Roberto and Celia Ferrer describe their 46-seat café, Cohiba Brasserie, as "eclectic," which it is because of a menu that merges Roberto's Cuban origins with European and Asian cooking styles. The Ferrers -- Roberto is the chef while Celia runs the dining room -- also consider Cohiba to be a "neighborhood" restaurant, which is only partly true because it doesn't do complete justice to this wonderful eatery.
For most people living in Fort Lauderdale and points north, Cohiba Brasserie might as well be in Naples given its location 3 miles west of I-75 on Pines Boulevard. Even if you live "out west" (anything past I-95 for eastsiders), it still feels like a haul to the southwesternmost parcel of Broward County, where an ongoing housing boom has reached the point of saturation. Considering Cohiba's remoteness, the question becomes, "How far would you drive for a meal?" In this case, the answer is as far as it takes, so long as you avoid the afternoon rush hour that clogs the six- and eight-lane roads headed in that direction.
After all, what corner café counts escargots and roasted-duck dumplings among its list of appetizers? Or a saffron-risotto paella and plantain-crusted sea bass among the entrées? Those dishes, which would widen any restaurant's reach, are just a sampling of a menu that is uniformly passionate and creative.
Roberto, just 34 years old, came to this country 10 years ago after escaping Cuba, where he prepared haute cuisine in a tourist hotel in Santiago. His departure from the island was as imaginative as his cooking. Along with three friends, he swam 30 miles over three consecutive nights along the Cuban coastline to the American military base at Guantánamo, where, at the time, Cubans could declare asylum and relocate to the United States.
He spent the next eight years working in Miami, Los Angeles, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, his wife's homeland, before opening the intimate, mustard-colored Cohiba. Roberto admits the choice of location looked like a mistake after a slow first year. But, he says, thanks to positive reviews, which include a mention in the Zagat 2004 survey, the restaurant now has a wait on weekends, with crowds spilling onto the sidewalk when they can't get a seat at the small bar. We drove there from Plantation, about 25 minutes from I-595 and University Drive, roughly the same time it takes to go to Hollywood or Pompano Beach. The drive home seemed shorter, however, after an excellent meal.
Each of the starters and salads warranted selection, but we decided on supremely rich escargots ($8), served sizzling in a clay dish with chopped garlic and a white-wine-and-butter sauce. Save a piece of the warm bread to sop the sauce from these little beauties. The breadbasket, by the way, comes with an olive oil, balsamic vinegar and minced garlic dressing spread on a plate.
Goat-cheese salad ($9) included mixed greens doused with a red-wine-and-porcini-mushroom vinaigrette. Bits of pancetta sprinkled throughout gave it a smoky, crunchy touch. A patty of deep-fried goat cheese with a surprisingly plain crust crowned the salad. Starters also include Korean barbecued spare ribs, which are also available for lunch. I had the lunch version ($12), with four long ribs cut into thin strips and topped with a sweetly balanced barbecue sauce that had a hint of teriyaki.
Entrées are divided into categories of meat and poultry, pasta and risotto, and fish and seafood. Pretty much everything appeals to one's sense of luxury and self-gratification. An entrée of jumbo crab ravioli ($18) was served in a fragrant saffron-colored sauce that combines white wine, butter, garlic and truffle oil. Braised lamb shank ($18) featured an impressive chunk of meat that had a dense exterior but separated with the tug of a fork. Ferrer marinates the lamb in red wine for 72 hours and Cubanizes it with a tomato-infused mojo.
Finally, the seafood sarzuela ($20) is arguably the best of the 42 items on the current menu. A classic Spanish dish that is a lot like a French bouillabaisse, only spicier, the sarzuela combines shrimp, scallops, mussels, calamari and sea bass in a saffron-and-tomato broth. The soup gets its heat from Peruvian rocoto peppers and Mexican chipotles, their spice sweetened with sherry and cognac.
There's little question that Cohiba would benefit in terms of exposure by being on Las Olas Boulevard or in Miami Beach. But it is where it is, and as remote as that may be for many diners, that's much better than not being anywhere at all.