Two of south Florida's finest are gone, but plenty remain.
Chef proprietor/partners Eve Montella-Smith and Kevin McCarthy called it quits at the Armadillo Cafe after 16 years behind the burners working brilliantly to introduce their legions of fans to the subtleties of Southwest cuisine. And French-Swiss chef/owner Stephane Gfeller and his wife, Florence, surrendered at La Belle Epoque after three years of perfecting presentations of French nouvelle cuisine without the nonsense.
The Canyon in Fort Lauderdale (1818 E. Sunrise Blvd., 954/765-1950) remains a provider of poblanos and jalapeno-jazzed-up palate blasters, and there are several top-of-the-line refuges in Belle Epoque's immediate area for Gallic glories, namely Boca Raton's La Vieille Maison (770 E. Palmetto Park Road, 561/391-6701), Pastis (1725 S. Federal Highway, 561/265-0061) and Brasserie La Cigale (1010 E. Atlantic Ave., 561/276-6453) in Delray Beach. Thankfully, Brooks and Cafe Claude are still both dishing out delicious fare:
500 S. Federal Highway
In little ol' Deerfield Beach is the outstanding French-American success, Golden Spoon Hall of Famer Brooks, established by the incomparable Bernard Perron in 1981. Years ago, Perron evolved his menus from classic or even modified French ways and became the outstanding proponent of what is gathered in the catchall "continental" category -- or what today's Brooks menu proudly proclaims to be "Contemporary American Cuisine."
That translates to 13 complete "Table D'Hote," or a la carte, dinners ranging from $29 to $44 for the most popular all-courses-included feasts. You start with the complimentary ratatouille, the best I have ever tasted, a great assortment of breads, followed by a choice of salad or appetizer, main plate and dessert.
The first plate ranges from smoked Atlantic salmon with buckwheat blinis, carpaccio of ahi tuna nicoise, risotto Milanese, Maryland lump crab cake and beefsteak tomato with gorgonzola dressing (which the menu advises "In the Tradition of Great Steakhouses -- Yes We Also Have A Great Ribeye"). The main plates are equally satisfying, everything from pan-roasted Chilean sea bass and sauteed red snapper to rack of Australian lamb with a mustard-Jamaican rum crust and an innovative fig-pecan-shallot tapenade, burnt honey orange chicken, fennel and apple-marinated double-cut pork chop with Parmesan polenta and Chianti-splashed sage sauce.
Among the nine eye-popping, soul-satisfying desserts I favor are the Granny Smith apple tart with praline ice cream, the sticky date pudding with caramel sauce and creme fraiche and the souffles, chocolate or Grand Marnier. Uniquely, Brooks has never put an added price tag on its souffles as part of the complete dinner.
Nor has Brooks entertained dreams of financial glory with its wine list. A couple of years ago Bernard and his team -- one son, two sons-in-law (one who runs the sister operation Benvenuto in Boynton Beach) and the super-skilled general manager, Ali Kaptan, decided they would price wine for promotion, not profit.
Working with their suppliers, they came up with an outstanding array of choices guaranteed not to break the dining-out budget.
The 91 wines on the current short list include 23 from California and 13 from France, with 13 priced under $30. Of the 31 whites, 10 California and a dozen French, eight are pegged under $30. The standard markup when a bottle leaves Brooks' handsomely displayed wine room is twice what it cost Brooks to put it in its inventory. Sure, there are a few high fliers -- Special Selection Caymus cabernet sauvignon, 1991-1994, priced from $192 to $220; 1989 and 1994 Chateau Lafite Rothschild for $450 and $375; and a 1990 Chateau Latour Premier Grand Cru for $875. But for those who can only admire from afar, the non-greedy pricing policy of the other cellar selections is much more welcome, as is the Brooks greeting of guests at the spacious entrance -- complimentary flutes of quality champagne are presented to each arrival. Ali goes through 15 cases a week passing out free champagne (including those at Benvenuto), and it puts the customer in a wine-thinking mood.
1544 S.E. 3rd Court
Also in Deerfield Beach, Cafe Claude has been closed, but only for the traditional French holiday -- August and part of September. It's now back in full swing. That means chef/owner Claude Pottier in the kitchen and wife Marie out front, quietly and effectively overseeing the we-try-harder staff led by Paulette and Pierre, aided these past couple of years by Paula, an alum of the much-missed La Ferme in Fort Lauderdale. When Henri and the incomparable Marie-Paule Terrier shuttered their doors, two of their veterans moved over to Cafe Claude, Paula in the dining room and sous chef Daniel out back.
What a happy team they all make. And what spirit and Gold Coast history they share. Claude was one of the original five partners, a saucier supreme, of Fort Lauderdale's outstanding Les Trois Mousquetaires, which opened in 1973. He's the sole survivor, settling at the cafe, after a couple of reincarnations, in 1989.
For starters, there's "Saumon Marine, Caviar et Pointes d'Asperges," marinated raw salmon, caviar and asparagus tips in a fine dill sauce, and "Canard Confit et Lentilles Vertes du Puy," duck leg confit with French green lentils and balsamic vinaigrette ($9.95 to $11.95). There are 17 main courses, ranging from fillets of brook trout with almonds and baked salmon with vermouth-spiked sauce and mushroom puree to veal sweetbreads in port wine sauce, honey-raspberry glazed duck with raspberry vinegar sauce and a Black Angus New York strip steak with black, green and pink peppercorns ($19.75 to $27.75).
Desserts are wheeled past on an impossible-to-resist cart displaying a variety of fruit tarts and a slice of the chocolate mousse cake first made famous at the Three Musketeers.