Love's Feast

Imagine spending every moment of your life with the person you love. In the morning, one alarm would wake you both. You'd drive to work together, labor side by side, break briefly for left-over sushi from dinner the night before. After work, you'd stop for a drink at the oceanfront wine bar and dine comfortably in the autumn breeze. You'd always sleep in the same bed, even when fighting. Sound like paradise? Or more like the perfect punishment?

Most couples can't tolerate so much of each other, no matter the strength of their love. And it's healthy to cherish time apart; our individual jobs and lifestyles may keep us from killing -- from sheer, maddening boredom -- our beloved life partners. There are exceptions, of course -- partnerships that are born in the bedroom can boom in business (and vice versa). These couples, able to communicate on every level, may even have an edge over other enterprises when they join forces at work.

That's the way it is for John and Sheila Jacob, the highly trained mom and pop of Continental cuisine. Sheila Jacob considers it a privilege to share her workdays as well as her nights with her husband John. The Jacobs own the commendable Wild Rose in Hollywood, a 45-seat restaurant in the Emerald Park Office Center. John, the chef, began his career at the Pier House in Key West when he was eighteen, then trained at the Culinary Institute of America. The extroverted Sheila manages the front of the house; she also makes the pasta and bakes the nightly assortment of sweets. The size of the restaurant naturally demands that they work closely and productively; it helps, as Sheila said, that they "got rid of the fighting years ago. Now it's relaxing to do it [work] together." Every morning, the two of them enjoy shopping for that day's produce and seafood, buying only the freshest of ingredients, writing the menu based on what's available. They are in many ways the perfect team.

More than culinary skill makes the Wild Rose blossom, though the couple's expertise is abundantly evident. The harmony that exists behind the kitchen doors translates to the dining room, allowing for a casual, relaxing dining experience. I've been mired too often in the quirky pretentiousness of South Beach eateries and the staid affluence of Coral Gables dining establishments; I tend to forget that people run restaurants for reasons other than local fame and a quick monetary return. The Jacobs sold Michael's, their restaurant in East Hampton, Long Island, because, with its huge size, it lacked an intimate touch. Their first venture together in Florida, the Wild Rose, has no "investors," no "limited partnerships." It doesn't have a bar or even a written menu.

What it does have is the Jacobs, a couple married to the business as well as to each other, whose major ambition is to make their customers as happy as they are themselves.

So this must be love at work at the Wild Rose. It is a familial kind of affection that will surely lure me again. The clientele, a far-reaching "local" base that extends from Miami to Boca Raton, feels similarly: most diners, ranging in age from young 30s to young 60s, are regulars, appearing two to three times weekly. They come back for both the consistency of John's one-man kitchen (he has two assistants but no other chef) and the unforced intimacy of Sheila's dining room.

A homey air extends to the menu. A blackboard is hauled to your table, propped on a chair in front of you. Sheila introduces and explains each dish the way a schoolteacher conducts a lesson, pausing for questions and peering eagerly at you to make sure you're completely enthralled. On a recent September evening, we were certainly enticed by the menu's pasta, meat, and seafood dishes, all of which can be specially ordered if the kitchen isn't too busy. Suppose, for example, the linguine with fresh pesto sounded intriguing, but you felt like having fish. No problem. Pompano pesto is born, free of labor pains. Sheila even offers various other options during her spiel.

The blackboard menu this night was surprisingly diverse -- the Jacobs seem to have a strong grasp of international and regional cuisines. Appetizers had a global reach with the spanakopita (Greek spinach pie), while remaining down-home with local seafood. We tried fried oysters and succulent, buttery mollusks, simultaneously crisp on the outside and yielding on the inside. The cocktail sauce served with the oysters was relatively dry, made sweet with a tomato paste -- not watery ketchup -- and tangy with shredded horseradish. This dish, so easily overcooked by lesser chefs, even tempted two of my guests who don't normally eat oysters to try them. They preferred, however, the Louisiana pie, a slice of quiche stuffed with crab meat and served with stewed and seasoned tomatoes on the side. The flaky pastry crust of the pie enhanced rather than overwhelmed the delicacy of the egg and crab, and like a Spanish omelet, the quiche combined beautifully with the slightly spicy tomatoes.

Our favorite appetizer was apparently a menu staple, one of the only dishes remembered by my friends from an earlier visit. Grilled slices of bread were topped with tender leaves of raw spinach, ruby tomatoes, capers, and a vibrant balsamic vinaigrette. It's not often I find a homemade salad dressing to my taste -- most depend too much on oils. The Jacobs' version, highlighting the aged vinegar, was a sweet and pungent blend.

The same salad dressing was offered with the house salads, served before the main courses. The salads, a generous mound of romaine, thinly sliced cucumbers, and perfectly ripe tomatoes, proved the value of the Jacobs' daily shopping expeditions. Every bit of produce was in its prime.

As a result of gorging on the appetizers, the large salads, and the basket of baguette-style rolls brought to the table, we were, like the Louisiana pie, quite literally stuffed. But the near-hour that elapsed between our salads and entrees permitted us more than enough time to digest. And finish our wine. And exhaust all topics of conversation. And actually get hungry all over again. (Yes, it took that long.)

But we didn't really mind. In truth, I'd been warned of slow service beforehand -- if you know what to expect, you're more likely to be forgiving. And Sheila reassured us several times that we hadn't been forgotten, which should have been (almost) enough for any diner. And if it wasn't, the plate of fried mushrooms she served us as a thank you for being patient was certainly a thoughtful gesture.

The same deep-fried mushrooms accented my main course of roast duck with cranberry sauce. This dish, most likely the villain that caused the delay, was unfortunately quite overdone, the poultry shrunken, the beautifully browned, crisp skin like an empty cocoon. The sauce, however, added some glistening moisture, saving the dish from being completely ruined. Made from cranberries and dotted with candied orange peel, the fruity covering was only one example of John's forte -- sauces.

His light touch was clear with the rest of the table's main courses. Tuna au poivre, a thick tuna steak cooked to the diner's specifications (my guest ordered it medium) and seasoned with peppercorns, featured a delicious brandy sauce. Slightly creamy, the delicate but intensely flavored sauce enormously complemented the hearty fish.

The linguine with clams posillipo, a dish that originated in the Naples area, showcased John's flair for Italian fare. This pasta requires the clams to be cooked separately, traditionally sauteed in olive oil, and then added at the last minute to the top of the linguine. True to form, this pasta arrived with a dozen baby clams decorating the rim of the plate. In the center, a mound of al dente linguine was covered with a coarse fresh tomato-and-garlic sauce (the Wild Rose uses nothing canned). The clams themselves tasted of garlic, wine, and herbs -- apart from the sauce -- and were tender, steamed little morsels. This dish truly shined. John's hand with seafood appears gentle, loving, right.

At the end, a homemade baklava for dessert surpassed many a Greek version. Sheila's cozy chatter was served with it. Open for a year and a half, the Wild Rose is, despite some glitches, an up-and-coming operation. Catch it in its first wild bloom.

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