The new restaurant d.b.a./cafe is tucked into such an unassuming spot in a Fort Lauderdale strip mall that you wouldn’t expect to find a top-notch former New York chef in the kitchen.
But you won’t hear Steve Zobel complaining. After years of cooking in corporate-run restaurants, he says he likes the freedom of working for independent owners Michael Lynch, a sommelier formerly of Il Mercato in Hallandale Beach, and Tom Moynihan, an artist. Essentially, d.b.a (formerly Cafe Jamm) serves “the kind of food we like to eat,” Zobel says.
He left Manhattan’s Triomphe after 10 years to became executive chef at oceanfront East End Brasserie at the Atlantic Resort & Spa on Fort Lauderdale beach in 2011, but says the job wasn’t what he envisioned. At 7-week-old d.b.a. (“doing business as”), Zobel isn’t preparing fancy French food, but his talents still shine in dishes like onion-crusted snapper with saffron vanilla beurre blanc and grilled salmon with shrimp Béarnaise sauce.
The chef and owners’ New York roots are evident in the 65-seat gastropub’s laid-back, urban vibe. Wine crates help form the bar and figure in a wooden cityscape by Moynihan displayed above the kitchen entrance. Blackboards, brick-facade walls and stacks of books made our twentysomethings nostalgic for college pubs. Curtains to shut out the view of the other shops would make the place even cozier.
A big drawing card is that you can order half or full portions at mostly moderate prices. For those tired of the small-plate craze, there are several generous entrees, including the fresh catch and game hen.
Zobel is serving chicken livers, not foie gras, at d.b.a. Crisped and paired with sherry-braised onions atop crostini, they’re tender and flavorful. Dishes with broader appeal include lightly battered calamari served with a Thai chile dipping sauce and wasabi mayo.
A simple spinach salad with Nueske apple-smoked bacon, poached pears and a red wine vinaigrette spiked with Gorgonzola is a standout. A starter of perfectly pan-seared scallops in a porcini mushroom butter sauce is one of many deliciously rich dishes.
Speaking of rich, gnocchi with ricotta and Gorgonzola cream sauce and hearty house-made pappardelle with sautéed chicken and cremini mushrooms in a demi-glace are good dishes to share.
Gremolata (lemon zest, garlic and parsley) complements ultra-tender braised short ribs (four ounces for a half order, eight for a full) plated with aromatic truffle potato purée and sautéed spinach.
We didn’t have to wonder if our expertly sautéed grouper was fresh; the fishermen who supplied it were sitting at the bar, having a beer.
Young servers were a little too laid-back on our first visit, but more knowledgeable and attentive on our second. Sommelier Lynch, who impressed us with his selections at Il Mercato, is working to expand the moderately priced wine list.
Desserts, which change often, include panna cotta, bread pudding and chocolate mousse. Wanting to end on a light note, we were happy with a lovely crème caramel.
The last time we enjoyed Zobel’s cuisine, we were paying top dollar. As more diners discover he’s cooking at an accessible, affordable spot, we’re guessing d.b.a. won’t remain a hidden gem.