First-time restaurateurs Michael Edges and James Sands didn't intend to situate their South African eatery on Las Olas Boulevard. Their concept, they felt, was ideal for the Miami market, where funkiness is unquestionably embraced. But rents were too high, even for relatively out-of-the-way locations in Coconut Grove and on South Beach. So the pair headed to Fort Lauderdale.
At the outset, they didn't really envision a restaurant, either. Edges, an advertising executive, and Sands, a flight attendant, conceived of zanZbar as a coffeehouse and wine bar that also served desserts. A decision to broaden the cafe's repertoire to include tapas, Edges says, was met with confusion -- customers balked at the idea of making a meal out of appetizers. So the owners added a dinner menu.
Their adaptability has paid off. An unusually well-rounded establishment that serves fare inspired by Edges's native South Africa (he was reared in Johannesburg; Sands grew up in South Florida), the three-month-old zanZbar is an alluring, exotic addition to Las Olas.
The owners' initial aim is still apparent in the list of nearly 50 wines, sherries, and ports A all of them South African. A casualty of the numerous bans and boycotts associated with the fight to end apartheid, South Africa's critically acclaimed wine industry had suffered internationally until late 1993, and its products are still not widely available. According to local wine industry insiders, zanZbar boasts has the longest list of South African wines in any restaurant outside that country. Here you can order them by the bottle or by the glass; or, if you like, take them home at a 25 percent discount, an option I should have taken advantage of after drinking a deliciously well-balanced 1992 Fredericksburg chardonnay (listed at $21, a bottle to go would have come to a reasonable retail price of less than $16.)
The cafe functions as well as a coffeehouse as it does a wine bar, stocking a variety of imported (Kenya AA, Kona, Celebese) and flavored (banana hazelnut, Belgian lace chocolate, Southern pecan) beans that can be ordered in myriad preparations, from French-pressed to mochaccino-ed and served with a disc of chocolate. But the coffees can't compete with the desserts. Even the hungriest diner may want to substitute the "death by dessert" sampler for an actual meal. Priced at fifteen dollars (it serves two, with the selection varying depending on what's available), this is a killer bargain. Selections range from a homemade milk tart A a dessert that represents South Africa in much the same way tiramisu says "Italy" A to a whole-wheat brownie with espresso-chip ice cream to Hungarian walnut, honey, and rum cràpes with dark chocolate sauce. Under an obligation to scarf down a modicum of real food, we decided to forgo the sampler, settling instead for single sweets at the end of the meal: a chocolate pecan pie, as filled as a squirrel's cheeks with sugared nuts; and a fabulous triple chocolate "wildebeest" cake (chocolate cake, chocolate chips, and fudge icing) that is probably so named because chocolate lovers turn into animals, fighting over the last velvety scraps.
The cakes were served in dark puddles of chocolate sauce marked by cream-color pawprints, reminiscent of the sense of whimsy that marks zanZbar's decor. Leopard-print tablecloths, angled under more traditional white linens, lend a safari feel to the handsome dining room. Rolled-up napkins with cutlery inside are tied with strawlike ribbons. White walls frame handcarved spears and masks, all made in African nations. (Most of the pieces are for sale, and a line of animal-print ceramic dinnerware will soon be similarly available.) Background music includes everything from drum-inspired chants to the South African national anthem, sung in Afrikaans.
If tablecloths patterned after leopards and cakes named for wildebeests sound too tame, try a main course of ostrich ($26.00). While not exactly well-known in the United States, ostrich is a common foodstuff in other parts of the world; South Africa has about as many ostrich ranches as Alabama does chicken farms. Which is not to say the meat tastes like chicken. Its beefy texture doesn't lie: Ostrich resembles flank steak seared and served rare. Here it was sliced into finger-length pieces and presented on a smooth, sunset-color coulis of passion fruit and mango, with a mound of wild rice and an elegant side salad of baby greens coated with a light champagne vinaigrette.
Boerewors and pap is a classic Afrikaaner entree not unlike the British bangers and mash: two pan-fried beef sausages and a mound of corn porridge ($13.00). The sausages were delicious A lean, slightly smoky, and grease-free. The pap, somewhat like polenta with whole kernels of corn interspersed, was a comforting sidekick; my South African dinner guest informed me that children grow up eating this pudding in much the same way children of the American South are raised on grits. The porridge was especially good with a chunky tomato and onion "gravy" -- really a saute of the vegetables -- poured on top. The above-mentioned wonderfully fresh salad, comprising every green known to produce purveyors, elevated the boerewors from Sunday-evening kitchen fare to candlelit-dining-room status.
That same salad can be ordered as a main dish with strips of seared tuna draped over the leaves. The restaurant offers cold entrees for the heat-reduced appetite, but this particular salad turned out to be pretty big, with the tuna, dressed with a garlic-soy-ginger combination, comprising a generous portion. Unfortunately the flavor of the grill overwhelmed both vinaigrette and fish. Hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and kalamata olives were scattered incongruously among the greens; a mound of wasabi added a Japanese note more in keeping with the Asian flavors.
A terrinelike slice of salmon baked in pastry was somewhat more successful. An arresting presentation, the pink fish was rolled in tender golden pastry and stuffed with a vibrant emerald puree of spinach, with a lime-yogurt hollandaise sauce served underneath. Though the twin sparks of spinach and sauce made up for the fact that the fish was slightly overdone, the citrus theme was carried over the top by a too-powerful mound of lemon-pepper linguine. Toned down, this would have been a lovely accent.
Smoked trout glazed with a wonderful port wine sauce was served over fettuccine as the pasta of the day, which was also available as an appetizer. Caramelized onions and sauteed apples added to the sweetness of the port, nicely balancing the potency of the succulent trout. We were glad to have ordered this rich dish as a starter; a main-course portion might have been unconquerable. A "Kilimanjaro baked-brie volcano" sounded equally intimidating but turned out to be a gentle layering of pastry dough and melted brie, the volcano hiding a center of candied walnuts ($12.00). Peach preserve "lava" oozed appropriately down this miniature mountain.
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When we placed our orders, we didn't realize that salads came with so many entrees, rendering our choice of a salad appetizer somewhat redundant. Then again, if we hadn't ordered it, we'd have missed our chance to try biltong, dried jerky made from ostrich meat or beef. ZanZbar minces the beef version of this popular and pungent South African snack food and dusts it over the lettuce. The salad was nicely counterpointed by a bowl of chilled soup of fresh peas and cucumber, simultaneously sweet and coolly fresh ($4.00). Though I'm generally not a fan of cold soups other than gazpacho, this one won me over as much as the wildebeest cake.
Diehard Dade County diners should be aware that Fort Lauderdale is far more than our staid neighbor to the north. Thanks in no small part to zanZbar, Las Olas is finally acquiring an edge.
I'm used to new restaurants opening weeks after they say they will. In this business, delays are inevitable. But South Beach's China Grill, the "World Cuisine" specialist highlighted last week in this column, is the first restaurant I've encountered to pop the pilot light before the scheduled date. Slated to "preview" the main restaurant and host private parties in October before debuting its cafe in November and its entire space in December, China Grill began offering its full menu to the public in the main dining room several weeks ago. So don't do as I did and expect the World for Christmas. It's already here, serving dinner at 404 Washington Ave. Call 534-2211 for reservations.
zanZbar 602 E Las Olas Blvd, Ft Lauderdale; 767-3377. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to midnight; Friday, 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.; Saturday, noon to 2:00 a.m.; and Sunday, noon to midnight.