"Look at that!" my husband said in disgust, pointing to a boutique blazing light from a corner of South Atlantic Boulevard, the erstwhile Fort Lauderdale Strip. "Can you believe that?"
I looked. The place was open and seemed to be attracting a steady business. "So?"
"What do you mean so? That used to be a bar!" he cried. "I had my first drink there! I was fifteen, and they didn't even card me!"
Awash in nostalgia, he continued to gripe at the change in the landscape. Fort Lauderdale has finally laid to rest the ghost of spring breaks past; my husband, who spent his teenage years cruising the Strip and his college years mourning the loss of it after the city shut it down, was amazed by the constant parade of out-of-towners down the wide, Art Deco revamp of his personal memory lane.
I have to admit, I was a little astonished myself. Not having been present in its heyday, I didn't know the Strip as intimately as he did, but I was quite familiar with the aftermath of its dismantling. Before and during renovations of the sea wall, boardwalk, and sidewalk businesses, the beach area was a concrete-and-sand wasteland, much like our own Ocean Drive. Most of the tourist trade came from abroad, where Fort Lauderdale was being marketed as a family vacation destination; a few visitors came off the cruise ships. Restaurateurs and hoteliers grew bitter from lost revenue, and many blamed a narrow-minded, short-sighted city for trashing their business opportunities.
Then, slowly, the Strip came back to life. Hotels added sidewalk cafes that featured real chefs and menus and tony atmospheres. I thought Darrel & Oliver's East City Grill, which I reviewed last year about this time, put the stamp on the Strip's future: a bustling but still sedate walkway that teemed with beach life during the day and supplied visitors with fine dining opportunities at night.
I couldn't have been more wrong. A year later the Strip has exploded into an overwhelming, almost intimidating pileup of trendy cafe after cafe, including some high-profile places like the Miami export Shula's on the Beach and the new H2O Mediterranean Bar & Grill. BeachPlace, the touristy CocoWalk-ish plaza owned by Marriott, has been drawing huge numbers since opening about a month ago.
The restaurants in BeachPlace can't complain about a lack of business. A month ago, on only its second day open, Splash Tropical Seafood Grille, the stylish eatery that occupies an ocean-overlooking corner of the plaza, served a whopping 565 dinners. And the numbers have not decreased. Owned by Karin and Craig Larson (who also own the two Bistro Zeniths, one in Palm Beach Gardens, the other in Boca Raton, as well as Lucille's Bad to the Bone Barbecue in Boca) and executive-chef partner Danny Mellman, Splash wasn't taking reservations. I can almost see why, given the volume of foot traffic. But on the evening I went, the wait for a table, which we passed pleasantly enough in the 50-seat bar, was a full hour.
Chef Mellman developed his intermingling of Southwestern, Southern, and Caribbean cuisines at the well-regarded Greenhouse Grill on Sanibel Island, and has cooked at the James Beard House in New York and been profiled in Gourmet and Bon Appetit. He still owns the Greenhouse -- his wife Ariel is running it -- but says he'll rarely visit. "You can't be on a deserted island all your life," he told me when I asked why he moved east. "Besides, all my friends -- Mark [Militello], Ollie [Oliver Saucy] -- are over here. I wanted to play with the big boys again."
I thought the place was too busy for its own good on the night we visited; our server neglected to mention until the entrees were well past due that the duck we'd ordered wasn't available, an apparent failure of communication between kitchen and waitstaff that resulted in a lengthy three-courser for us. But some of the fare was decidedly worth the wait, impressive enough to make the "big boys" sit up and take notice.
As one might guess from the name, Splash highlights fish and seafood. The influences here are indeed "tropical," but keep in your South Floridian mind that the South Pacific also grows palm trees and exotic fruits. That way you won't be surprised when dishes in the category of "wok and rolls" are served in bowls of Asian design, and when "big plates" comprise a Hawaiian-style rotisserie chicken, sake-grilled scallops, or mahi-mahi cooked in rice paper; side dishes of spiced noodle cakes, chili-and-miso stew, or ginger-charred tomatoes; and accents of curried carrot broth, pineapple ragout, or banana-chili chutney.
