet halls, he was searching for a way to open his first restaurant with his wife Patricia. He says he found the "opportunities in downtown [Hollywood] to be very economical. It's not as pretty as Las Olas or Boca or as trendy as South Beach." But like Reilly and Doheny, he saw potential in the area and opened Impromptu one year ago on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard. Unlike Erte, however, Impromptu, a 50-seat restaurant whose contemporary international menu features Asian, Southwestern, Italian, and Latin accents, aspires to nothing more than satisfying its customers, although it too has something of an art theme, only more homemade -- a large, painted Mediterranean-style mural covers the restaurant's back wall, and its dishes have names such as chicken Dali. While service can be slightly oversolicitous and some dishes can fail, I thought the overall effort was honest enough to woo me back eventually.
Seafood concoctions -- including coconut-crusted shrimp, swordfish bites with ginger-teriyaki glaze, and conch chowder -- dominate the appetizer list. Crabcakes were superb, golden crusts that broke open to reveal moist, Maryland blue crab spiked with bell peppers and onions ($9.00). A relish comprising pickled green tomatoes and red onions accented the cakes, and a red bell pepper sauce and a mustard sauce -- streaked on the plate -- were ideal condiments. On the other hand, a starter of fried calamari was skimpy, a fact we didn't mind once we tasted the deep-fried rings and legs. The squid was as chewy as a pencil eraser, and even a dunk in the flavorful marinara sauce didn't help matters.
Although swordfish, snapper, and salmon are available as main courses, we opted for meat. The first, a marinated churrasco, was presented coiled up and skewered on a long wooden toothpick ($18.00). Once unwound, the Argentine-style skirt steak was large, flat, and juicy, a real charcoaled treat. Side dishes, however, were uninspired -- cubed potatoes tasted like home fries, and a smear of cilantro sauce, billed as spicy on the menu, was little more than the crushed herb.
A special that evening, rack of veal, sounded promising; I don't recall ever being offered a rack of veal in a restaurant (a rack of lamb is more common). The actual dish was three grilled double chops, bigger and paler than lamb, smaller and a little fattier than the typical veal chop. Although we were somewhat disappointed with the singed flavor, in general we were satisfied if not completely smitten. A centerpiece of angel-hair pasta, dressed with shiitake mushrooms and a demi-glace, completed the dish.
Though not technically meat, of course, a good duck breast should taste like it. The pan-seared version at Impromptu certainly did, sliced and saturated with a vibrant sesame citrus sauce ($19.00). The crisp skin, layered with fat, was easily removed to reveal medium-rare coins of the game bird. Sauteed baby corn and sugar snap peas, plus a piquant rice pilaf garnished with chickpeas and garden peas, accompanied the duck breast, which was on the small side.
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As for the homemade desserts, we passed over flan with caramel sauce (a mistake, probably, given that Patricia Johnson's Peruvian mother makes it) and raspberry-chocolate mousse and instead chose a slice of three-tier cheesecake -- chocolate, pistachio, and plain. It was runny, as if it had been left near the oven, but rich and filling.
The jury's still out concerning the so-called Hollywood renaissance. The pessimists point out what the area doesn't have, and the glass-half-full folks what it does have. I agree with Ted Johnson: "A metamorphosis takes time." So does a smoothly running restaurant.
1716 Harrison St, Hollywood; 954-925-1775. Open daily from 4:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m.; Friday and Saturday till 4:00 a.m.
2039 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood; 954-923-7099. Lunch Tuesday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.