Saturday, July 01, 2006

Restaurant Review: Himmarshee

Himmarshee just doesn’t fit in. Granted, it is not a complete social outcast spending lonely nights making plans to blow up the cool kids or, at the very least, sabotage the prom. It is more like a quietly confident transfer student who doesn’t mind staying on the fringes of the cheerleaders with their identical bottle blonde dye jobs and the jocks with their matching buzz cuts and Abercrombie polos. In the Riverfront district of Fort Lauderdale with its abundance of bars with drink specials to attract the twenty-something set and clubs that don’t get going until at least 11pm, Himmarshee fails to fit the mold. The new owner kept the very talented chef, Youssef Hammi, revamped the menu and re-launched the space as a cool, cozy hangout with food that pushes the envelope for creativity and quality to a level that is rare for restaurants in the area.
On our very first visit, we didn’t technically go to Himmarshee, but to Side Bar, a long, airy room that adjoins the main dining room inside, but inexplicably has its own outside entrance and its own name. The bartender at Side Bar pours the drinks for diners at Himmarshee and the menu is the same regardless of whether you choose the bar or the dining room. While this dual identity is initially confusing, I have no complaints about restaurant’s split personality. The high ceilings in both rooms, exposed stainless steel duct work, and liberal use of warm wood paneling unite the spaces, yet separate the folks who have come for an intimate meal with attentive service from the more casual clientele looking for the hip lively atmosphere of a wine bar.

And who’s to say that Himmarshee’s patrons, like Mike and me, for instance, aren’t capable of a split personality ourselves? When we first got to Himmarshee, we peeked into the dining room, then headed straight for two comfortable seats at the bar. We were in the mood to hang out and slowly work our way through a few rounds of appetizers. We might have chosen the dining room if we were in a more uptown mood, but that night it was downtown casual for us. We like options. We were also early enough to catch the tail end of the two-for-one happy hour where I especially enjoyed the concise but varied list of wines by the glass, poured generously by the bar staff.
With my cool glass of Riesling in hand and Mike on his second Newcastle, we were ready to try out the food. I have to say that I had high hopes for Himmarshee, with the change of ownership and the spiffy new website that I had been drooling over at work. In these situations, restaurants rarely manage to live up to the hype. We ordered the pea purses ($9), a sprightly green mash bundled into wonton wrappers with prosciutto strips for garnish, and a creamy porcini sauce brightened with a sweet port reduction. Now we were excited; and while the pea purses ended up being our favorite dish of the evening, the rest of the items we tried ranged from really good to fantastic.
The spicy sautéed squid ($9) was simmered in a coconut broth with rice vermicelli and baby bok choy. The squid was tender and the bok choy retained its firm texture. Mike was a fan of the chorizo taquitos with mole sauce ($9), but they were slightly spoiled for me by their resemblance to a little dish my dad used to make when I was a kid involving fried hot dogs wrapped in fried corn tortillas. Somehow, I managed to avoid juvenile diabetes. I thought Himmarshee’s taquitos were a bit light on chorizo, but the mole sauce was deeply flavored and rich. Mike also favored the pork and veal meatballs ($9), two generous, extremely moist rounds nestled in a simple marinara sauce and topped with fresh tasting ricotta cheese. These were well done, but did seem a bit too homey next to the more eclectic and innovative appetizer selections.

None of the appetizers were particularly large or so heavy as to prohibit you from enjoying the main course. Because Mike and I did, however, order four of them, we shared one light entrée, the steamed Alaskan halibut ($26). The fish was perfectly cooked, moist and tender to the bite. It was served with cauliflower mash, a great side dish that I have done at home but have not encountered in a restaurant until now. The halibut was drizzled with beurre noir and accompanied by caramelized pearl onions and asparagus. The menu claimed a “truffle essence” as well, but I could not detect it amidst the other lively flavors. Essence or no essence, it was a successful dish executed flawlessly.

Mike and I loved Himmarshee/Side Bar and are thrilled that such an imaginative and fun restaurant has snuck into an area better known for meet-market bars and $3 margaritas. Yes, in a sea of platform sandals and trucker hats, Himmarshee cruises along in skinny jeans and cool sneakers. And, I’ve saved the best news for last: Himmarshee serves a special tapas menu on Thursday nights! Look for part two of my Himmarshee review and see if their tapas live up to my high standards for small plate dining.

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