The meal began with gratis caraway flatbread and a (largely flavorless) black bean dip, which we supplemented with a choice from the menu's "tablefare" category -- mojo criollo wings, which were tossed in a smoked pepper-honey sauce and served Buffalo-style with blue cheese and celery. The result was a drippy starter, the honey mixing a little too freely with the oil in which the wings had been fried. But the garlicky notes against the sweet honey and crisp poultry skin were intriguing.
Though not as easy to share, a large, flat bowl of golden conch chowder was a better selection. Located under "small plates" on the menu, this nubbly mixture was accented with hominy, a nice textural contrast. A flourish of vanilla- and chili-cured salmon rested like a rose in the middle of the bowl; we couldn't detect either the warmth of vanilla or the zing of chili, but the lacy salmon was delicious, like mild lox.
A pair of Southwestern-influenced starters was perhaps the best. The first, a margarita-glass presentation that gave new meaning to the term shrimp cocktail, consisted of four jumbos, pickled and served hanging off the rim, accompanied by a tequila salsa. The shrimp were succulent and juicy, accented with lime as well as the mild pepper-and-onion relish. A jerk chicken burrito was equally tasty, the tortilla having been stuffed with just-spicy chicken and queso blanco. Pickled mango -- pickling, a way of cold-cooking or curing, shows up a lot on this menu -- functioned as a salsa, providing sweet/hot relief.
"Wok and rolls," a menu heading that refers to intermediate-size dishes, can feature small servings as well as large ones. We weren't all that happy with a bowl of blistered asparagus and baby shrimp, though we were partially responsible: Our server warned us it wasn't much of a meal. Still, while the little shrimp were plump, the thin asparagus snappy and al dente, the delicacy of each was lost in an oily basil, lime, and black sesame dressing. Gleaned from the same category, the Thai hot pot was far better on both counts, size and flavor. A redolent curried broth contained supple scallops and oysters, contrasted against hunks of juicy duck and meaty shiitake mushrooms. Unlike the shrimp and asparagus, mellowness on mellowness, the pearly seafood stood out against the darker duck and mushroom, with the lightly spiced, aromatic stock doing duty as a unifier.
Full of buttery oyster and earthy shiitake mushrooms, wild mushroom risotto was one of the few dishes that exhibited a Mediterranean bent. The risotto was perfectly rendered, grains of arborio rice maintaining individuality even as they melded together. The white truffle oil with which the dish was scented provided a rich touch, though we thought the garnish of peppered asparagus practically sneeze-inducing. The kitchen may want to cut back on the spicing here.
On the other hand, we admired the strength of garlic smashed potatoes that accompanied the grilled salmon; they practically oozed nutty, roasted garlic. Too bad the salmon, overgrilled to the point of flaky dryness, wasn't up to the same level of quality. A barbecued corn and oyster butter, mainly nuggets of buttery roast corn, didn't help with the moisture but provided some great contrast.
I remembered from the Greenhouse Grill an exceptional dessert of pan-blackened Jack Daniel's bread pudding, and was compelled to order it at Splash. Napped with a luscious caramel, this was like a gourmet French toast, crisp on the edges and soft in the middle. A tart Key lime-raspberry pie and a superbly textured "aloha" peanut pie, more nut than butter with the addition of macadamia nuts, rounded out that course, the most consistently successful one of the evening.
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A well-selected wine list deserves comment, if only because it exhibits a helpful whimsy. Categories are labeled "frivolous whites and pinks," "rich, round whites," "light, bright reds," and "big, fat reds" -- sometimes that brief description is the only clue a diner needs to pick something appropriate. The moderately priced repertoire features mostly Californian but also some French selections, and includes a refreshing Hogue chardonnay that complements Asian flavors nearly as well as the Alsatian Kuentz-Bas pinot blanc, as well as a Domaine Tempier rose from France's Bandol region that modulates both fish and meats nicely. The restaurant also offers 21 wines by the glass, six of them champagnes.
Like BeachPlace and South Atlantic Boulevard itself, Splash has dived onto the scene with tourist-driven impact. Longevity for all, however, requires further evolution. The Larsons and Chef Mellman might want to take a hard look at Ocean Drive and CocoWalk -- where character has long since been sacrificed to the mob mentality -- and work to maintain their individuality. When quality is the issue, too much patronage can be as hurtful as too little.
Splash Tropical Seafood Grille
17 S. Atlantic Blvd (in BeachPlace), Fort Lauderdale; 954-467-3663. Open daily form 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until midnight.
Thai hot pot
Wild mushroom risotto